“Little Women” Off-Kilter but Still Fresh

The success of Gerwig’s Little Women comes from her focus on the emotion of the story rather than the plot.

Louisa May Alcott captured the minds of women and little girls in 1868 and 1869 when she published Little Women and Good Wives, respectively. The story of the four March sisters is one that most little girls grow up with, especially in the United States. She elegantly pulls together a narrative about growing up, hard work, and the struggles one faces when finally turning away from childhood to truly become an adult. 

It’s no wonder that there have been more film and television adaptations of Little Women than are actually worth remembering. Because of the timelessness and relatability of Alcott’s most famous novel, Little Women truly is a story than can be adapted for any generation simply by focusing more closely on a few particular themes. The 1933 adaptation starring Katherine Hepburn focuses far more on the March’s poverty and willingness to help those who had even less than themselves. When the story was again adapted for the big screen in 1949, it changed to be more relatable to viewers by focusing on the little pleasures that buying something nice for yourself or a loved one can bring into your life. It places more emphasis on the importance of the Civil War and the repercussions that war has on the March girls while their father is away to fight for the Union. In 1994, Winona Ryder starred as a version of Jo March who was ready to take on the patriarchy and prove that women could be just as good as boys and could accomplish anything if they set their minds to it.

The latest version of “Little Women” is far more inclusive of women who have different aspirations in life.

And in 2019? Again, the story and its themes have been adapted for the newest generation and audience. The success of Gerwig’s Little Women comes from her focus on the emotion of the story rather than the plot. By starting in media res and using emotional and thematic flashbacks to tie everything together, the 2019 adaptation of Little Women breathes new life into an old and beloved story.

This version deals a lot more with the realities of life for women in the late 19th century. Amy March, usually known as a vapid and spoiled girl, delivers a monologue about the unfairness of her opportunities in life. She admonishes Laurie for not taking full advantage of the opportunities he has, opportunities that are denied Amy due to her gender and parentage. Meg settles into her new life as a married woman and struggles to give up her childhood hope of marrying rich and owning little trinkets to make her life prettier. She realizes, though, that her life is wonderful and happy because she loves her husband and her children and simply being with her family. Unlike Jo, she doesn’t need a job or a career or to make money to be happy. She just needs her family. 

The latest version of Little Women is far more inclusive of women who have different aspirations in life. The film shows how Amy’s aspiration to marry rich is just as valid as Meg’s desire for a small, humble family. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation does not look down on the more traditionally feminine March girls who want to focus on marriage in family instead of making their own living. 

Some may argue that there’s no need to reimagine old classics and that it’s all a ploy for Hollywood to make more money–which is at least a little true. After all, if you’re going to tell the same story in the same way, then why tell it at all? Take several of Disney’s new remakes of their old classics. Cinderella (2015) beautifully reimagined a classic story for the children of the modern era–and their parents who were a bit wary of encouraging marriage on a week-old whim. However, did The Lion King (2019) really add anything to the original story? Almost line-by-line, it is the same story, except with a CGI Simba replacing the beloved cartoon.

While Gerwig tries to toe the line between telling Alcott’s story and telling the story of Little Women, she can only succeed in telling one story at a time.

Gerwig’s adaptation breaks the mold of tacky, overdone remakes. Unlike any Little Women adaptation before, Gerwig is true not only to the source material but also to the life and experiences of Louisa May Alcott. Take, for instance, the scene in which Jo chases after the professor to ask him to stay with her in Concord. Gerwig cleverly juxtaposes the seemingly romantic scene between the heroine and her beau with scenes comically similar to conversations held between Alcott’s publisher and the authoress herself. Jo March rushes after her love interest, and then the same Jo March argues that the heroine of her book should certainly not end up with either of the male characters of her acquaintance. When Jo and her publisher come to an agreement about the ending of the book and her payment, the movie returns to the ‘romantic’ scene between the two ‘lovers.’

It’s jarring, especially for anyone simply looking for a fun little movie about four girls growing into young–or perhaps I should say little–women. These scenes feel satirical because they are. Gerwig is not afraid to poke fun at the scenes which Alcott herself only wrote to appease her publisher. However, the scene (and other scenes filmed in a similar manner) felt out of place in the film.

