A reader asked, “When are you going to write about ‘Little White Women’?” At first I thought the question was cynical, but the more I thought about it, I became amused by its prescience. The crazy, boring, laughable thing about Greta Gerwig’s version of Little Women is that casual racism is merely the start of its problems.
Of all the unwoke standard American literature, Louisa May Alcott’s sentimental story of the females in New England’s March family bravely preserving the domestic institution and its customs, despite the Civil War raging outside their hearth, seems to have sneaked past progressive gatekeepers. The 1868 Little Women didn’t make it to D. H. Lawrence’s survey Studies in Classic American Literature, yet it may be the ultimate story of blood sisterhood (rivaled only by Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple). And this social-group concept exempts it from being politically corrected. Alcott’s Little Women remains “feminist” in exactly the sense that Camille Paglia has condemned for indulging upper-middle-class white female privilege.
That Greta Gerwig, It Girl of the Mumblecore movement, chose Little Women as a follow-up to her celebrated Lady Bird reveals the political naivete and arrogance of indie filmmaking.
It seems Triple G, as a reader mocked Great Greta Gerwig, longed to graduate to the Hollywood big time of prestigious, Merchant-Ivory swank. She identifies with Alcott’s protagonist Jo (Saoirse Ronan repeating her Vanessa Redgrave debutante act), who aspires to literary creativity and artist status, a heroine who tramples down the obstacles set by men who dominate the culture. (“What women are allowed into the club of genius?” asks authoress Jo.)
But California-born Gerwig, unlike her angry, pussyhat-wearing East Coast peers, openly appreciates her ethnic, gender, and class privilege. Like the Whit Stillman character Gerwig played in Damsels in Distress, she embraces the secret that other select Millennials hide: They are not above reaping their elitist benefits. (The best part of Lady Bird exposed how Millennials betrayed their parochial roots.)
Gerwig’s Little Women is, indeed, rooted in the advantages of bourgeois white womanhood. It romanticizes female issues (marriage, dependency) with nary a thought about how the social order they take for granted is protected by men. The March sisters are cocooned from the Civil War; radical Jo never writes about it, only about her personal interests.
There is candor in such feminist solipsism, yet Gerwig avoids critical thinking. She’s a self-romantic — to judge by repetitive scenes of the March girls’ infatuation with the family’s suitor Laurie (flirtatious pet Timothée Chalamet) and curtsying to their rich aunt (Meryl Streep overacting spinsterhood). Gerwig’s indifference to political fashion is what distinguishes her from Hollywood’s other feminist go-getters. Yet, her version of Little Women is empathetic toward the conventional siblings — doomed Beth (Eliza Scanlen), maternal Meg (Emma Watson), amorous Amy (Florence Pugh).
In this way, Gerwig bests Sofia Coppola. Coppola’s Civil War remake The Beguiled was half-heartedly misandrist, so Gerwig promotes the idea that women can have it all — including a sexy, exotic husband (played by Louis Garrel, hipster cinema’s default dreamboat). While Gerwig features the flummery of period picture luxe, she misses the bold Caucasian eroticism that made Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides peculiarly compelling.
Instead, Gerwig goes for arty effects. Just as Noah Baumbach imitated Bergman and Truffaut in Marriage Story, Gerwig imitates Alain Resnais through time-shift edits connecting the publication of Jo’s first book to memories of her family’s history. She gets away with this odd sophisticated device by maintaining emphasis on feminist resentment.
March family matriarch Marmee (Laura Dern) gets the film’s thesis statement: “I’m angry really every day of my life, but for 40 years I try not to let it get the best of me.” It sounds suspiciously defensive, like Dern’s blasphemous speech in Baumbach’s Marriage Story, and syncs with both Jo and Amy asserting, “Don’t tell me marriage isn’t an economic proposition!”
If these pussyhat speeches weren’t bad enough, Gerwig momentarily looks beyond herself to have Marmee lecture a black hospital worker: “I spent my whole life ashamed of my country.” It’s a Michelle Obama speech to which the token black character responds: “No offense; you should still be ashamed!” Never mind those who died in the Civil War defending Emancipation, the audacity of Gerwig’s literary update is to blend cultural illiteracy with feminist blandishment. Gerwig, Baumbach, Ronan, Chalamet and Dern represent a vanguard of genuine cynicism.
Reviewers who still disregard the great cross-cultural compassion of Spielberg’s film The Color Purple unaccountably praise Gerwig’s Little Women. Maybe it’s because Michelle Obama’s petulance is used as a source of inspiration to little white Millennial women.