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When I watched Greta Gerwig’s film of LITTLE WOMEN set in the years after the Civil War, I ended up with wrinkles in my forehead. I remember the first time I read the novel and watched subsequent film adaptations that always ended with the protagonist Jo (standing in for Louisa May Alcott herself in the story based on her family) aligning herself romantically with Friedrich, a professor. I never liked that ending. He was far older than she and nowhere near as creative or intellectually adventurous. He was safe—poison for a spirit like Jo—certainly a sorry replacement for her friendship with her lively neighbor Ted. Friedrich felt like a father figure instead of a match. How could Jo change so much that she found him suitable as a life companion? How could she survive being someone less than she had been before? I closed the book feeling vaguely uneasy and dissatisfied.
Gerwig’s Freidrich seems younger but no more ambitious than he was portrayed previously. However, Gerwig’s Jo accepts her publisher’s admonition that her autobiographical novel will sell better if she closes it with the lead character becoming safely married, so that is the ending she writes for Jo. But she herself does not marry. That detail was one I had missed. Jo’s sisters present an array of female characters that feels like a hand of playing cards being fanned into a display, but Jo is the only one who dares to consider life without a husband to run her affairs for her. In those days, a wife was property. Jo refuses to restrain her freedom, talents, and raw ambition.
Some modern women would feel perfectly comfortable in Alcott’s world, being cared for and directed by their man. Like the women of old, they happily trade freedom for security and tell themselves they aren’t going without anything important. I remember reading that women most frequently screen potential husbands according to the man’s ability to support them. They firmly believe a woman’s primary worth lies in her value to her family as a wife and mother, keeper of the hearth. Her talents and skills are the stuff of unfortunately necessary second incomes. They eye single professional women with suspicion. Surely any female who chooses to be unfettered has a “deviant” sexual orientation?
When I realized I was expecting Jo to find her happy ending in the arms of a leading man, my own indoctrination that women aren’t complete without a man showed through my veneer of sophistication. I remembered the disgrace high school girls who weren’t invited to prom once faced. They felt undesirable and what could be worse? The typical female budget for clothes and makeup generally far exceeds what she’s willing to spend on continuing education—formal or informal. In the film MOONSTRUCK, the mother asks her daughter’s fiancé, “Why does a man need more than one woman?” but she never wonders why a woman needs a man. She’s perfectly happy seeing her daughter plan to marry an older man whose personality approximates cooked oatmeal. Her philosophy is her daughter shouldn’t marry a man she loves because then the man can use her devotion to drive her crazy while he pursues his urges. A wife knows who she’s supposed to be.
Society would have us believe a woman without a committed man can’t be happy. That’s why most films and a huge percentage of novels (including the ones I’ve written!) leave the leading lady with at least one eligible, likely male mate. What is the message we’re giving to our young women–and young men? Is it fair? In spite of grumbling from men and women who don’t want roles to change, Isn’t it time to rewrite the story with a more accurate ending? Jo goes on to support herself.