This essay contains spoilers for Little Women (2019)
Three months after my ex and I broke up we tried to begin a friendship. We cautiously shared information about where our lives had gone in the quarter of a year apart.
I talked to her about my new home, my new friends, my new job. She talked to me about the person who would eventually be her new girlfriend. My desire to date as a woman and a queer person was a major reason for our breakup. And yet in our time apart I’d focused on my writing. I told her I was happy with my successes but I also felt really lonely.
“You were always lonely,” she reminded me. “Even when we were together you were always lonely.”
All I typed back was, “Oof.”
The first time I watched Greta Gerwig’s Little Women I judged not on a scale of quality, but on a scale of queerness.
In 2019 the only justification I could find for a seventeenth (yes, seventeenth) screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s book about four white sisters living through the Civil War was if Jo March’s queerness finally went beyond subtext.
The casting of Saoirse Ronan had given me some hope, as did a comment Ronan made about this adaptation exploring new aspects of Jo’s character. While she isn’t out, I’ve long assumed Ronan is queer, which may simply be a misreading of deep-seated Catholic sexual repression.
But nothing about Gerwig implied that she’d queer the story – especially as the release date approached and the awards narrative became all about her partnership with Marriage Story director Noah Baumbach. Little Women is about a stubborn girl who won’t marry and all the press wanted to talk about was the directing power couple’s shared custody of Laura Dern.
This is all to say I was incredulous when I first watched the movie in October.
It turned out that Gerwig did queer the story.But by the end I’d abandoned my initial scale of judgement. Because the most remarkable thing about Gerwig’s film isn’t that it leaves room for queerness – it’s that it leaves room for sadness.
My birthday is on Christmas Eve and it’s been on Christmas Eve every year since I was born.
I’ve always insisted that I like sharing my birthday with Jesus and Santa. I’ve never had to be at school or work, there are so many pretty lights, and everyone is always celebrating. They aren’t celebrating me of course, but who really cares. People are happy and that makes me happy.
But this year I wanted more. The thought of spending yet another birthday doing Jewish Christmas with my family felt wrong after a year defined by finally allowing myself to be a little selfish. I hadn’t been back to New York since moving a year prior and I wanted so badly to go and visit my friends – and maybe experience a bit of closure with my home of seven years and my ex of three and a half.
My mom, ever the Marmee, has always been good at recognizing the needs – and wants – of her very different daughters. She offered me a plane ticket for my birthday, and when I gratefully accepted, she seemed confused yet unsurprised that I’d chosen New York over the easy comforts of a holiday at home.
I texted my ex and asked if she’d like to get lunch when I was in town. We still hadn’t quite figured out how to be friends, but it seemed absurd that we’d be in the same city and not see one another. She said yes, and then, a month later, said no.
At first I felt guilty – I couldn’t believe I hurt her so deeply that she still resents me almost a year later. And then I felt angry – she’s been in a new relationship for most of that year yet isn’t willing to work through whatever emotions would allow us to be friends. But, ultimately, I had to concede that sometimes no one is wrong and a situation is just sad.
The next day I flew to New York. I looked out the window as we began our descent, but there was too much fog to see the skyline. We landed with the usual thud.
The first time you watch Gerwig’s adaptation, it seems like she’s beginning with Friedrich Bhaer. Jo is in New York working on her writing and she meets the man who in other versions will be her husband.
The framing device doesn’t simply alter the timeline of the story. It elevates Bhaer’s importance so his usual tacked on feeling – requisite third act husband – disappears and his role as Jo’s One True Love begins to take shape.
It’s maddening and devastating and the impact of these emotions makes what’s actually going on all the sweeter. Gerwig has removed the requisite husband altogether. His role in the original story is made just that – a role in a story, a compromise with Jo’s publisher.
This twist ending doesn’t just allow for Jo’s queerness, but also her romantic solitude. On a second viewing, it’s clear that the framing device doesn’t result in the story starting with Bhaer. It results in the story starting with Jo’s writing.
Greta Gerwig’s Little Women joins a quickly growing body of work – Frances Ha, Mistress America, Lady Bird – where women are given love stories beyond romance. These are love stories about friendship, family, home, one’s self, and, of course, one’s art.
The thing about being a writer is every experience is an essay or a story or a film. The other thing about being a writer is when you’re traveling every work of art feels like a part of the trip. This isn’t by chance. It’s manufactured and then the happy accidents are allowed to fall into place.
I decided to finally read Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, because I knew part of it took place in New York. But I didn’t know it was about an NYU film student. That was a happy accident.
I walked by the Tisch building where Brown’s protagonist Molly and I both studied and I paused at Broadway and Waverly remembering my ex and I’s first kiss. Then I went home and read a break up scene written for me despite the novel’s publication pre-dating my birth by twenty years.
