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On 'Little Women' and telling full stories

cameron cravings

This year, I was looking forward to Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women more than Christmas itself. It’s the sort of movie where I was in tears almost the whole time, but still left the theater with a full, happy heart. It checked every box in my mental list of what makes a perfect movie, including “Meryl Streep” and “Timothée Chalamet in billowy sleeves.” 

Like protagonist Jo March (and Louisa May Alcott herself), I grew up in rural New England with three sisters, a spirited, dynamic mother and a book-loving, school teacher father. Even as a child, reading it for the first time, I saw the parallels between this family and my own. I tracked my sisters and I onto the four March girls, only to feel tragically disillusioned and worried I had cursed my own younger sister when I got to (spoiler alert!) Beth’s death. 

A hot-tempered second daughter who loved reading and hated rules, my nine-year-old self found a kindred spirit in Jo March, who expressed the same volatile, raucous, middle-child energy that I could never quite contain. I raged with Jo when she was chastised for being stubborn or temperamental; I felt her frustration at not being allowed to run wild outside all the time; I burned with fury whenever someone questioned or affronted her writing. Like her, I tried but often failed to be kinder and more patient with my sisters. It is hard to be better.

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women has renewed these connections in ways that feel as genuine to me as Alcott’s original. Some scenes from this movie could be plucked straight from my personal childhood memories: ice-skating with my sisters on the pond at my grandparents’ house, creating theatrical productions complete with costumes and scripts, running through rolling hills and orange forests in a crisp New England fall.

The pillow fights and constant teasing, the bustle of getting ready together for a fancy occasion, the clatter of eight feet on a tight staircase and the nonstop, overlapping chatter all felt familiar and true, because this is the life I have lived. My sisters and I laughed whenever the March girls smacked, tackled, interrupted or made fun of each other, because this is exactly the way that it is.

As much as I saw myself in Jo as a child, I feel it even more now, with the real, grown-up world looming not far before me. I see it when Jo is trying to figure out what she’s good at to enter the professional world, when she’s learning to advocate for herself and when she’s trying to work up the courage to be emotionally vulnerable with someone. When she breaks down into tears while explaining to her mother that she wants to be independent and ambitious and more than just a loving wife but at the same time is “so lonely,” I want to weep and rage with her. 

I see myself in her sometimes botched attempts to navigate challenging relationships with her sisters and parents, relationships that are marked by grief and change as different sisters move out and back into the family home. I see it in her exploring an unfamiliar city, in her laughing, drinking and dancing with strangers and new friends. Gerwig’s Jo March is most of what I already am, and everything I wish I was. 

Watching Little Women has been a joy. It has made me think hard about myself, my place in the world and my relationships with my family. It has also forced me to consider the inherent privilege of representation, of how lucky I am to have grown up seeing people like me in movies and books, and to still have figures like Jo to turn to, as an adult. The simple fact that I happened to be born into this body, with this skin color, in this particular place has afforded me the privilege of finding kinship and inspiration in compelling fictional characters like Jo March. 

Everyone deserves to see themselves represented in movies, television shows and best-seller lists. Everyone deserves to read books about people like them in school and to be told that the stories and struggles of their lives are worthy of attention and interest. Representation matters, for children and adults alike, and the simple fact is that right now, representation is anything but equal. 

A 2016 study by the University of Southern California revealed that only 33.5% of speaking characters are women, and only 28.3% are people of color. Female characters of all races (but particularly women of color) are typically sexualized and flattened, robbed of their agency and individuality in order to be relegated to the background. Hollywood’s diversity problem is obvious, consistent and dangerous, but it still privileges the stories of white women over those of people (specifically female-identifying or non-binary people) of color. 

Part of why Gerwig's adaptation is so beautiful is that it gives voice and nuance to all of Alcott's characters, filling them out in a vibrant, intentional way. Gerwig carefully builds a world in which every March woman has a robust personality and feels distinct from the others, evidenced by Florence Pugh's nomination for best supporting actress for the role of Amy, traditionally viewed as the flattest (and most annoying) of the March sisters. Little Women is a vivid portrait of the many different dreams, ambitions, fears and insecurities that women can have—specifically, white women. The marvelous, compelling nuance of this movie falls on the kind of characters that already receive plenty of Hollywood's attention and adoration, not those who lack it the most. 

Little Women holds a special, even sacred spot in our cultural memory and understanding, and we keep turning back to the story of the March sisters. Since the publication of the novel’s first volume in 1868, it has been retold in half a dozen movies plus many more television adaptations, plays, musicals and webseries. At what point is it enough? 

Every time film reviewers or members of a nominating committee value white, male stories over those covering more diverse subject matters, they divert funding, attention and other precious resources away from well-deserving projects. And every time people like me pay for tickets to watch movies about people that look like us, we do the same thing. 

As much as I love this story and value the impact it has had on my life, it’s high time that we intentionally commit ourselves to supporting art and media projects that help redistribute the privilege of representation. Because it is a privilege to see yourself in movies like Little Women. It is a privilege to watch a film or read a book and realize that other people care about the struggles and triumphs of a life like yours. 

It is a privilege to be told that your story matters.

Gretchen Wright is a Trinity senior who also believes her hair is her “one beauty.” Her column, “Cameron Cravings,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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