What does it mean to be seen? Like, really seen? It’s something you don’t know until it’s happening; until it strikes you like lightning, coring you in half. It’s the articulation of things you don’t even realize you think and say. The visualization of daily life; runny breakfast eggs, sharpie scribbles on a pink bedroom wall, gathered bramble in vases that mock valuable floral arrangements. Life’s little details, flitted about the screen, evoking memory and the ordinariness of adolescent girlhood. Preserved in powder-soft femininity.
Greta Gerwig spent her acting career lacing female characters with quirky truthfulness, a talent she refined in her behind-the-scenes work. Her two films as a writer/director—not counting her co-directing credit for 2008’s Nights and Weekends—conjure magic. With Lady Bird, she told her own story, as a daughter of Sacramento, a girl bursting with creativity and personality and who is both trapped in and bolstered by hometown pride. In Little Women, she reworked Louisa May Alcott’s seminal story into a patchwork quilt of recollection, a tender view of sisterhood and motherhood and what it is to be a woman who bristles against expectations and norms.
In a sea of Oscar snubs, Gerwig’s lack of recognition as the director of Little Women—one of the best-reviewed films of 2019—feels almost personal. Just another reminder that feminine stories are still a niche genre to awards bodies. It’s hardly the only injustice of the year, considering that people of color were almost entirely shut out of major categories. But it’s still a disappointment, and one indicative of the fact that women’s stories seemingly must work overtime to transcend the limitations of worthiness (a theme of Gerwig’s films, in fact). To be taken seriously, they must actionably prove themselves first.
But this setback is precisely why we need Gerwig more than ever. Because she delivers these stories in such a prescient and accessible way, that they’re sneaking past barriers all the same. They may not get all the way there, but they’re making an impression. And we love her for it.
Her films validate the teen girl experience
In Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan plays a teen girl so infatuated with her own brilliance that she bumps heads with most in her path. That includes her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), the nuns at her Catholic school, and her various male suitors. But it’s her refusal to play by the rules or contain her wild spirit that is her triumph.
The film doesn’t jazz up or romanticize its title character’s quiet day-to-day existence, which is most rewarding in its simplicity. Just as so many teen girls dream of greener pastures, Lady Bird finds hers. She escapes Sacramento, her mother’s controlling and occasionally condescending grasp, and her safety bubble, and makes her way to an arts college in New York City.
The film lets us into Lady Bird’s world, and shows her warts and all, but it never mocks her. The camera lingers lovingly on her bad dye job and pimples, on her wrinkled clothes and tattered notebooks. She feels just like the girl we were or crushed on in high school specifically because she’s a little rough around the edges. A little messy. Very humbling. Deeply, relatably flawed.
Ronan plays a similar role in Little Women. This time, she’s Jo March, another artsy teenager who rambles about her self-importance and her desire for actualization. She’s too big to be contained. As Lady Bird dreams of east coast elitism, Jo dreams of Europe, where poets and artists and writers are free to roam about and create and be free.
As with the film Lady Bird, Gerwig’s Little Women lets us into Jo’s world and shows it for the beautiful possibilities it contains. She never feels selfish or silly; she always feels important, and her emotions guide the story through its non-linear ups and downs. We are always with her—at the dinner table lush with butters and breads, at the theater where the drama of her interior life lays bare on stage, in her attic with her poofy costumes and bottles of ink.
Gerwig loves these girls. Not just Lady Bird and Jo March, but all of the women in their orbit; Lady Bird’s friends, Jo’s sisters. She fills the frame—and therefore their worlds and ours—with splendor and importance. She validates their experiences by displaying them so typically.
If it sounds simple and non-fussy, that’s because it is. And that’s why it’s borderline revolutionary. We don’t get feminine stories like this all that often. Where the girls aren’t made frivolous or unbearable. Where their dreams actually manifest into beautiful futures.
She shows the rawness of motherhood
Gerwig isn’t only focused on adolescence. Both Lady Bird and Little Women wrestle with mother figures too. In Lady Bird, Marion is a fascinating, at times bewildering figure, as all mothers are to their teenage daughters. She can be cold and judgmental, and then, with the flip of a switch, loving and deeply maternal. She chides her daughter’s sense of fashion in a thrift store, but is stopped by neighbors who know and love her.
She bemoans Lady Bird’s decision to visit her boyfriend’s family for Thanksgiving instead of staying home, but later comforts her after a dismal sexual encounter by taking her on house tours for manors they’ll never afford. They play fantasy together as mother and daughter, walking through a life they’ll never occupy, and that they don’t need to—because they have each other.
Marion is complicated and hard to love, from an audience perspective, but we never doubt her love for her child, nor Gerwig’s love for the character. Mothers are often antagonists in their children’s narratives. That’s the role they assume by virtue of giving birth and raising a human being. Marion is trying her best, managing her family’s dwindling finances, taking care of her household, tending to her patients as a psychiatric nurse, caring for her depressed husband, raising her adopted son and difficult daughter. As she does with Lady Bird, Gerwig never makes Marion feel like anything other than a real person. In turn, the film essentially becomes a love story between mothers and daughters.
You could say the same for Little Women. Laura Dern’s Marmee is not the central character and takes up less narrative space than Marion, but Little Women is as much about motherhood as it is about sisterhood. Marmee’s goodness inspires her daughters; we never see her complain, she’s rarely without a smile, and she holds her family together like glue in their father’s absence.
The story is set during the Civil War, when women had to fight at home just as their husbands fought in combat. Marmee fights for her legacy, for money, for her family’s future. And she does it with a softness that makes her, in many ways, an ideal matriarch. At one point, she tells the neighbor boy Laurie to call her “Mother,” because “everyone does.”
But Marmee isn’t perfect. As she comforts an angry Jo one evening, she reveals something that puts a crack in her cheery veneer. “I’m angry every day of my life,” she admits to her daughter. It’s a line right out of Alcott’s novel, and one that speaks to the root of Little Women‘s theme. Women are never just one thing. They are humans—capable of great compassion, and also marred with fundamental flaws. As with Marion, Gerwig makes Marmee a mysterious figure to her daughters. And an inspiration for the mothers they will eventually become.
Her characters face the same adversity she does
Gerwig’s Little Women flips the script on Alcott’s novel in a metatextual way. Instead of Jo March’s happily-ever-after with the scholarly German professor Friedrich Bhaer, the movie is more focused on the publication of Jo’s book, titled Little Women. She gives her stand-in character a romance to appease her male editor, but is more focused on negotiating copyright than kissing her suitor in the rain. Though Bhaer still gets a spotlight in the end, in a montage of Jo opening a school at the house she inherited from Aunt March, the final image we’re left with is Jo watching her book at the printing press. Her story will finally be told. The love story is between a woman and her creation.
Jo working her way through the writing world, from writing short stories anonymously to owning the copyright for the book of her life, is Greta Gerwig’s story too. She’s gone from an actress testing the waters as a co-writer and director, to the master of her own domain, carving an identity for herself in an industry that rarely spotlights women in a serious way.
Watching the elegant way she navigated this is inspirational. Knowing what she’s gifted us with—these sweet, simple stories that have lasting power, and that have significance for people who aren’t just adolescent women—matters a lot these days. She’s hardly the arbiter of diversity or progressiveness, but she is a reminder that small stories about women are important, too.
To quote Jo March: “Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent as well as just beauty.” Greta Gerwig is here to show us that love exists beyond the spectrum of romance. That as women, we can love our mothers, our sisters, our work. But that most of all, we can love ourselves and what we’re capable of. She made it to the other side of prestige. So can we.
Featured Image: Sony Pictures/Wilson Webb