In “Cross Talk,” writers sit down to discuss a book, movie, TV show, or piece of art they both feel strongly about. Sometimes they disagree, other times they’re in perfect harmony. Arts & Culture Editors Zoë Kaplan ’20, Nathan Pugh ’21, and Dani Smotrich-Barr ’20 discussed the recent film adaptation of “Little Women,” directed by Greta Gerwig and released on Christmas Day last year.
Dani Smotrich-Barr: So when did you guys see “Little Women?”
Zoë Kaplan: I saw “Little Women” on Christmas Day.
DSB: Classic Jewish experience.
ZK: What’s funny is that I’m half Jewish and it’s on my dad’s side, and he actually left on Christmas to go to Florida. So my mom, my sister, and I went to “Little Women.” I don’t think my dad would have had the same emotional experience as we all did.
DSB: Yeah, I also went with my mom and sister.
Nathan Pugh: I saw it the day after Christmas. I saw “Cats” in the early afternoon.
ZK: What a day!
NP: I needed to actually watch good cinema after that, so I saw “Little Women,” which was infinitely better. I only saw it with my mom and my sister. My dad was like, “I saw the 1994 version and I was falling asleep.” Like, okay, I get it. Unlike [you both], this is my first time interacting with “Little Women.” I knew that Beth died.
DSB and ZK: Spoiler!
NP: I know, spoiler. But I didn’t know Amy ended up with Laurie.
DSB: I can’t imagine watching it without knowing everything that would happen.
ZK (to DSB): When did you read it?
DSB: I read it…this is kind of embarrassing…when I was like, seven, and I was really into it. Then I read it every other year for the rest of my childhood.
NP: Why didn’t I read “Little Women” growing up? You know what I mean? What happened there? I never really interacted with it. So, what did we think of the movie? I walked out of the theater and I was like, that was so gorgeous and delightful and actually very complex.
DSB: I was expecting to be disappointed, not because of Greta Gerwig, but because I have high expectations about “Little Women.” I was only slightly disappointed.
NP: What was a little disappointing for you?
DSB: Well they have that Louisa May Alcott character, and I was just annoyed that they wouldn’t make her explicitly gay.
NP: I think the ending is very ambiguous. Did she end up with the professor? Did she not? There’s that turning point where you realize she’s writing the story that we’re watching. It gets very meta and the lines between Louisa May Alcott and Jo get very blurred. I invite lots of queer readings of Jo and “Little Women” at large. But I don’t know if I need a woke “Little Women.”
DSB: I don’t think I want it to be woke. I’m not sure…. You don’t want it to be that you’re trying to do the thing too hard.
NP: This has been written about, but there’s an article being like, “Oh it’s so sad that this ‘Little Woman’ is all white yet again.” Then I read a counter article titled something like, “The bearable whiteness of ‘Little Women.’” I feel like, it is what it is. I don’t think I need the Hamilton treatment for “Little Women.”
ZK: And it’s an all-white cast for most of the time, right?
NP: There’s that one line where a black woman is helping with the Civil War effort and says, “You shouldn’t be proud of your country.” And Laura Dern is like, “You’re right!”
ZK: Sometimes you have to stay in your lane and acknowledge that your movie isn’t going to do everything.
DSB: And that’s the smallest possible gesture and the weirdest way to cast a singular person of color.
NP: Do you know the term, just go with me here, “white excellence?”
NP: Greta Gerwig is white excellence, because I don’t need Greta Gerwig to direct “If Beale Street Could Talk” or “Moonlight.” You don’t need to do that. It’s like…stay in your lane, tell the story of your own life and community, and do the best version of that possible.
DSB: And they used that woman to prove how virtuous Marmee was, that was the only reason she was there, which was weird…. I mean, it’s a pretty conservative story about a white family during the Civil War; I feel like having a more diverse cast would feel pretty contrived. I’m disappointed more about Louisa May Alcott because she was pretty obviously queer in real life.
NP: Are we critiquing “Little Women” the story or “Little Women” the film? The lines get blurred.
DSB: Yeah, for sure. By the way, I thought that Meg and Amy really got redeemed in the film as opposed to in the book. The casting was almost perfect.
NP: Yes. I was really invested in all four women a lot. I actually really love Beth.
DSB and ZK: Whoa.
NP: Everyone’s like, “Nathan, why are you picking Beth?” But there’s something about keeping to herself and not wanting to share her artwork all the time. I feel like I really related to that.
DSB: I also really related to her as a child. In the movie I didn’t like how her character was portrayed at all. I just got bored watching. Yes, she’s almost supposed to be all pure and good, but I think she could have been portrayed in a way that was more interesting.
NP: I think she’s a really tough character to get into because she’s serving such a plot function.
DSB: And I hate on Timothée Chalamet a lot, but I think he was really good for Laurie. He is a pretentious softboy asshole, which is perfect!
NP: I feel like every time I’m watching Timothée Chalamet I’m like, I’m watching Timothée Chalamet do his thing. I never get completely immersed in him.
DSB: The idea of him in a period piece, because of that, feels a little silly. Maybe because of who he is culturally.
ZK: I had trouble with the scene where he tells Jo he loves her because of him. I was like, well, this isn’t “Call Me By Your Name”? I didn’t know if I believed him as much as I wanted to.
