The following article contains heavy spoilers regarding the original Little Women text and the latest adaptation directed by Greta Gerwig
Listen, I’m as surprised as you are to be here loving the fifth adaptation of Little Women. There is still more progress to be made, but Gerwig’s sophomore solo feature may be the most faithful to what Louisa May Alcott wanted, especially for the character of Jo March. I mean, that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? I had fallen in love with the book as a child. Jo March was young of myself: headstrong, stubborn, chasing after dreams, and never, EVER wanting to fall in love with a man. And she never does, at least the way the book was written before pressure from publishers. I’m here to say that Josephine March is a lesbian, and Greta Gerwig’s film is the first adaptation of the novel to even remotely begin to tackle the literary elephant in the room.
Let’s begin with a little behind the scenes. In an interview after the novel’s publication, Louise Chandler-Moulton, publicly known as Louisa May Alcott, said “I am more than half persuaded I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body… because I had fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man”. Not much room for interpretation there. Just like Jo, she originally wrote more scandalous pulp stories to be published anonymously, and only used her real name for the money-making, safer women’s stories. “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe” she’d say in reference to her lack of a husband. The media at the time did their best to cover up this part of her nature.
Maybe it seems, to many, that this is only said because Jo’s a tomboy, or because she never marries Laurie. It’s fairly widely known that she’s a self insert for the author, who was undoubtedly gay. Jo tells Laurie even stronger than usual in Gerwig’s version that her feelings are solely platonic, and that it would be impossible for her to love him. She’s not bisexual. Her homosexuality is made clear through her lack of attraction to men, as she is hardly given the chance to interact with women that are not family. In a fit of emotion she tells her mother that she wishes to love freely. For a woman who adamantly states that she does not feel the capacity to love a man, this very love is a romantic admiration for women. She knows she has the capacity to love, just not anywhere to express it.
The film’s ending does something different, by acknowledging that Jo is Alcott. Jo goes to a publisher with her Little Women story, where the film’s satisfying romantic ending is but an illusion. Jo writes in place to make the man behind the desk happy with the end of her novel. In real life, the story was published in two parts, the first ending with Jo unmarried, the second ending with Jo’s engagement to Mr. Bauer out of a need to please readers (specifically fans of the Jo/Laurie pairing who were angry over Laurie and Amy ending up together) just as in the film. The kiss beneath an umbrella is some fantasy love ending of her sister Amy’s, one that is in reality a friendship between intellectuals. The film opens with the publisher telling her that the heroine should always end up either married or dead, and while there could be avoidance in life, the rules of fiction are for once much stricter than the rules of reality.
Jo ends her real story opening a school, her two surviving sisters married, her would-be lover in an idealized hetero normative world an employee, and herself alone. Alone is perhaps the best she could have at the time. While the film never rewrites wholly to give Jo a female love interest, or has her state who she is in today’s terms, Greta Gerwig makes it pretty clear that Jo March is a lesbian. She’s the black sheep of the family. She cares for her sisters in a way that’s more fatherly than motherly, almost an early echo of the butch-femme dynamic that would arise half a century later. In a film that has so many of its women state that they are there for more than just love, Jo being the one alone at the end of her story makes it clear who she really is.
There is a certain loneliness to Jo’s world, and she knows it. “Women have minds and souls as well as just hearts” she says when fed-up with being the only living sister who can’t seem to love a man. “They’ve got ambition and talent as well as just beauty” she continues, “I am so sick of people saying love is all that a woman is fit for”. She yells “I’m so sick of it”, and finishes, with a part of the quote so often left out by publications looking to twist her words into just being a headstrong girl refusing the idea of love, “But I’m… I’m so lonely”. Jo does not refuse love, but welcomes it. She tells her mother that if she cannot love a man, the next best thing is to be loved by one. That’s why she wants Laurie to propose again, because at least platonic companionship would be better than being alone in an empty world once her sisters go their separate ways. That’s why Jo begs Meg to stay, and why she’s so desperate for Beth to never grow up. In the end, she gets what she wants with her school. Even if Josephine March is left partnerless, she is surrounded by her friends and family. At least she is loved, if not allowed to love.
Little Women (2019) is now playing nationwide