Modern-day lessons we can learn from 'Little Women'
As a new film adaptation hits theaters this month, the themes from the 150-year-old classic book have more relevance today than ever.
In 1868, the story of the March sisters transfixed readers and propelled "Little Women" author Louisa May Alcott to American literary rock star status. No fewer than eight film adaptations have been made in the years since, perhaps most notably the 1994 version featuring an all-star cast that included Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes and Winona Ryder.
This year, a new generation will get its big-screen reboot: Writer/director Greta Gerwig's version hits theaters on Christmas Day. It stars Meryl Streep, Emma Watson and Saoirse Ronan and is co-produced by prolific Israeli film exec Arnon Milchan,. Reviews are beginning to trickle in, with some critics pulling for Gerwig to win an Oscar.
Amid all the Hollywood-caliber fanfare and build-up, it's easy to forget that the themes running through this story are rife with modern-day relevance. Here are three key lessons we hope today's audiences will learn from Gerwig's "Little Women," which promises to be the holiday blockbuster you've been waiting for:
Shatter stereotypes, and do it loudly.
In her time, Alcott challenged society's definition of traditional gender roles. From very early on in the book, it's clear that Jo March, the key protagonist, is not meant to be ladylike; her father has referred to her as "my son Jo," and her neighbor Laurie calls her "my dear fellow." Why? It could have been the fact that she liked to wear pants instead of dresses; it could have been the fact that she wasn't going to compromise her own career aspirations to please anyone, especially a man; it could have been her short temper and stubborn streak.
But the detractors only serve to strengthen her resolve. In the trailer for the new film, when Jo meets with a publisher to pitch her book, he tells her to make it "short and spicy." And he adds one more thing: "if the main character's a girl, make sure she's married by the end." Instead of using that advice to guide her narrative, Jo sets out to prove that her novel could blaze a new trail: with a woman in the starring role, who does not have plans to marry, and who "intends to make her own way."
Value virtue over wealth.
Life in the March household was never glamorous. The girls' father, having lost money in failed businesses, leaves town to work as a pastor during the Civil War. His two eldest daughters, Meg and Jo, must work to support the family. But the poverty theme doesn't waver much throughout the novel; indeed, the sisters lament that the first Christmas without their father will also be their first Christmas without any presents.
This is the reality of the working poor: A steady income does not guarantee prosperity. This is especially true if you're a woman in 19th-century New England. But the Marches' determination never wavered, because pursuit of individuality and independence always trumped fortune and wealth. (That's not to say the latter wasn't welcomed; the author herself became quite rich and famous after the book was published.)
Let women's achievements speak for themselves.
There's a tool that's used in Hollywood called the Bechdel test, which basically evaluates how many times female characters are portrayed talking about topics other than men. One of the things that sets "Little Women" apart from other 19th-century works is that it passes this test with flying colors; namely, because each of the achievements of the March women plays a key role in the book.
For this reason, it's no mistake that "Little Women" has enjoyed such profound longevity since its publication, and why Gerwig felt it was essential for her to put her own stamp on it. “I think, as adult women, we’re always walking with our younger selves,” she told The New York Times. “I feel like I’m always answering to her, about whether I’m being as brave as I could be, or as big as I could be, or as ambitious as I could be.”
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