While the interpretation of Alcott’s thoughts on the text are certainly new and fresh for many Little Women fans, one must also ask: should we interpret literature based on what it says, or based on what the author perhaps intended to say? It’s a difficult line to straddle; can you truly understand what the author is saying if you do not also interpret her intent? Can you ever fully know the author’s intent? In the case of Louisa May Alcott, we have journal entries and letters to her publisher to help give modern scholars insight into her own thoughts. But for the average reader who may not have access to these materials, is it necessary to fully understand Alcott and her circumstances to appreciate her work?

These are questions that Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women attempts to answer by incorporating aspects of Alcott’s life into its narrative. Unfortunately for Gerwig, I don’t think most members of the audience will appreciate the irony imbued into the narrative of Little Women. These moments can come across as awkward grabs for comedy that don’t fit the storyline. While Gerwig tries to toe the line between telling Alcott’s story and telling the story of Little Women, she can only succeed in telling one story at a time. Interconnecting the two in a single narrative structure is not effective and only manages to tell two stories in awkward tandem. 

However, if one disregards these brief moments, Little Women (2019) is still a charming and emotionally charged movie that deftly deals with heavy, coming-of-age themes in a manner appropriate for most audiences.

Modesty in the Classroom

Many people believe that dressing modestly means covering up the female body, or even see modesty as a way for men to oppress women by ‘forcing’ them to dress conservatively. Some feminists even partake in ‘slut walks’ in which participants wear very little clothing in an attempt to normalize immodest attire for women. 

Personally, I would never condemn a person for his or her choice of clothing. If someone chooses to dress modestly, then that is her choice. If she chooses not to dress modestly, then that is also her choice. Nevertheless, I want to make the argument for modest clothing and talk about how dressing modestly can improve one’s daily life.

Modesty, at least to me, means dressing appropriately for any given situation. It would be immodest for a guest at a wedding to wear a wedding dress, just as it would be immodest to wear a three-piece suit to the beach. While the clothing we choose to wear is ultimately a personal choice, I feel that students at Trinity—both male and female— have a lesson to learn about modesty. 

Clothes can greatly affect our subconscious. This is a phenomenon called enclothed cognition. Hajo Adam, assistant professor at Rice University and a doctor of Organizational Behaviour, and Adam Galinsky, renowned American social psychologist, conducted a study on clothing’s effect on cognitive performance. They concluded that clothing has a symbolic meaning to people’s subconscious and that particular items of clothing can have either positive or negative effects on cognitive performance, based on the traits to which we assign those pieces of clothing.

Clothing can affect cognitive ability simply based on the activities or traits we associate with other people who wear those kinds of clothes. In Adam and Galinsky’s research, they discovered that people had greater cognitive abilities when they believed they were wearing a doctor’s coat, as opposed to when a different sample of people wore the same coat, but believed it to belong to a painter. However, the sample group who wore the painter’s coat showed higher levels of creativity. 

Another example is business attire, such as blazers, button-down shirts, pencils skirts, etc. Many Americans associate with these articles of clothing traits such as professionalism, determination, and monetary success. While wearing clothes with these kinds of traits attached to them, one is more likely to embody those traits and subconsciously change one’s behaviour in order to model these kinds of traits. 

Professors typically dress nicely to send a message of maturity, intelligence, competence, and professionalism. Why should students not convey this message as well? At the very least, students should attempt to mimic the level of respect that the professor shows for the class. If a professor comes to class most days wearing jeans and T-shirts, then casual attire is modest and appropriate for that class. But if a professor comes to every class in a tie and blazer, then students should also try to dress a bit more formally for that class. Of course, it’s not practical to change clothes before every class. But students ought to find a happy medium between over and under-dressed.

Most American college students dress very casually for class, and Trinity students are no exception. When attending classes, though, a certain level of dressiness is appropriate. While it is certainly easy and convenient to attend class in basketball shorts, a pair of sweatpants, or even one’s pajamas, these kinds of outfits are not modest or appropriate for the classroom. Most professors I have had at Trinity dress far less casually than their students. Even my more casual professors still wear, at the very least, a pair of dark jeans and a nice shirt. Meanwhile, students typically show up to classes in a mix of T-shirts, tank tops, sweatpants, basketball shorts, crop tops, and leggings. Why should students not put as much effort into their appearance as professors? 

Clothing like basketball shorts, leggings, and sweatpants certainly have their uses, and there is a time when they are appropriate and modest clothing choices, like when one is at the gym or otherwise working out. However, if it can be avoided, these types of clothes are not appropriate for the classroom. Exercise-type clothes are too casual for the classroom; they give the impression that you’re heading to the gym, rather than the impression that the wearer is ready for class and to learn in an academic environment. These kinds of clothes–just like all clothes–have a time and place when they are appropriate and modest to wear. 

