Sometime in 1996 or 1997—when I attended Bartlett Middle School—I spent an inordinate amount of time sitting on the couch in the den with my mother and her friend Karen while the two of them sipped chardonnay and commented upon every film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. We watched each of the four versions of the movie half a dozen times, at least. A highlight of these hot Georgia evenings—when the Little Women du jour was on pause, the din of crickets and tree frogs could be heard, even indoors—was the invention of nicknames for certain actresses’ portrayals of characters, the most memorable of which proved to be “Smarmy Marmee.”
Karen and my mom thought that Spring Byington’s portrayal of Marmee in the black-and-white 1933 version (starring Katharine Hepburn as Jo) was over-the-top precious in its depiction of mothering, even kind of cloying—in a word, smarmy. I believe they felt, if I can be forgiven for better remembering the garlic eggplant we ordered, that this cinematic take on the story of the March sisters nevertheless was one of the best. And they felt that the then-recent 1994 version (starring Winona Ryder as Jo) wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be (Ryder was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance). The 1949 and 1978 versions they deemed forgettable, with the former essentially replicating the 1933 one in color (with a less exciting cast), and the latter just being an awkward let-down.
These opinions are nowhere explicitly stated in “A Feminist Romance: Adapting Little Women to the Screen,” Karen and my mother’s subsequent article on the Little Women movies for Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. There’s no mention of Smarmy Marmee either. But the critical spirit of the feminist jam sessions that produced them seeps through the pages, at least for me.
With PBS Masterpiece’s three-part Little Women mini-series and Clare Niederpruem’s Little Women movie both slated for release this year, it seems 2018 will find Alcott’s classic text completing another rotation in its cultural orbit. (1868, 1933, 1949, 1978, and 1994, are the other years of the comet’s rotation.) In my heavily-biased eyes, this makes Karen and my mother’s critique more relevant than ever.
There’s a subtle irony in their title, the kind that resonates more after you’ve read the thing. Karen Hollinger and Teresa Winterhalter (you know the ones) argue that the 1994 film version of Little Women, heralded by many viewers as a victory for feminism, actually indulges a dangerous sort of historical revisionism, even while it tries “to do a true adaptation” of Alcott’s original. The movie is feminist, according to the screenwriter Rosanne Welch’s 1995 op-ed in the L.A. Times, because its characters’ actions reflect feminist values, as when Marmee “speaks eloquently against such things as being loved only for your decorative value.” That’s fine, Karen and my mom reply, but Gillian Armstrong’s movie misrepresents the intensely oppressive and misogynistic culture—just after the Civil War, before the vote, with only 29 states having passed a Married Women’s Property Act—out of which Alcott’s novel grew.
What’s worse, they say, is that by being revisionist, the movie runs roughshod over the complex divisions in women’s lives between social roles as mothers, caregivers, professionals, and citizens—divisions that structure the central questions in Alcott’s Little Women. (I was never happy that Jo married the professor.) In this way, the 90s’ Little Women takes everything that matters and condenses it into a prepackaged “feminism for beginners,” supplying #inspiration by pretending the historical realities that led to the struggle for women’s liberation really weren’t so bad. “The ongoing debates, controversies, and discussions that invigorate the history of feminist thinking are distilled into easily agreed-upon political positions, and the difficult, complicated issues that feminist theory so often addresses are overclouded by a romance of sisterhood,” they write. No doubt there’s fire in those words, but it’s a flame tempered with a spirit of understanding.
The Hollinger-Winterhalter analysis of Little Women, many summer nights’ work in the making, seems to anticipate the myriad divisions within feminism still being reasoned over today—and to understand our discussions as absolutely vital for our future. With more-or-less rote superhero films like Wonder Woman being lauded as feminist milestones, it’s tough not to wonder whether U.S. popular culture hasn’t, in the years since 1994, come full circle. Have we not again reached a place where filmmakers take “the history of feminist thinking” and distill it into “easily agreed-upon political positions?” Will the new adaptations of Little Women also reduce “the ideological complexity that underpins Alcott’s novel to a simplistic feminist platform?” Or will they amount to something more?
These moments of heightened tension, Karen and my mom say, also act as a reminder of why Little Women itself has stayed so relevant: It’s a story that envisions “women with the ability to transform even the legacy of a restrictive past into a history of female triumph.” I can hear their voices.
(Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.)