The Savior Complex of ‘Little Women’

Little Women is an easy movie to idolize, but idolizing a movie is a dangerous thing.

Everyone is desperate to give in Little Women, so much so that the general, surface-level wholesomeness becomes grating.

It’s hard finding the line between deep acts of kindness and a (sometimes white) savior complex that Greta Gerwig’s 2019 remake of Little Women frequently finds itself veering into. In one scene, Marmee (Laura Dern), the matriarch of the March family, convinces the girls to give up their Christmas breakfast to a poorer family with no viable source of heat down the road. The March sisters are disappointed, of course, but they do it anyway, and there are prolonged shots emphasizing how poor and bleak this other family is. Much attention is given by the camera to Marmee’s angelic generosity and the March sisters playing with the family’s baby.

Their good deed is noticed by the rich neighbors next door, the Laurences. Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet) and his grandfather, Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), gift them an even bigger Christmas breakfast — a colorful feast that blows their minds when they walk in through the door. While the March sisters gave away their food with no self-serving intention, the reciprocal action gets across a troubling message: Do a good thing, get a good thing. In another instance, Beth gifts Mr. Laurence a pair of hand-embroidered slippers, and Mr. Laurence, in turn, gives her a whole piano.

There are other acts of kindness that fetishize the power dynamics across race and class: The times Marmee and her husband are hailed as abolitionists outnumbers the times when Marmee is actually, truly forced to reckon with her white privilege; Marmee hides her own scarf in a blanket bundle to give to a stranger after a close-up shot of his cold hands. I hope it’s not just general cynicism that’s preventing me from actually feeling joy from what are supposed to be heartwarming deeds. It’s just that so many of them are so blatantly meant to be “feel good” actions, that they come across as shallow — ways for audiences to project their own hopes of being good people without actually challenging them to get there.

Photo courtesy of Wilson Webb

I nitpick Little Women’s savior complex because idolizing a movie is a dangerous thing, and Little Women is very easy to idolize. To be fair, at its core, it is a good movie about good people trying to do good things. That, and Gerwig really knows how to push emotional arcs. Her remake isn’t chronological. It flips back and forth between the Civil War and its aftermath, a dueling structure that sets its characters up for peak emotional drama. As soon as the coziness of the past collide with the gray gloom of the future’s New York cityscape, you know that all the March sisters’ dreams and aspirations are barreling toward collapse. Its formulaic give and take is a clever way of keeping viewers invested through a 135-minute-long movie, hopeful that there’ll be a break in the pattern, and that things will turn out alright.

It’s also, perhaps, Gerwig’s way of inserting a little bit of 21st Century commentary into the movie. It’s hard taking a text that was written in the 1800s and finding a way to make it relevant to a modern audience, especially when antiquated storylines might get in the way of those ideals. Jo resists marriage throughout Little Women, but eventually falls in love with a professor — Friedrich Bhaer. While Jo is literally chasing after him underneath pouring rain, the film splices scenes of Jo negotiating a book contract with a publisher, Mr. Dashwood, who insists the female protagonist of her story be married (or dead) by the end. “It’s romance,” Mr. Dashwood says. “It’s mercenary,” Jo counters, agreeing to change the story to include a marriage for the sake of selling her book. All the while, Jo unites with Friedrich. They kiss, and while it’s hard not to be happy for Jo, the irony is palpable.

Updating an old text is also difficult when its main feminist moral is something that we now (hopefully) generally accept as true. “Women — they have minds. And they have souls. As well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent as well as just beauty,” Jo (Saoirse Ronan) says. “And I’m so sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it.” Ronan’s performance also helps deliver the urgency of the statement — she’s on the verge of tears without ever quite crying, her voice shaking and hissing with its power.

Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com.

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