‘Little Women’ captured women’s rage in a way that feels very 2020

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  • As a longtime fan of Louis May Alcott's "Little Women" and its adaptations, I loved Greta Gerwig's interpretation of the story when it premiered last year.
  • But rewatching the movie in 2020, I felt a profound sense of recognition in a part of the story I hadn't dwelled on before: the anger felt and expressed by nearly every woman. 
  • In one scene, Marmee admits that she is angry "nearly every day of [her] life."
  • It's a feeling I can relate to more viscerally after enduring this long suffering year.
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It's Christmas and I'm angry. 

The rage I've felt throughout most of this year has been a distracting kind of anger, thrumming in my body like a force that makes me need to do something. Pace around the house. Scream inside my car. March through parks and into streets. Cry myself into exhaustion.

It's the end of the year now in the throes of a holiday season I always cherish and look forward to. But this year isn't like any others, as people have died by the thousands every day due to the novel coronavirus. I'm healthy. And the gratitude I have to be safely isolated in the safety of a home I share with my husband sits tandem with anger.

By now, I'm both accustomed to that rage and thoroughly sick of it.

It wasn't until a recent rewatch of Greta Gerwig's "Little Women," which first premiered about a year ago, that I finally recognized that roiling feeling lodged into my chest.

A single scene between Marmee and Jo in 'Little Women' captured the timelessness of rage

Jo and Laurie (played by Saoirse Ronan and Timothee Chalamet) in "Little Women."
Sony

I've now seen Gerwig's 2019 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" at least four times.

The book and subsequent films are based on Alcott's own experiences growing up in Massachusetts in the mid-1800s. It follows the March family, through the lenses of four sisters during their formative years, with a particular focus on budding author, Josephine "Jo" March.

Each viewing revealed something new that Gerwig had layered into the familiar story, something that deepened my appreciation for how she captured the timelessness of the March family.

The first time I watched the 2019 film adaptation, I felt pure delight at Gerwig's meta-ending, which left Jo March as the true author of her own story and kept the tied-up-in-a-bow romance with Friedrich as a fantasy fueled by capitalism. I also felt privileged to see my life reflected so neatly in "Little Women," down to the rural childhood home dominated by women, and my own writerly ambitions and affection for New York baked into the character of Jo. 

The second viewing, now prepared for how Gerwig had chosen to hop back and forth in time, I was impressed by her ability to show the full interior life of each sister as we watched them grapple with the clash between childhood wishes and adulthood realities.

The third watch, I had read enough interviews to know that Jo and Laurie shared clothes, and felt their friendship more deeply as I watched them battle out the (completely accurate) reasons why they could never marry. 

But my most recent rewatch of "Little Women" surprised me when, for the first time, I was fully keyed into the controlled rage, a feeling incredibly universal to women, being expressed throughout the movie. This time, I found myself completely bowled over by a single line that comes, not from Jo or Amy or the flashier moments of drama in the movie, but from Marmee: "I am angry nearly every day of my life." 

It's a breathtaking thing to watch a tired mother admit that anger, and even more meaningful to recognize those words, as a new truth about myself.

I remember appreciating the moment upon a first watch because it was a line from Alcott's book that hadn't made it into any of the film adaptations before. But Gerwig's "Little Women" was so packed with beautifully rendered moments and interpretations of Alcott's story that it had faded into the background for me by the time the credits rolled in my movie theater last Christmas. 

This time, watching the movie in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Marmee's words cut right to the center of me. This time, that rage seemed to be the entire point of the movie.

Rage is a central part of 'Little Women' and women's lives in general throughout generations

Laura Dern stars as Marmee in "Little Women."
Wilson Webb/Columbia Pictures

Her line comes after Amy burns Jo's painstakingly handwritten novel, causing an enormous rift between the two sisters that widens as Jo indulges her own anger.

Jo's fury leads her to ignore Amy, which in turn leads to Amy nearly drowning in the almost-frozen lake near their house. She later comes to Marmee, ashamed of her rages and in disbelief of her ability to be so callous. 

"What's wrong with me?" Jo asks her mother. "I've made so many resolutions, and I've written sad notes, and I've cried over my sins … but it just doesn't seem to help."

"When I get in a passion, I get so savage," Jo added. "I could hurt anyone and I'd enjoy it."

"You remind me of myself," Marmeee replies.

"But you're never angry," Jo says, surprised.

"I'm angry nearly every day of my life," Marmee admits. 

She isn't looking at Jo when she reveals this. Instead, her eyes are unfocused, brow furrowed. There's exhaustion in her quiet tone, her voice kept low so as not to wake up Amy, who's sleeping nearby. 

"You are?" Jo asks, stunned.

"I'm not patient by nature," Marmee says. "But with nearly 40 years of effort, I'm learning to not let it get the better of me."

Jo's rage wasn't a character flaw, but a result of being alive and woman

Saoirse Ronan as Jo March in "Little Women"
Sony

I've loved the story of "Little Women" since I was very young, finding joy and inspiration and relatability in the family of sisters and particularly in the thrillingly ambitious character of Jo. 

But it wasn't until this year that I felt a more profound connection to Marmee's character thanks to this single line. Perhaps it was the emotional exhaustion from dealing with the outbreak of a global pandemic, worsened by a horrifying lack of governmental leadership in the US.

It didn't help that at the same time, due to more death, many people in our country seemed to arrive belatedly at the understanding that systemic racism and white supremacists are killing Black Americans every single day.

When Jo resolves to try and learn patience as Marmee did, her mother responds by saying she hopes Jo will "do a great deal better than me."

"There are some natures too noble to curb, and too lofty to bend," Marmee says, turning to look Jo full in the face at last. 

Rewatching this scene, I finally understood that Jo's anger was not a character flaw she needed to overcome — it's an integral part of being a woman, of being alive.

Learning to focus that inevitable rage, to make use of it, that's the task at hand. Not to curb it, or quash it down, or learn to be more meek and domesticated. I can let anger strengthen my resolve and listen to its power. 

The anger in 'Little Women' is most obviously seen in Jo, but Gerwig threads it through each of the sister's stories, too

The March sisters: Meg, Amy, Jo, and Beth.
Columbia Pictures

Jo's rage is the most obvious example of the emotion throughout the film. But it's there in Meg, Beth, and Amy's stories, too.

Meg rages against her own desire to be wealthier. Beth, in her own quiet way, rages against the loneliness that her contentedness with simplicity in a house full of ambitious women brings. Amy rages against her baby-sister status, her own artistic limitations, and the injustice of patriarchal standards.

Most times, the warm glow that radiates out from the March family is enough to shroud the anger that sits under the roof of Orchard House. It's tempered by sisterhood, or a husband's love, or an act of selflessness. 

By the movie's end, Jo's anger doesn't dissipate. Instead it's fused together with her determination — her anger at the notion that she needs to sell her protagonist into marriage in order to be a successful author is what helps her negotiate retaining the copyright to her book.Just as it did for Jo in the fictional story, retaining the copyright to "Little Women" is what led to Alcott's incredible financial independence and success.

Gerwig threads all of this anger so beautifully throughout "Little Women" and with a deftness rarely shown in the writing of women characters on screen. It feels rare that the exhaustive, daily furies women endure and swallow are granted importance the way Alcott, and now Gerwig, wrote them. 

I'm grateful to still be finding new lessons in the pages and scenes of "Little Women" as I enter new phases of womanhood, like I'm growing into the story instead of growing out of it.

Gerwig has my appreciation and applause for ensuring that her modern adaptation of Alcott's words weren't just emotionally rich for a 2019 audience, but are only proving more resonant as time pushes relentlessly forward.

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