A tomboy who chafed at dresses and dolls, I turned up my nose at Little Women and the boringly harmonious, beribboned girls who adorned the cover of my mother’s well-worn copy. When I finally read it in my mid-twenties, however, it was an uncanny homecoming to a text that’s been a touchstone for many tomboys and other independent-minded types. But what intrigued me about it then was less protagonist Jo’s tomboyish spirit and more the conflicts it staged among gender, narrative, and self-determination and the constant negotiation required of girls and women who must choose when to dig in their feet and when to accept their lot—and when, sometimes, acts of ostensible surrender lay the groundwork for a thousand other channels of rebellion.
In Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation, the March girls and their negotiations are beautifully rendered, with plotlines caringly intertwined to serve the film’s most pressing concern: authorship and the limits of possibility. As many viewers will know well, Little Women details the lives of the March sisters: aspiring writer Jo (Saoirse Ronan), responsible Meg (Emma Watson), impetuous Amy (Florence Pugh), and saintly Beth (Eliza Scanlen); their patient Marmee (Laura Dern) is raising them in the absence of Union Army-enlisted Mr. March (Bob Odenkirk). The storyline weaves through exploits with wealthy neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) to Beth’s illness to suitors and sibling spats, and across the Atlantic to Amy’s time in Europe with Aunt March (Meryl Streep), a rich spinster with a mercenary but pragmatic outlook on women’s lot in life.
The plot unravels through a series of flashbacks, a structure that keeps the pace from dragging but also, more importantly, reminds us of the authorial hand. Someone has selected, trimmed, spliced, diced, and otherwise arranged what we see—and to forget that editorial agency would be to miss the unified thesis that Alcott, Jo, and Gerwig have conspired to present.
The self-reflexive narrative is complemented by the gentle but persistent exposure of women’s subjugation in its material and philosophical forms. Indeed, the film might well be subtitled Educating Laurie, as Jo’s would-be love interest spends much of the film alternately sulking at having been friendzoned and lecturing girls about what principles they should or shouldn’t compromise and why. That’s by no means a knock on Chalamet, who somehow manages to be obnoxiously brooding and puppyish all at once, and it’s not to say the film verges into pedantry; it does not.
The most salient comeuppance is one that extends beyond Laurie and to the marriage plot in and of itself: Jo’s refusal of Laurie’s proposal is revealed in the first few minutes, liberating the rest of the film from the will-she/won’t-she tension that might otherwise distract from more important elements. Louisa May Alcott’s discontents with the publishing industry (most notably its insistence on girls getting married as a condition for publication) are well-documented; Gerwig gives them voice through Jo’s negotiations with her publisher, which include a thinly veiled diatribe on the iniquities of intellectual property law that will delight writers, artists, and librarians everywhere. The film brilliantly uses Jo’s apparent compromise—marrying off her heroine—to undermine the ostensibly romantic climax of the ensuing scene.
The casting, moreover, is unimpeachable. Ronan, who played Gerwig’s largely autobiographical title character in Lady Bird, pulls off the feat of serving as avatar to both Gerwig and Alcott while also cultivating Jo’s own signature firebrand. Sweet Beth might easily become grating, but viewers with memories of Scanlen’s victim-cum-menace role in Sharp Objects may find her cherubic sheen tempered by the unease of association. And even when Pugh’s inflection slides once or twice toward Gen-Z petulance, the anachronism seems apt to Amy.
Little Women’s main failing might better be termed a symptom: it’s a Civil War story, or more precisely a story of white womanhood set against the backdrop of the Civil War. The narrative uses the war to establish the absent March patriarch’s virtue, but it gives virtually no voice to Black characters—and the reason for his absence is marked by contrast to predominant racist media tropes about Black paternal absenteeism (the film’s whiteness, too, is made all the more excruciating by Streep’s recent, maddening brownface turn in The Laundromat).
It is an immersive study in white womanhood, a potent critique of the gendered economic infrastructure that has devolved from centuries of slavery and settler colonialism but which never really positions itself in relation to these systems. The film does refrain from lionizing Mr. March, whose presence upon his return from the war entails little more than a few 19th-century dad jokes. There is one powerful moment between Marmee and a Black woman, but Little Women can’t explain away its whiteness and doesn’t try. I won’t either, except to emphasize the importance of acknowledging that whiteness is a condition of possibility for the story even more than the marriage economy.
But such as it is, marriage is the hill on which Little Women stages its battles. The film’s real coup, I think, is in laying this topography without becoming, as so many do, a film about men. Instead, it’s about finding different ways to make livable lives and to imagine those that aren’t quite yet livable in the existing landscape.
Just because someone’s ambitions are different from yours, Meg reminds Jo, doesn’t mean they’re invalid. Though only one of them aspires to literal authorship, each of the March girls and their forebears are fighting to write their own paths against, alongside, through, and between the lines of convention, and Little Women lovingly documents this process. Amy’s impulsive moments notwithstanding, none of the girls make their decisions lightly, and the film’s meticulous assembly makes clear that neither did Gerwig and her team. As it was in Alcott’s time, a story that foregrounds women’s choices and respects them uniformly is a radical thing indeed. I hope you won’t miss it.
Lynne Stahl is the Humanities Librarian at West Virginia University. Her research interests include feminist theory, film, and critical information studies, and she is currently working on a book manuscript based on her dissertation, Unhappy Medium: Queer Feminist Spectatorship and Filmic Tomboy Narrative.