'Little Women' is an Oscar contender — can it make men care about stories featuring women?

For centuries, female-centered narratives and experiences have been seen as lacking in significance and universality. This is changing — slowly.
Image: Little Women
From left, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Eliza Scanlen in "Little Women."Wilson Webb / Columbia Pictures
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By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author

“I can’t wait for my daughter to read it.”

I was at an event years ago for “Ashley’s War,” a book I had written about the groundbreaking all-women’s special operations team. An editor at one of America’s most influential book reviews told me he was so glad I had written the book so that he could give it to his child. What went unsaid was that this reviewer did not himself find the book’s subject sufficiently worthy of his time, his pen or his review. His verbal pat on the head marked the most time he would spend grappling with the ideas he had come to celebrate. After all, it was a women’s story and women should be the ones to read it and benefit from it.

And in that gap between what we deem as serious and how seriously we take women’s lives comes Greta Gerwig’s adaption of “Little Women,” a film focused on suffocated ambition, confined opportunity and the tradition of weightlessness that envelops stories by and about women.

And in that gap between what we deem as serious and how seriously we take women’s lives comes Greta Gerwig’s adaption of “Little Women."

The film now faces its own fight, 150 years after the book’s publication, to get men to care about it. Vanity Fair recently noted that “many male awards-season voters are skipping Greta Gerwig’s adaptation, apparently because they think it’s not for guys. Says one cast member, ‘I just can’t believe we’re still having this f------ discussion.’”

And yet, here we are, having this discussion again. For centuries, female-centered narratives and experiences have been seen as lacking in significance and universality. This extends to women writers: Even in 2018 — 2018, for goodness' sake — less than 40 percent of the books reviewed by the Atlantic and The New York Times Literary Supplement had female authors, according to a count from the literary nonprofit VIDA. At the New York Review of Books, men wrote 73 percent of books reviewed. This pattern is little better on the silver screen, as the Golden Globes’ recent shutout of women directors illuminated once more. Only five women ever have been nominated for the best directing Oscar (Gerwig is one of them).

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Here is the reality to which we have become accustomed: Films featuring men — see “The Irishman” or “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” both of which are considered awards contenders and both of which are unapologetically male-centered — are assumed to be appealing to all. But a film with one or more female leads risks being shoved into the category of a “women’s story.” According to a math equation that does not add up, only one half of the population’s stories matter enough to matter to us all.

Throughout Gerwig's film, sisters Jo and Amy March take on the idea that contemporary women had almost no way to provide for themselves or live independently. At the time, most professional paths remained closed and serious work was the male domain. “There are precious few ways for women to make money,” Jo (Saoirse Ronan), then still an aspiring writer, notes at the start of the film.

Jo's sister Amy (Florence Pugh) declares while still a girl that she wants “to be the best artist.” But Amy's declaration of uncurbed ambition is greeted with dismay. She then asks a question that was as true in the 19th century as it is today: “Why be ashamed of what you want?”

Why indeed. And why shy away from stories around women — in 1868 or 2019? Both these questions are central to the Louisa May Alcott classic. At the end of the film, Jo’s editor is prepared to turn down the book she sent him chronicling the lives of her and her sisters. It is only when his own daughters read it and plead for more chapters that he says yes to the tale that will become the novel “Little Women.”

Culturally, women risk internalizing the perspective that female-centered stories are soft and unimportant.

Culturally, women risk internalizing the perspective that female-centered stories are soft and unimportant. As Jo self-deprecatingly puts it in the film when she receives her first rejection letter: “Who will be interested in a story of domestic struggles and joys? It doesn’t have any real importance.”

“Maybe we don’t see those things as important because people don’t write about them,” Amy replies.

This is changing. Slowly. Women are writing about their lives and the lives of other women. They are taking ownership of their own stories and the stories of men — and women — who they think matter.

As The New York Times put it in a piece about the commercial success of author Elena Ferrante, the first woman to win Italy’s biggest literary price in 15 years, the accomplishments of a slew of Italian women writers “have set off a wider debate in Italy about what constitutes literature in a country where self-referential virtuosity is often valued over storytelling, emotional resonance and issues like sexism or gender roles.”

“Once we were more reluctant to write about certain topics, fearing they could be labeled as ‘women’s stuff,’” Italian author Veronica Raimo said in the piece. “There was this idea that stories told by women couldn’t be universal. But that’s changing.”

“Little Women,” the 2019 film, is a reminder of both how far women have come and how much work lies ahead. Jo had wanted to join her father, a Union soldier during the Civil War, but was of course turned away due to her age and gender. When talking about this rejection, Jo notes that she “can’t get over” her disappointment of being a girl.

When I wrote “Ashley’s War” in 2014, a young soldier who went on later to become part of the special operations team told me that being born a girl “had put everything noble out of reach.” Nearly 150 years separated those two expressions of the same thought.

In the end, this latest film version of “Little Women” contemplates what it means — in dollars and our shared sense of cultural significance — when women decide their own stories and career paths do indeed matter.

When we change the way we see ourselves, others will follow. Or as Jo puts it to an editor trying to fleece her on a publishing deal, “I want to own my own book.” We must settle for nothing less.