The classroom requires a different kind of dress than the gym or the beach. Of course, many Trinity students have to rush to or from a PE class to fulfill Trinity’s pathways requirements and have no time to change outfits before attending their other, academics-based classes. It’s much more important to be on time and prepared for class than dressed in a particular way. Still, at a school with as much emphasis on academics as Trinity University, it is important that we students put our best effort into our classes. Besides completing homework and doing the reading, a part of being prepared for class is showing up on time and being dressed to succeed. Pajama and exercise-type clothes can put you in the headspace to go to sleep or to go work out–not to take notes or think deeply about a class discussion. 

Pajamas are not appropriate clothes to wear to class for the same reason that your mom tells you not to study in bed. Your bed is for sleeping, and your desk is for studying. So too, are your pajamas for sleeping and your non-pajamas are for being awake and productive.

Think of the last time you dressed up. Was it for a job interview? For Church? A date? Dressing up for special occasions helps us to have higher self-esteem. Why not dress up on a daily basis, even if it is just to feel better about yourself? Clothes have a function and value beyond simply covering the human body. 

So, try dressing up a bit more in your daily life and think about how your clothing choices can affect your day. See how clothes can affect your productivity, ability to pay attention in class, and mood. Not only can it help improve levels of self-esteem and cognitive ability, it also is a great excuse to experiment with fashion beyond pajama chic.

Illustration by Bella Peters

Book Review: VOX

A couple of months ago, I read an article in the New York Times that listed several new books that had come out under a budding genre: feminist dystopian fiction. If you’ve ever heard of or watched “The Handmaid’s Tale” TV series (or read the book), then you have a fairly good idea of what kind of themes and content you will find in this genre. While I was reading the article, one of the books caught my attention: VOX, by Christina Dalcher. The summary looked interesting, so I decided to pick up a copy for myself.

To provide a brief summary, Dalcher’s novel centers on Dr. Jean McClellan, a neurolinguist living in a United States that is run by the “Pure Movement,” a Christian fundamentalist political movement that has gained control of Congress and the White House and has instituted a policy whereby women are only allowed to speak up to 100 words every 24 hours. This policy is enforced by women being required to wear metal counters on their wrists that are tied to their voices; these counters will deliver a small electric shock if the wearer goes over 100 words, which increases every 10 words the wearer says afterwards. Eventually, if the wearer says too many words, the counter is capable of delivering a lethal electric shock.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the novel. The novel forces you to think about certain issues, especially if you are not a feminist. For instance, does teaching AP classes on Christian fundamentalism bring us one step closer to a dystopian world where women are suppressed? Dalcher seems to think so, and so does Jean, who draws a timeline in her flashbacks that brought the United States to its current state. There are other instances in which Dalcher briefly brings up other issues that seem unrelated to the novel’s main themes but nevertheless play a part in the dystopian world. When Jean and her family (consisting of her husband, Patrick, and her three sons and one daughter) try to leave the United States when the counters come out, they avoid going to Mexico since there is a wall along the entire border, preventing people from leaving. Aside from being a subtle jab at President Trump’s proposed border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, I read this part of the book as “walls eventually keep people in, not out.” I imagine this part will irk some conservative readers and Trump supporters.

The first 24 chapters of the novel are where the readers will encounter the most “political” statements. The dystopia is explained and the main conflicts are laid out. Afterwards, Dalcher’s book mostly reads like a regular novel (mostly because she tones down the political content) and the plot moves forward, which is where the novel begins to fall apart. I have some reservations about the climax, which did not make much sense to me. But other than that, I really like the novel’s structure and how the plot moved forward.

Moving on to themes, several emerge in the novel, such as Christian fundamentalism, family, marriage, patriarchy, women’s rights, masculinity and femininity, gender and gender relations (particularly under a patriarchal dystopia) and the slide into authoritarianism. Many of these themes and conflicts emerge in particular scenes. When Jean gets her counter off, she gets into an argument with her oldest son, Steven, with whom she has several arguments throughout the novel and with whom she has a contentious relationship (Steven is a diehard believer in the Pure Movement’s ideals). During the argument, Steven tells his mother off, saying that it will eventually be illegal for women to insult men. In another scene, Jean gets into an argument with Patrick, where Patrick eventually wonders aloud if his mother would have been better off with her counter on. These two scenes struck me as gut-wrenching, not because it’s the main character’s own family beating down on her, but because of the circumstances in which the arguments took place. In both instances, Jean was propelled by the utter helplessness and verbal hamstringing she felt under the new laws, at times flirting with misandry because of the poor relationships she has with her husband and oldest son.

