Little Women is rightfully revered for its barrier-breaking feminism. In its time, Jo March was a trailblazer and an inspiration for young girls: from her big literary aspirations down to her boyish name. The comfort the film brings, coupled with its joyous celebration of femininity in all its different avenues, renders it the perfect piece from which to extract timeless feminist truths.
When reflecting on Little Women through a feminist lens, the focus almost universally shifts to Jo. For example, images of Jo’s rejection of Laurie are conjured – for its time, an unparalleled show of her agency and self-assurance. It is easy to find ourselves engrossed in her radically masculine allure. However, the true brilliance of Little Women might be found beyond Jo, lying instead in the summation of all the March sisters.
Each girl endows their readers with distinct feminist insights.
Some may cast Beth as childish and meek, yet it would be wrong to disregard her relentlessly kind heart, and how her maintenance of girlhood can remind all young women not to chase it away. In a society where anything ‘teenage girl’ is synonymous with immaturity and ‘silliness’, I encourage us to find pride in Beth’s unabashed youthfulness.
Equally, one can draw from Amy’s cynicism and ultimate pursuit of a love that aligns with her goals. She epitomises the power of women’s capability to ‘do it all’: both fulfilling her duty and chasing true love.
Yet, when Little Women is surveyed through a feminist lens, Meg is often overlooked entirely. Sure, Meg is the least exciting of the four: she’s no career-driven pioneer, nor is she a symbol of girlhood innocence. But it is precisely her mundane femininity, her unwavering desire for a family – despite her sister’s brazen critique of such a life – that renders Meg so powerful.
In Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film adaptation, Jo, on the morning of Meg’s wedding, suggests that the two of them escape instead. Brilliantly, Meg, despite her sheepishness, gently reminds her sister that “just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant”. And it is there, within her unnecessarily embarrassed defence and justification, that Meg defines the true feminist message of the story: feminism is not a girl being boyish or rejecting love, but a girl’s right to agency and choice.
Meg serves as a reminder that our understanding of feminism has perhaps been warped with time. In an era of sexual liberation and ‘girlbossing’, women have been fed messaging that suggests being a ‘true feminist’ requires rejecting any form of reliance on men, whether this be financially or emotionally. Yet this proves enormously counter-intuitive, for instead of encouraging women to have control of their life choices, these pressures serve to predetermine what women's choices ought to be.
This conceivably damaging rhetoric is epitomised by the press coverage of the new Snow White remake. In a Variety interview, Rachel Zegler, who plays the movie’s notorious heroine, heatedly admitted that unlike the “outdated” original, it is “no longer 1937” and Snow White is “not going to be saved by the prince” nor will she be “dreaming about true love”. Instead, she’ll be dreaming of “becoming the leader she knows she can be”.
Zegler goes on to paint her rendition of Snow White as the “girl-boss” inspiration that the younger generation needs. Yet has the film’s new empowering twist not fallen into the same feminist fallacy as a young Jo March? In denouncing the original film’s motifs of love as “outdated”, Zegler problematically propounds that modern women have evolved past wanting this. This sets horrifying expectations, and both condemns and alienates the many young women who do yearn for love.
In telling young people they should chase power over love, she paints love, empathy, and femininity as weak, and something that we should strive to reject. Zegler denounces the possibility that a woman can do both – be independent and strong, as well as being gentle, coveting love, and craving family.
Love is not anti-feminist; calling a woman’s right to love “outdated” most definitely is. Zegler’s pseudo-feminism disrespects the very lessons Meg strives to teach us. Like Jo, we must learn to celebrate all avenues of ‘being a woman’, regardless of whether or not they fit our agenda.
Photo by Sasha Smithie