Gerwig’s Representation of Female Ambition in Little Women (2019)

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women speaks of independence and self assertion to a 21st century audience. The classic became popular thanks to its pastoral themes and its heartwarming portrayal of the family life of four sisters showing human connections in moments of fun and hardship. This adaptation aims to give a different account that focuses on Jo, the most independent of the four sisters, showcasing her struggle to assert herself into a man’s world. Is this femminist retelling worth the watch? 

The main character of the original novel and Gerwig’s adaptation is Jo, a female protagonist who is an author and writes her own story titled ‘Little Women’ which is then published in the narrative. This almost makes the film a story within a story. Throughout a series of flashbacks from Jo’s memory, the viewer sees not only how Jo develops, but also how each of the sisters do too. Each sister develops and strives for happiness in their own unique ways, each having their own interests and ambitions. 

Amy is presented as a strong independent character by taking a more unconventional path. When taking a tour of Europe with her aunt, she delivers a speech that confirms her deep understanding of the values of society and her awareness that she is a woman trapped in her place because of her gender. Her independence comes when she agrees to marry Lori, a man that deeply understands her concerns and her value as a person, giving her the freedom to pursue her passions outside of the pastoral ideal of a good family. Yet, not every representation bears the same weight in the narrative, causing some characters to be overshadowed by others. 

It is when it comes to the other two sisters, Meg and Beth, that we observe the costs of the director’s choice. Beth’s character almost disappears into the background until her illness, devoid of personal attributes that make her unique from her sisters. Her quiet and subdued nature, whilst not a flaw, means she falls to the background against such strong female protagonists as Jo and Amy. 

Meg on the other hand has a larger character development, as she decides to marry for love instead of marrying for money. Yet unlike her sisters, her actions would not be seen as as radical or impactful under the feminist lens. When compared to Jo and Amy her path can be seen as more conventional, following stereotypical representations of women as motherly and caring. Meg shows that it is possible to find happiness in society’s intended way, following the christian ideology of the original novel, but by choosing to follow a more traditional path she is unfortunately overshadowed by Jo and Amy’s stories. 

The overall narration of the story in the movie is also confusing at times, as although everything is narrated from Jo’s memory, the recollections flow into the narrative without a logical order. It perhaps would have been more effective to have these triggered by specific events of the present that bring her back to the past. Yet, despite these complaints, I consider this retelling a fitting one for the current era. The story accurately portrays different paths that women can take throughout their lives whether that be in a more or less radical way, all whilst still maintaining strong family relationships and ultimately allowing the characters to find happiness. 

Gerwig does a great job at bringing a classic tale into life for a modern, 21st century audience.

Lisa Greghi

Featured Image Source: Still via Youtube // LITTLE WOMEN – Official Trailer (HD) – Youtube

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