What Little Women Perfectly Captures About the Struggles of Being a Female Writer
*Spoilers for Greta Gerwig’s Little Women ahead.*
Greta Gerwig’s stunning adaptation of Little Women opens with Jo timidly discussing rates with an editor.
Saoirse Ronan’s face lights up as Mr. Dashwood at The Weekly Volcano Press informs her that they’re going to publish her story—or rather, her friend’s, because Jo wouldn’t use her real name and is posing as a friend of the real author. “We normally pay between $25 and $30 for something like this. We’ll pay you $20,” says Mr. Dashwood. Jo enthusiastically accepts the offer on behalf of “her friend,” an offer that might have as well been refused.
The story is set in the 1860s, where the majority of published writers were men. It’s not hard to imagine those $10 more—a rather small amount but one that Jo was denied nonetheless—going easily into the pockets of male authors but having trouble to find their way into the pockets of those few female writers.
With female creative freelancers charging 47% less than their male counterparts as of 2019, it’s easy to draw a comparison between what happened back then and what many female writers still need to put up with to see their work published today.
In Gerwig’s loving version of the story, however, the challenges faced by this young writer take center stage.
The director, who also adapted the script, has turned the story of the four March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—into an exquisite balance of past and present, opening in the second part of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, after Jo has moved to New York to be a professional writer.
The movie highlights the most interesting aspects of being not-so-little women who belittle themselves, following Jo along the path to fame. And the road to fame is a rather bumpy one, as she learns quite quickly.
Upon receiving her story, Mr. Dashwood tells her she needs to either marry off or kill her heroine before the ending, which eerily sounds like the fate of any young woman at the time. That’s what sells, Dashwood explains, and Jo has to readjust her already underpaid, butchered stories to make them marketable and palatable.
Alcott’s original story also doesn’t shy away from the difficulties faced by Jo. In the first part of the novel, Jo tries to sell a couple of her very first stories. The editor of the Spread Eagles likes them and agrees to publish them. Great, uh? Except he will do so without paying for them as, he explains, they don’t pay beginners. So, what happens here is that Jo gets paid in exposure. Ahh, the old tale of getting paid in exposure—one she’s well happy to comply with.
Jo learns to be comfortable to write according to her readers’ preferences because what she wants is fame, sure, but also money.
Talking money is something that was deemed not particularly ladylike and is still an issue for so many women today, more afraid to ask for pay rises compared to their male coworkers, but money has no gender. Considering money talk inelegant for a young lady was yet another reinforcement of the status quo, depriving women of the chance to be able to make their own fortune.
Recent television is also trying to smash this patriarchal view by presenting female characters in period dramas openly discussing money—not only gender non-conforming Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack and Susie in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, usually addressed by male pronouns, but also Jenny in GLOW. These characters know exactly what they want: everything—and yes, money is part of the whole pie they’re after.
In Little Women, Jo’s younger sister, Amy, is also well aware of the importance of money. Once an aristocratic family, they fell out of luck and presently lead a rather modest life. In Gerwig’s movie, Amy (Florence Pugh) makes a powerful point in a discussion with Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). Struggling to make a living out of her art, Amy knows that marriage is “an economic proposition” for someone like her, who doesn’t have her own fortune.
Jo, who’s less interested in having her romantic happily ever after, has her stories—and her money-focused attitude, which changes her for the better throughout the movie.
We see her occasionally struggling with impostor syndrome. She’s so used to belittling herself as a writer that she automatically tells Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), who had agreed to read her works, that hers are just stories, of course, nothing more.
Upon hearing Bhaer’s quite blunt feedback—”I don’t like them”—Jo hits back.
“I’m considered talented,” she tells him.
“I can’t afford to starve on praise,” she continues.
While Jo grows professionally, the novel doesn’t see this as a fit ending and focuses on giving her, too, a romantic epilogue.
In the movie, Jo learns what she can do and tries to make up for what she can’t yet. She writes a novel, proving there is a market for female-centered stories. The overly excited daughters of Mr. Dashwood, an avid audience for Jo’s work, force their father to reconsider his decision and publish the novel.
Mr. Dashwood himself gets caught into Jo’s work and, once the novel is completed, asks questions like a fan would do. But Jo is there to talk business.
She insists on keeping her copyrights and tirelessly negotiates the percentage of profits she’ll get. 5% was the initial offer, but she’s able to take that up to 6.6%, which might not feel like that big of an improvement, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.
By the end of the movie, Jo is about to see her dream come true. She observes as her novel, Little Women, is getting printed—a beautiful sequence that sets up Gerwig’s adaptation for a different ending than Alcott’s book.
The final scene shows the audience a buzzing house, with people running around to make everything look splendid. Another wedding, perhaps? No, it’s just everyone trying their best to help run Jo’s school, established in the big house once belonging to Aunt March.
Gerwig’s choice lets her keep some distance from the unnecessary yet very 19th century happy ending Jo is given in the book. She still kisses Friedrich in the rain, and he’s still there to help her manage the school, but the movie is less explicit than the novel by avoiding the marriage proposal and all of its consequences.
In doing so, Gerwig captures Jo’s spirit, keeping her ambitions and goals intact and giving the audience a Little Women adaptation for decades to come.
(images: Sony Pictures Releasing)
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