DSB: That scene is weird too because I think Laurie is maybe supposed to be queer, people have read it that way. Which I like, but then you’re casting Timothée Chalamet because of who he was in “Call Me By Your Name” to get that effect.
NP: The queerness has followed him through his roles. It is confusing. I want to ask what all thought of the structure of jumping between the two different time periods. This was my first time interacting with [“Little Women”] at all.
DSB: Were you lost at all?
NP: I wasn’t. I read some reviews that said it was confusing, but I thought it was so clear that it was transitioning that I got it.
DSB: I love the structure. But I’ve also read it so many times that if I saw it straight I’d just get bored. I thought it was really smart because so many people are so familiar with it. But some people are going into it for the first time and I was wondering if they might have trouble.
NP: I was totally able to follow it. It reminded me a lot of “Lady Bird.” Even though “Lady Bird” is linearly structured, I still feel like it’s in conversation with 2017 Greta Gerwig thinking back on her childhood. This was a more clear example of like, women looking back on their childhoods.
DSB: I think that’s a really cool way to think about it too, because Greta Gerwig knows how many people have such a visceral relationship to reading this or seeing this in their childhood. We’re watching them reflect on themselves as a kid while we’re simultaneously thinking about how we identified with “Little Women” as a kid. I was also thinking so much about how I love the way that they use the house they’re in. The attic…where Jo does her writing and they have the clubs. I love that space as the space of fantasy and not being seen by adults.
NP: Can we talk about that line in the attic when she’s talking about how women have hearts and lives and they’re more than just marriage but she’s just so lonely?
ZK: Oh, the “I don’t want to be in love, but I want to be loved.”
NP: The way it was cut in the trailer was like, yes, feminist icon moment. Yes, women are more than [those things]. But then you see her become really sad and really isolated…. In that line, I was thinking that she was so driven and so ambitious, but at the same time it’s those very things that are causing her to feel the most alone. As a writer, it’s her power to be alone and comment on the world and be at a distance from everything and see things, but it’s also what was hurting her because she’s in her head all the time.
ZK: I really like the dichotomy of her being alone as a writer and also just as someone who doesn’t want to be married. But she also wants someone to spend her life with…[she] wants relationships that won’t make her lonely. That kind of speaks to worries of women who are like, “I want to be feminist but I like men or I want to subscribe to these institutions that are typically not feminist or make women more subserving.” We all think Jo is a really strong character, but there are moments where she has to balance those things too.
DSB: I really liked the dynamic between her and Marmee in that scene. I liked that crazy moment where Marmee was like, “I’m angry every day of my life.” I think that made a character who could seem perfect more complex.
NP: I don’t know. I thought Marmee was a compelling character she was so selfless in a way that was verging on like, too much.
DSB: I’ll watch Laura Dern do anything.
NP: It was interesting seeing these well known actors—Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern…
DSB: Emma Watson.
NP: Emma Watson as Hermione! These actors carry these associations over, so maybe I was familiar with these people that I was watching even though I didn’t know the characters. I really liked the Meg scenes!
DSB: I just feel like she didn’t get to be comedic at all, which she’s really good at. But I think she did a fantastic job…. What did you guys think about the professor?
NP: He could get it. When he said, basically, “Your writing is bad,” that was such a neg for me. I was like, “I want someone to tell me my writing is bad.” I need this intellectual curiosity.
ZK: I liked that he had this intellectual compatibility with Jo, so there were different reasons to like her being with Laurie and being with him.
DSB: I think it was the right decision to make him hot.
NP: Have you seen Greta Gerwig saying, “I feel like men have always been directing women, putting glasses on them and saying they’re not pretty, but I’m like fuck it I’ll do the reverse.”
DSB: That’s actually what she did! Because in the book he’s described as gross and old. But here he’s this sexy professor which I love.
NP: She gave us a little Professor Bhaer as a treat…. I wish more straight men would watch this movie and get something out of it.
DSB: I just don’t understand why a straight man would look at that cast and be like, “No.” I don’t want to look at all of them. It’s literally like five hot women and you’re like, “No that’s girly I don’t want to look at it.”
NP: I think straight men could get a lot out of this movie!
ZK: If someone went to see it and said “I don’t like it,” I would say, “I don’t like you.”
NP: If someone said I absolutely categorically do not like “Little Women” directed by Greta Gerwig, I would be like, well maybe we’re just not compatible. Do I need them to like it?
ZK: Maybe I just need them to appreciate it.
NP: Yeah! Okay, so: why “Little Women” in 2019? I think the power of the story comes from all these women having very different views on marriage, on writing, and how to exist within a family. So you’re seeing these arguments being formed and thought through through these sisters who still have love and affection for each other. But they really fundamentally disagree on some things and I find that to be compelling to watch. And I think it’s something that distinguishes it from other pieces of art.
ZK: Having a lot of women with such different interests, different characters and their own relationships still is powerful even now, in 2020.
DSB: And I think the focus on writer Jo, and the challenges she faces in the publishing industry trying to make something all about women, and the fact that Greta Gerwig makes this thing that is a blockbuster hit, is again showing that stories about women do sell.
Dani Smotrich-Barr can be reached at email@example.com.
Nathan Pugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zoë Kaplan can be reached at zkaplan.edu.