Greta Gerwig, director of the new film 'Little Women' said something in an interview recently that has really stayed with me: "I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Jo March was. I’ve always had Jo inside of me. It’s like the Beatles. I don’t know when I heard the Beatles. I’ve never not known ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ You just know it.”
I can’t remember how old I was when I first read Little Women, but I was so young I don’t remember it. Jo March was one of my first inspirations, and one of the first times I had ever seen a reckless, roguish, determined, angry, and vulnerable tomboy-ish young woman appear right in front of my eyes. She felt just like me. I’m not sure if I recognised her queerness at that young age, but I certainly did as I got older.
As I grew older, I would learn of the queerness of Little Women, of Jo, and of her creator, Louisa May Alcott. There’s been more than 150 years of theorising over Alcott’s sexuality and gender identity, which I won’t go into in this piece (except that it's worth being cautious of applying modern identities and terminologies to someone of a time far before they existed). Whatever Alcott deemed herself to be, her queerness has always been speculated on. This may be because of her literary creation -- the tenacious and societal rule-breaking Jo, who speaks disdainfully of her "disappointment in being a woman", but it also may be because of this quote from Alcott about herself in an 1883 interview:
“I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body … because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”
While Alcott’s beloved 1868 book has had several film iterations over the years, all of them have been created with an undeniable male lens, despite some having women writers or producers. This male gaze, as Jackson Adler says in a 2015 feature about the different gazes applied to Little Women, "tends to twist the romantic ending to use as a weapon against female viewers – reminding them of their “place” in society, and the expectation for them to marry and become housewives". Remember ladies, even if you have big dreams and career goals, you’ll have to throw them all aside to be a wife and mother one day, right?
But not Gerwig, who has artfully created a sort of 'choose your own' version of Little Women. Jo tries to sell her story to a publisher, who of course insists the heroine be married by the end because “girls want to see women married". She pushes back, and agrees to an exchange for ownership to her own copyright, which is followed by a sort of fantasy scene in which March dramatically kisses Professor Bhaer in the rain. Right after this, she’s running the school she always wanted, surrounded by her family, and holding clutching her book – no partner to be seen.
It’s pretty obvious that Gerwig knew that the only way to honour Alcott’s legacy of unknown queerness was to leave the ending up for interpretation. In the interview with The Advocate, Gerwig said she “didn’t want to give her some sort of label. I just wanted to live with… some ambiguity there, because her legacy certainly allows for it.
"I felt like if I can’t give Louisa May Alcott an ending she would have liked 150 years later, then there’s no reason to make this movie again,” said Gerwig.
The true beauty of Alcott’s legacy, which now includes Gerwig’s interpretation, is that in Alcott and Jo’s times, it would not have been easy or possible for them to be openly queer, gay, transgender or non-binary. Jo March had to marry a man, and Alcott had to remain quiet and equivocal.
But Gerwig’s film proves that Little Women has always included rebellion against heteronormativity, rebellion against societal expectations placed on women, gender and sexuality, and the film proves that these themes can and have moved through time and evolution of society with ease.
We have always been here, the rebellious women and queers; we have always been wanting more for ourselves and we have always been wanting a voice, agency, and equality for one other.
As Greta Gerwig says, “I didn’t invent it. It was just there.”