Little Women: Now and Then

by Claire Jones

Is it possible to love someone and have a career? This is a question that seems to be popping up more and more in today’s culture, especially for women. Relationships—specifically romantic ones—require a lot of time and effort. In recent years, it often appears as if women are encouraged to sacrifice the chance for a relationship and family in order to have a successful career, by redirecting the effort spent on a relationship into their job. Before the last fifty years or so, women were encouraged to get married, have children, and be full-time wives and mothers. Now, the idea that a woman would want to be a full-time wife and/or mother is looked upon with suspicion and disapproval. She should not be sacrificing her potential for the sake of a man. The possibility that a woman could both have a family and a career does not occur to most people these days.

This is clearly seen in the new film adaptation of Little Women, especially when compared to the book. The changing perceptions of a woman’s role are most clearly seen in the character of Jo. In both the book and the 2019 film, Jo is an aspiring writer, who is also best friends with Laurie, the boy who lives next door. The one of the most major differences in her portrayal takes place during the scene where Laurie proposes. In the book, Jo refuses him because their personalities wouldn’t suit, their priorities don’t line up, and she refuses to live in a loveless marriage or lose their friendship. However, in the movie, Jo adds another reason to her list: she doesn’t know if she wants to get married at all, preferring to focus on her career. 

Jo’s reasoning is a little more complicated than that, however. At the core of it, is the idea that relationships are hard—too hard to be worth pursuing. Jo’s attitude in the 2019 film illuminates a terrifying new concept springing up in our culture. If something is hard, it is not worth doing so long as it relates to love. At the core of this mentality is fear—fear of losing, fear of pain, fear of heartbreak, fear of not being enough, fear of losing our identity. It is this last fear in particular that is crippling our culture. 

The idea that relationships, especially romantic ones, should be perfect and easy from the get go is a concept that has become quite popular very quickly in our culture. Unfortunately, this gives us a fake idea of what relationships really look like and leads us to be easily disappointed by the real thing. In reality, couples disagree and often even fight. The thing that is frequently forgotten is that fights do not have to be won in a relationship. In fact, the relationship can easily and quickly become toxic if that mentality is kept. Instead, compromise is key. However, most people don’t want to put in the work compromise requires. We use excuses like “I just don’t need this kind of stress in my life right now,” and “if they really loved me, they would be supporting me,” and “I can’t trust them, because they never listen.” When we look at this litany of phrases, it becomes clear to some that terminating the relationship is the easier option.

However, easier is different from better. Breaking up at the first sign of trouble can lead to much bigger issues with commitment later on in life. Avoiding the difficulty quickly becomes a habit almost impossible to break. This habit can lead to problems maintaining any type of relationship at all. Again, the root cause of the whole problem is fear. Fear of losing your identity in some way is completely understandable. However, the fight for equal rights with men that women have participated in over the last sixty years have done much to fan the flames of this fear. Without realizing it, we have begun to equate relationships with the fear of being lesser, of being consumed. Rather than an equal partnership, we see a prison cage. I can think of fewer things more tragic than this. 

In the film, Jo sees marriage as an obstacle to her dream of becoming an author. Instead of someone who would support her goals and encourage her to reach her full potential, she only sees Laurie as someone who would seek to stifle her artistry and confine her as a mindless ornament to society. In her fear, she refuses to accept that he loves her or the possibility that she could have both him and her dreams. She sees only a choice between one or the other, rather than daring to believe that she could have both.

 This fear of Jo’s is further reflected in her reaction to her sister Meg’s desire to get married and have a family. She claims that Meg should be an actress, not trapped in a home having babies. This is a significant difference from the book—where Jo’s negative reaction reflected her fear of change rather than of relationships—that is a direct result of the difference that has come about in our culture over the last hundred and fifty years. Jo, unlike her sisters, refuses to acknowledge that a life in the home and a role as a supportive wife can be a fulfilling occupation. 

 On the one hand, Jo does have valid points. Women are not defined by their ability to look pretty while cooking, cleaning, and bearing children. They can write, invent, act, create, and use their brains in so many other ways as well. But one does not invalidate the other. This is the point that our culture seems to have lost sight of. It is acceptable for women to focus on a specific career rather than staying home caring for the children. It is acceptable for women to eschew a career in favor of focusing on their families. Most importantly, it is acceptable, and possible, for them to do both. What is not acceptable is for anyone—men or women—to allow fear to hold them back from both achieving their dreams and having a healthy, fulfilling relationship and family life.

Would Jo have married Laurie if she had been willing to put in the effort to achieve her dreams and have a loving relationship at the same time? While we will never know for sure, Alcott states in the book that she should not attempt it because of incompatible personalities. However, it is interesting that Jo’s canon love interest, Professor Baehr, is one of the people who supports her writing the most even amongst her family and actually goes to great lengths to help her improve as a writer. Alcott does allow Jo to achieve the balance between a career and a family in the book. It is a pity that we no longer allow ourselves that same right. 

Claire Jones is a Creative Writing major and a Spanish minor. When she’s not in class, she enjoys listening to music and reading anything under the sun.

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