Film commentary: Feminism and “Little Women”

By Mia Brounstein

“Feminism” is a word that has many different definitions and connotations. For some, the term suggests justice and progress, while for others, it rings of a kind of cultural destruction.

Even as it has become a hotter and hotter topic, feminism has enjoyed greater recognition in the arts, with filmmakers, artists and writers drawing it into the spotlight. One such feminist creator is director Greta Gerwig, whose 2023 film, “Barbie” provoked heated discussions about the topic of feminism.

However, today I’m not interested in discussing Gerwig’s latest work and the feuds surrounding it. Rather, I’d like to focus on her 2019 adaptation of “Little Women,” which remains one of my favorite movies and an extremely important example of a new kind of feminism.

Those who are familiar with the story of “Little Women” might be surprised by this; after all, the book on which Gerwig’s film is based is about four sisters and their life in the late 19th century, a time that hardly reminds the reader of the modern idea of feminism.

However, feminism as portrayed in Gerwig’s “Little Women” looks different from the popular ideal. Here, feminism can be defined as a system of belief that uplifts women of all different kinds, facilitates their growth, and celebrates their contributions to the world while simultaneously promoting healthy relationships with men and other women.

In this movie, each of the four sisters is distinctly different in personality and ambitions. Meg, hospitable and wise, wants to be a mother; Jo, stubborn and tomboyish, wants to be a writer; Beth, sweet and peaceful, wants to stay forever with her family and cats; and Amy, ambitious and dramatic, wants to be a rich artist.

The sisters all support each other’s dreams, and each girl’s unique femininity is highlighted. There is no stereotyping of femininity here; each girl’s traits, successes and ambitions are recognized and uplifted.
However, this support does not overlook the faults of the characters. The women in this film are not portrayed as perfect.

Part of the feminism shown here involves each sister embracing growth, especially at the encouragement of their loving mother. Meg becomes less vain, Jo grows kinder and more responsible and Amy becomes more mature.
In the movie, this growth occurs within the context of a complex web of relationships, all of which are characterized by love, encouragement and healthy communication.

“Little Women” displays male-female relationships in which each party encourages the other to be their best. Amy causes Theodore Laurence (Laurie) to give up his playboy lifestyle, Laurie helps Meg overcome her pride and Professor Bhaer encourages Jo be a better writer.

The sisters in this movie are strong, determined women, yet they selflessly prioritize the people they love. Some of the most memorable relationships in this movie are not romantic; for example, Beth befriends a grieving old man and Jo’s love for her father causes her to sell her own hair to help him.

These are just a few of the ways that the characters in this movie embody a new and unique kind of feminism that promotes diverse, virtuous and wholistic womanhood.

But why does this matter? Why do we need another feminist movie?

I believe that there is a specific need for a movie like Gerwig’s “Little Women” firstly because social media and shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” teach women to tear down and degrade each other as well as men.

In addition, many archetypal female characters in media as well as female celebrities teach women to define themselves either by their personal strength and success or by their desirability to men. Examples include celebrities like Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian and characters like Captain Marvel and Elizabeth Swan.

Similarly, influencers can cause women to view certain personalities or lifestyles as being unfavorable instead of simply being a different way of embracing the feminine genius. An example of this is the social media storm that constantly surrounds women posting about their lifestyles as housewives.

I believe that we need to return to a kind of feminism that centers on nurturing all different feminine gifts and uplifting the women who possess them. In “Little Women,” Meg, Amy, Beth and Jo are authentic women defined by their virtues and dreams and formed by loving relationships.

They are an example worth following.

In the words of 20th century philosopher and martyr St. Edith Stein, “The world does not need what women have, it needs what women are.”