Greta Gerwig’s critically acclaimed film adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott classic – Little Women – had its Indian digital premiere on April 26th, 2020. The Academy Award nominee for Best Motion Picture is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
The book was revolutionary when it was released in the 19th century – defying the mould of conventional female heroines, and inspiring authors, feminist thinkers, and activists for years to come.
Most of us have been exposed to Little Women in some form or the other – be it a chapter in our English textbooks of the infamous ‘Jo cuts her hair’ scene, watching the multitude of film and TV series adaptations, or reading the classic in its entirety – it’s a story familiar to most of us.
Gerwig shifts away from this familiarity – playing with the film’s achronological narrative, snipping a few bits and expanding others to highlight the feminist undertones of the text. Gerwig’s film may not be revolutionary like the novel was, but finds value, instead, in its relevance to the present.
There’s No One Type Of Woman
The story revolves around the March family – more specifically, the March sisters. While Jo March – largely based on Alcott herself – is the central heroine, the story refuses to neglect the other March women.
They all represent a different shade of womanhood, but are never reduced to being symbolic figureheads.
Meg is a homemaker, Beth an incredible pianist, and Amy a talented artist – all by their own choices, and none of them limited to being just that.
Jo herself is an unconventional heroine in every way. She is unafraid of speaking her mind, has no desire to marry, rejects a marriage proposal from a man who is undeniably the conventional hero of the story, pursues a career as a writer and supports her family financially – all during a time when women still wore corsets.
No one facet of womanhood is portrayed as being inferior to the other. Each woman’s narrative is real and fleshed out, and each of their passions and choices valid.
Marriage As An Economic Transaction
There’s a scene in the film between Amy and Laurie that doesn’t exist in the novel. She tells him –
“As a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family, and if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property. So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.”
Amy brings to light an issue that will inspire anger and sympathy in women globally, but is a lived reality for a large percentage of women in India. The notion of marriage as an economic concept may have faded out of fashion in the West, but is still widely prevalent here.
Class and caste hierarchies continue to exist, affecting every societal institution – including marriage. The dowry system may be illegal but is no less extinct. Women after marriage continue to be mothers first, wives second, and humans third.
A Community Of Women Empowering Women
Family is a powerful institution in India. Familial ties are cherished and resilient, and familial values of paramount importance.
For a nation where family is so important, it has failed to be a circle of encouragement and support for a lot of children, especially girls. Decisions taken by children must benefit and reflect well on the family as a whole. Anything that goes against what the family deems conventional and “right”, cannot be pursued.
In Little Women, not once does Marmee – the girls’ mother – tell Jo she cannot work as a writer, Meg that she cannot marry a poor man, Beth that she must attend the regressive local girls’ school, or Amy that she cannot travel to Europe to develop her artistic skills.
The sisters may fight and argue constantly, but they defend and uplift each other at every turn. They are not just a family, but a community of loving and supportive women.
Whether you find a community that becomes a family, or find a community in your family – it is important for every woman to have that circle of love and support.
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We Can Want It All
At one point Jo says to her mother –
“Women have minds and they have souls as well as just hearts. They’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent as well as just beauty. I am so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it! But—I am so lonely.”
This is such a distinctly millennial conflict. Guilt is so deeply embedded in our psyche, that any form of weakness or dependence feels like a betrayal to our fight against patriarchy, feminism, and women everywhere.
Being a feminist does not mean you have to stop being human. You don’t have to give up one, to support the other. Women not only can have, but can want to have, it all.
While the novel ends with Jo opening a school for boys and marrying Mr Bhaer, the film strongly hints that Jo – like Alcott – never marries, and opens a school for girls and boys. The film ends instead, with Jo watching through a window as her book gets printed, much like a mother would watch her new-born baby through a hospital nursery window.
There is no one, single path set in stone that a woman must follow – be it in their careers, their relationships, or lives. The story can end with the heroine finding love or becoming a mother, like Alcott’s does, or finding love in her work and career, like Gerwig’s does – both valid and neither superior to the other.
Irrespective of whether they want it all, or want none of it, women are capable of anything.
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