Another theme that is worth discussing is masculinity and what it means to be a man. Jean frequently compares her husband to a former lover, Lorenzo. Jean sees Lorenzo as having a backbone and willing to stand up for her, while Patrick is a more passive type, willing to let things happen. This is compounded by Patrick working as a scientific adviser to the president; while Patrick was not directly responsible for the counters, Jean still holds him in disregard because he does nothing about it. I believe that Lorenzo’s character is what Dalcher thinks is the ideal man and embodies a “proper” type of masculinity: Lorenzo is portrayed as smart, protective, strong, and romantic. I imagine Lorenzo is the answer that feminists like Mrs. Dalcher have to the “problem” of masculinity in our society.

I highly recommend this novel to anyone who is interested in the themes that I discussed. I will add that the novel is a good follow-up or compliment to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which has a similar dystopia to that of VOX. While it has its faults, Dalcher’s novel highlights some of the key issues facing America today with regards to gender and tackles them from a feminist perspective.

Photo from Amazon.

Movie Review: Captain Marvel

Disclaimer: The following review has spoilers

Captain Marvel is the most recent film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Captain Marvel was directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, and produced by Kevin Feige, who oversees the continuity of the entire MCU.

At as the movie opens, the audience is introduced to a character named “Vers,” a warrior for the alien race known as the Kree. She is captured by the enemy race, the Skrulls, but escapes to Earth, landing in the year 1995. There, she meets a two-eyed Nick Fury, and learns that she was once a human pilot for the United States Air Force named Carol Danvers, and that she gained her unusual powers in a plane crash. She also learns that she had been fighting on the wrong side of the war, and turns on the Kree to give assistance to the Skrulls.

The film was released amid controversy surrounding its star, Brie Larson, who plays the titular character (though the name “Captain Marvel” is never actually given to the character Carol Danvers during the film). The outspoken women’s-rights activist claimed that Captain Marvel was going to be a “big feminist movie,” which upset a good portion of its potential audience, especially many devout Marvel fans. Before it was even released, the film received a tidal wave of negative reviews on the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes, causing the site to consider changing its audience review process to ensure credibility.

This situation spurred uncertainty that the film would live up to Marvel movie expectation. However, this film succeeded in putting most of these fears to rest. There is no doubt that this film will be enjoyed by the general public. The average viewer will see it as nothing more than a cool superhero origin story.

However, those who are heavily invested in the MCU won’t have their expectations blown out of the water. Though Captain Marvel is an enjoyable movie, it doesn’t do anything new. It serves to introduce a character that will be important later, but the stakes were generally low. The movie feels like those released during the MCU’s “phase one”, when all the familiar players were introduced in their own smaller-scale solo films.

This doesn’t make Captain Marvel a bad movie. It simply means that it was burdened with some unreasonably high and wildly varied expectations from diehard Marvel fans that it just could not meet.

If it weren’t held to such high scrutiny, this film would easily be seen as simply fun and enjoyable. Carol Danvers is a solid character and the plot is interesting. There were plenty of moments of genuine emotion and comedy. The film kept a very good pace, keeping the audience interested and attentive throughout. Though the computer-generated animation wasn’t perfect, the imagery was often stunning and colorful, which is a refreshing change from other recent MCU films.

There was fear that the film would be overly focused on feminist messages. The marketing of the film only served to confirm this, as it threw around language suggesting the bravery and physical strength of the character, which perpetuated this fear. Somewhat surprisingly, this was not very pervasive. Danvers is undoubtedly the strongest and most intelligent character in the film. Aside from some snide comments directed towards her by men in her flashbacks, Danvers doesn’t seem to face any obstacles out of mere virtue of being a woman. She is told several times to control her emotions, but the same has been said to many MCU protagonists before her, as lack of emotional control has proven to be a weakness in these films.

These messages can and should be overlooked, as it is important to appreciate a movie for what it accomplishes beyond them. Though it isn’t outstanding within the highly acclaimed MCU, Captain Marvel is a solidly enjoyable film, and might even seem great–without comparison to its predecessors.