There’s a scene toward the end of Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women, a starry-eyed update of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th-century novel, in which headstrong Jo (Saoirse Ronan), the character Alcott modeled on herself, anticipates decades of female creative doubt. A writer struggling to produce the popular, contrived sentimental stories of her day and slogging even harder to figure out what she wants to write, Jo doubts the ability of her own life experience to be compelling, asking her sisters: “Who will be interested in a story of domestic struggles and joys? It doesn’t have any real importance.” To which Amy (Florence Pugh), the youngest, responds: “Maybe we don’t see these things as important because no one writes about them.” Writing things, she says, “is what makes them important.”
There are numerous moments in Gerwig’s Little Women that feel as though they’re speaking directly to a young girl’s ambition before, as Amy says, the world is hard on it, but the most poignant one: your stories aren’t seen as unimportant because they’re just your life; they only seem unimportant because of years of shunting off women’s stories as a side genre, or of diminishing personal stories as vain, or of not seeing those stories at all.
That Jo needed such validation both as Alcott’s avatar in the 1860s and as a prismatic onscreen presence in 2019 feels indicative of a familiar rut that, despite a slate of trailblazing, complex and straight-up enjoyable female-driven films and TV this year, we still seem stuck in: the internal doubt that your story is interesting, or the larger one that no one will take it seriously.
Gerwig sent up that doubt to devastatingly beautiful effect in Lady Bird, a film that showed the story of a suburban-ish high school girl in the 2000s with a personal relationship to the song Crash Into Me (by Dave Matthews Band) could be movie-worthy, let alone “good” cinema. In Little Women, Gerwig applies that rare confidence to well-mined and beloved source material, infusing the March sisters – Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Pugh) – with a recognizably 21st century candor on the limitations, crossroads and ambitions of 19th century womanhood (in white, genteel poverty New England). Jo is particularly strident; she chafes at marriage, moves to New York City by herself to make it as a writer, negotiates her own contracts – all while tipping into doubt of her own ability to make it, to speak as herself publicly.
Jo’s doubt seems prescient, even meta – though the film has made over $50m since its release Christmas Day and been heaped with critical praise, it’s already been undervalued in awards season; male voters, it seems, don’t think a coming-of-age story centered on women is for them. And it makes Little Women perhaps a fitting cap to the year 2019 for women in film, a year in which a slate of female-driven and directed movies topped the box office – Hustlers, directed by Lorene Scafaria, raked in over $156m this fall – or received critical acclaim and attention (Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood).
And yet the pillars of acclaim in the industry – awards, at once irrelevant and its own cottage industry of symbolic importance – still almost never reward female-directed films, or films about women at all. After Little Women, despite critical raves (it currently has a 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes) failed to secure key nominations from the Golden Globes (Saoirse Ronan and Alexandre Desplat got nods for best actress and best score, respectively) or Screen Actors Guild nominations, Vanity Fair reported on the movie’s “Little Man” problem: male voters just weren’t viewing the film.
“It’s a completely unconscious bias. I don’t think it’s anything like a malicious rejection,” the Little Women producer Amy Pascal told Vanity Fair. “[Voters think], ‘These kinds of stories are important to me, and these kinds of stories are less important to me.’” According to Pascal, attendance of Little Women screenings in LA favored women two to one. That viewership skew extended to theaters – the film’s opening day audience was 70% female, according to Box Office Mojo, with 71% aged 25 or older.
The “Little Man” problem explains, in part, why we’re seeing this weird discrepancy now, this dissonance, in which female-driven, directed and starring features and television are gaining increasing visibility and cultural clout – as in many public circles, the promotion of feminism and female perspectives is heralded as an indisputably good thing – yet still this change is not reflected in the most prominent arbiters of cinematic “taste”. There are no women nominated for best director at the Golden Globes this year, despite a plethora of options (Scafaria, Gerwig, Wang, Heller). There have only been five women ever nominated for a best director Oscar, Gerwig among them for Lady Bird, and just one winner: Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for The Hurt Locker.
It’s not just behind the camera; a survey of the past 40 years in Oscar prizes uncovers a dismal lack of female-driven storytelling. The closest one gets to a female-led narrative for best picture is Terms of Endearment in 1983, Jodie Foster’s lead role in The Silence of the Lambs in 1991, or Chicago in 2002. This year’s Oscar conversation is mostly circling Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman – solidly made films in which women are an afterthought to the story, at best.
The point is not that awards are the arbiter of progress, or that they should be determined based on representation. But they do confer importance, even if that importance is sometimes misplaced or clearly and self-reinforcingly lopsided. It’s trite to say that awards are irrelevant to the quality of the movies; they’re as relevant as we or, really, the financiers of movies make them. But they do hold a mold of what is considered good, serious, “important” cinema, which still says: men’s stories are the primary stories, the default setting, the norm. Everything else is a deviation. And that tucks in another assumption: female audiences will of course watch a movie outside of their perspective, but don’t expect it to go the other way.
When Pascal recalled to Vanity Fair the tepid reaction from male studio executives to the 1994 version of Little Women, which she pushed at the time as vice-president of production at Columbia Pictures, she remembered the shrugs then weren’t all that surprising then, but “I didn’t think 25 years later it would be quite so similar.” Looking at the numbers, it’s not quite so surprising. According to a new study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, the number of top-grossing pictures from female directors since 2007 has stayed around 4.8% – a ratio of 20 male directors to every female one. Though some studios in recent years have had multiple projects made by women, some have passed the buck – Paramount has not made a single picture with a female film-maker in five years.
The horizon, however, seems brighter. The same study called 2019 a “real moment” for diversity in film. The number of female-directed top 100 films is now around 10% – certainly not gender parity but over double from 2018. A slate of female-directed films across genres are expected to top the box office in 2020, from Disney’s live-action Mulan to four major superhero movies: Birds of Prey, Black Widow (starring Little Women’s Pugh), Wonder Woman 1984 and Eternals. We may still have to remind ourselves – some, of course, with much higher barriers than others – that women’s stories are worth telling, but Jo, Gerwig and audiences have long understood their importance, even if Hollywood has lagged behind.
Photo Source: Wilson Webb/AP