Recently, former New York Times film critic Janet Maslin shared her “disbelief” regarding attitudes toward filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s recent adaptation of Little Women (one of several, with the first woman-helmed one coming in 1994 from Gillian Armstrong), which has been ignored and rebuffed by men in Maslin’s circle. She tweeted that “[t]he Little Women problem is very real. I don’t say that lightly and am very alarmed. In the past day I have been told by 3 male friends who usually trust me that they either refuse to see it or probably won’t have time. Despite my saying it’s tied for #1 of 2019.” She is also troubled by the relative lack of appreciation the film has received from awards committees, from the major ones to the critics’ associations, and even ones with exclusively female membership. Maslin has also engaged with continuing conversation around her tweet, retweeting praise for the film from some male film critics as well as responding to critiques of her stance.
Maslin’s concern for Little Women, which is distributed by Sony, strikes me as outsized and off-key. Why, of all films, publicly lament the anecdotal misogyny faced by Greta Gerwig’s Little Women? Well, I know why. But first it’s important to point out a distinction the critic has herself made—while she is shocked by male hostility she has witnessed toward the film, she doesn’t hope to goad men into seeing a film out of feminist duty. Instead, she’s troubled by the perception of the film by a fraction of those who haven’t yet seen it. And Maslin, to be fair, is a curious critic who gives all kinds of films a chance, but there is still subliminal messaging in the particularity of her Little Women feelings.
Gerwig’s latest project is positioned for the mainstream, particularly the mainstream of people now sympathetic to women’s issues and ideas. Or let me be specific: white, straight, cis middle- and upper-class white women’s issues and ideas. And for these white professional women of means, their foremost audience—even beyond other women—is their white male counterparts. This is the ideology of corporatized, lean-in feminism, which springs from the fountain of neoliberal thinking—if the men won’t reward our striving, we will never achieve their power. While Maslin has written about and praised films by non-white, poor, and queer women and men, her most vocal outrage of the year of course belongs to the kind of film that was meant to succeed in the first place: the career-successful white feminist manifesto, in period dress.
From what I can tell from her work and tweets, I come from what is likely a very different critical tradition and politics than Maslin, which is to say a socialist feminist tradition that centers anti-racism rather than the shattering of glass ceilings in corporate workplaces. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy some studio-backed period dramas helmed by women that center feminist ideas around white-collar work and independence—Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career, an adaptation of an Australian novel and starring a young Judy Davis, is a favorite in the genre. This Little Women adaptation—which, from many reports so far, is an enjoyable film containing foundational feminist ideas that are surely still useful to many women of different backgrounds—doesn’t particularly interest me as a political film, but I am still open to enjoying it. Apparently, some men Maslin knows are not similarly open, but I don’t care. It seems bizarre to me to insist on the film’s male interest, at all, but especially beyond a number of recent, impressive films made by and about women, including Mati Diop’s Atlantics, Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, and Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency.
Notice that none of the women I listed occupy the space Gerwig does: straight, white, American woman whose first feature earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Despite the undoubtable obstacles she has faced as a woman in the entertainment industry, Gerwig is well positioned to continue on the success train. It strikes me that Maslin’s shock and disturbance stems from the fact that Gerwig has not yet been christened by the men around her as top female dog—top bitch, I guess—as one would expect from the racist and capitalist hierarchy that sometimes allows certain women to get rich.
Except, in many ways, Gerwig has been christened. Like her across-the-pond counterpart, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Gerwig’s wit, charm, looks, and whiteness have fairly smoothly ushered her talent into the spotlight. She got her Oscar nominations a few years ago, made the cover of Vogue this year, and now has the benefit of producer Amy Pascal’s high-powered backing. Many women who don’t possess her particular set of advantages will never get there without first agreeing to praise the Disney gods or some other corporate overlords, assuming they are ever given that ironic opportunity.
“Many women who don’t possess her particular set of advantages will never get there without first agreeing to praise the Disney gods or some other corporate overlords, assuming they are ever given that ironic opportunity.”
Armstrong, too, had her Little Women backed by Pascal and Sony, though with a much smaller budget. In an interview with Vulture’s Rachel Handler, she admitted that she had the exact problem Maslin describes in ‘94—many men saw the film as a “little girl’s picture,” and even after seeing it and liking it were still embarrassed to tell their male friends about a movie with the title Little Women. While it is annoying that perceptions may not be much different in 2019, I’m not sure why we’re still meant to perceive this as an exceptional injustice—the indifference itself stems, in part, from capitalism, the very system that makes this latest adaptation possible.
Why should a bunch of straight white men (because I’m assuming most of these Little Women-apathetic men are straight and white) be drawn to a mainstream film that isn’t marketed specifically toward them, when nearly everything else in the mainstream is? What many of the lean-in feminist ilk often do not understand is that someone like Gerwig does not deserve more attention just because she’s well-positioned for it as a reigning queen of white female professional success. In fact, male attention, as the film’s trailer seems to communicate, should be beside the point! Little Women will be fine—Jo will write her novels and Gerwig will make her movies; so far, the system has made sure of it. Meanwhile, every filmmaker not as fortunate will continue hustling with tiny budgets (which can be both a gift and a curse) and precarious distribution, while relying on the attention and advocacy of the media’s feisty proletariats: the broke freelancers, bloggers, and laid-off columnists who watch and write not to see their favorite films and directors assume their corporate thrones, but for the love of the movies themselves.