This Christmas will see the eighth film adaptation of beloved classic Little Women hit the silver screen, with Greta Gerwig directing stars including Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen and Laura Dern. But Moya Lothian McLean (the only person in the world to declare that she hates Louisa May Alcott’s classic tome) argues that the whole story should be shelved… for good.
Little Women. Ugh.
Apparently, this is a ‘controversial opinion’. Indeed, I hadn’t expected that despising Little Women – which has been turned into a film again, after celebrating its 150th birthday last year – would be the hill I would have to die on. And yet here I am, Richard of York doing battle in vain against the tide of incorrect public affection for this terrible novel.
To my surprise, it turns out I’m the only person at Stylist who hates the book – a fact that became all too clear when I voiced my chagrin in the office that this uninspiring story about four girls learning to be good, dutiful women was getting yet another movie remake (this time spearheaded by Greta Gerwig and Meryl Streep).
“How can you hate Little Women?” asked our incredulous digital editor.
“Even Jo?” demanded another colleague.
Yes, even Jo.
Millions of people the world over have taken the March sisters – pretty, fretting Meg, tomboy Jo, saintly Beth and spoiled brat Amy – and their devout ‘Marmee’ to heart since the first print run of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in 1868. At the time it was a revelation; an early 20th century text that bucked gender norms. These girls were 3D. They could be… petty? They didn’t like washing up? They actively fancied boys and went a bit weird and red around them, instead of knowing how to coquettishly smize at suitors from behind a lacy fan?
Basically, they were relatable AF.
However, the real draw of the March girls were their hopes and dreams. Jo, with her inky fingers and fantasies of writing a bestseller; Meg, who wants to swap managing a household for the life of a normal 16-year-old girl; Beth, who lives for music; and Amy who likes art but loves compliments. Despite the varying sizes of their goals – heroine Jo longs for literary greatness, while Meg’s ambitions stretch as far as catching someone’s eye at her high society debut – the girls at least had dreams.
“They’re real!” crow fans. “They want more than to be bedecked by a white veil one day.”
But come the end of the book, the March sisters are all bedecked by that treacherous headpiece. Well, all save for boring Beth, who has sadly been whisked away by consumption so that the others can be suitably humbled by her pure little life. For Meg, Jo and Amy, though, marriage is the reward for character growth.
Amy – whose just desserts for being an obnoxious little cretin throughout the first half of Little Women is to supplant Jo on the trip of a lifetime to Europe – ends up with Laurie because, uh, romance? Fiercely independent Jo marries an older professor who so despises her writing (Bhaer compares her stories to ‘poison’, the pretentious old goat) that she abruptly decides to run a boy’s school instead of pursing the goal she’s held for 25 years.
And what of Meg and her dreams of “nice food, pretty clothes […] and heaps of money”? Well, she shacks up with Laurie’s dashing – and penniless – tutor John Brooke, who shirks his duties and then rudely dies, leaving Meg and their three children utterly destitute. Brilliant.
What irks me most about Little Women though, is the entire message of the book, which basically boils down to this: female self-sacrifice is good and noble.
Marmee, their Mary Jane of a mother, drills that message in above all else. Occasionally it’s well worth it – such as when the girls gift their Christmas breakfast to a poorer household – but mostly her job as a character seems to be to keep the girls in a healthy state of self-flagellation, lest they actually go after something they really want. Beth, who embodies the lessons of martyrdom more than any of her sisters, is endorsed with this ringing praise:
“There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.”
In short: be a quiet and good girl so that when you die meekly before your 20th birthday – having not really lived – people will miss you a bit.
By a mile Beth is portrayed as the most deserving March girl but god! Is! She! Boring! Meanwhile Amy, the dislikeable one who burns her sister’s sole manuscript in a fit of pique, has the most interesting character growth. She’s the only one to achieve what she set out to at the beginning (“To go to Rome, and do fine pictures”) and develops a backbone that enables her to stand up for what she wants. For all the talk of Jo being the one to defy convention, it’s Amy and her refusal to martyr herself for the benefit of others that’s truly subversive.
Perhaps the endless adaptations have softened the unpleasant message of Little Women in the public imagination, the way the idiosyncrasies and individuality of the March sisters are smoothed over by the time Alcott has finished with them. People may not remember the source material that leaves Jo a worn-down mother. Instead their immortalised Jo is Winona Ryder, sparking on-screen as a youthful fireball in the iconic 1994 Gillian Armstrong rendering of the story.
The point of all this is: Little Women doesn’t deserve to be feted in 2019. There are plenty of new stories about women to be told, and lots of them don’t punish a girl for wanting to go to a party. It’s a tale of its time and it has dated badly.
Burn the book. Throw the limes away. Greta Gerwig is too good for this.
This feature was originally published in August 2018
Images: BBC News, Lionsgate