Molly has been dating a woman named Holly who is vivacious and bold and also painfully practical. Holly has a sugar mama and wants Molly to do the same. She tells Molly that women aren’t allowed to be film directors. She tells Molly she’s “gonna fight the whole world and get nothing but kicked in the ass.”
Molly is incensed. She yells back that she’s going to make movies and she’s going to make the kinds of movies she wants to make even if it takes decades. Holly concedes that part of her problem is she simply doesn’t have Molly’s spirit. Yes, she can’t stand to watch Molly struggle, but she also can’t stand the reminder that she won’t do the same.
“So what the hell am I supposed to do?” Molly asks. “Give it up to make you happy? Be a failure, so you can feel good about yourself?”
Holly doesn’t want that. She just wants to tell Molly she loves her and then disappear forever. Some people weren’t meant to be artists. Some people weren’t even meant to date them.
Little Women is not just about an artist. It’s about a family of artists. Gerwig’s version underlines each of these pursuits.
Meg is an actress. Or, at least, Jo thinks she’s an actress. Meg finds joy in doing Jo’s plays, but the possibility of anything beyond that never occurs to her. Jo wants Meg’s desires to mirror her desires, but Meg insists that just because her dreams are different doesn’t mean they’re less important. Jo replies, “I just hate that you’re leaving me.”
This is the source of Jo’s loneliness. It’s not that Meg is literally leaving, it’s that she’s leaving behind Jo’s dream and with that emphasizing its rarity. It’s less that Jo has different goals and more that Jo has different values. It’s more that Jo is different.
Beth is a musician. The only want we ever see in her brief life is to play music. It is her passion and also merely a hobby. Playing music brings her happiness and peace and she’ll take that when she can. Jo has big goals, ambitions, a desire to live and live and live and then keep living through her work long after death. Beth is content simply to die.
Amy is a painter. She’s the only other March sister to approach Jo’s level of ambition. As a child she wishes to be the best painter in the world and as a young adult she accompanies Aunt March to Paris with that goal still in mind.
She quickly gives up. She compares her achievements to Jo’s and says that she’s realized she lacks genius. “I want to be great, or nothing,” she says. And so, after a life of dreaming, she falls back on more practical plans of marriage and society.
What Amy fails to understand is the patience that goes into genius. The reason why Jo succeeds as an artist isn’t because she has more natural talent than Amy. It’s because she keeps trying.
Amy wants to be the best, but you become the best by insisting you’re the best, or, more importantly, insisting that maybe someday you could be the best. You become the best by having no choice but to keep going.
Amy has the choice to stop. Jo does not. And that’s why Amy can marry Laurie and lead a happy life and Jo, unfortunately and fortunately, cannot.
One night in New York all my friends were busy so I decided to go see Agnès Varda’s Vagabond at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
The theatre is in the same building as Juilliard where my ex went to school for acting. This place had consumed our relationship. It was her second home – a place for social gatherings, continued creative work, life-saving day jobs, and even, for one day, a memorial service. It was also a reminder of the past and all the futures not achieved.
As I walked from the subway to the theatre I became aware that it wasn’t just Juilliard that reminded me of her but the entire area. Columbus Circle to 72nd St. belonged to my ex and our relationship and the past. I held my breath expecting to run into her as if my memories could materialize and tap me on the shoulder.
Vagabond is about a woman named Mona – a drifter – who dies outside in the cold. We follow her travels in the months leading up to her fate as she hitchhikes and scavenges and finds brief moments of connection.
This life falls somewhere between circumstance and choice. I always remembered Mona as poor, but this viewing I was struck by the decisions that accompany her poverty. A middle class existence seems possible for Mona. Even within the brief months we see, she is given opportunities to settle down. But she isn’t satisfied with the possibilities allowed to a woman of her class. She’s unwilling to do work she finds dull and she’s even less willing to be tied to other people if it conflicts with her autonomy.
She meets a shepherd with a family who explains that he chose a middle road between loneliness and freedom. “You chose total freedom but you got total loneliness,” he tells her. He says this is unsustainable and we know, unfortunately, he’ll prove to be right.
But Vagabond is not simply a tragedy – it’s a tribute. For all its melancholy, Varda is too enamored with Mona – too similar to Mona – for it to be anything else.
The most pivotal scene in Gerwig’s film – the scene that has been memed on Twitter, the scene that will inevitably be used for Ronan’s Oscar campaign, the scene I’ve thought about every day since October – occurs after Beth’s death. Jo is still home. She’s lost in her writing and lost in her life.
We’ve just watched a scene from the past. We’ve watched as Jo confidently turned down Laurie’s desperate marriage proposal. But years gone by Jo’s certainty has faltered. She tells Marmee that she wonders if she made a mistake in turning down Laurie.
“I just feel like 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. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it! But I’m – I’m so lonely.”
Long before I knew that I was a stubborn woman, I was obsessed with the stubborn women of literature. The first time I read Jane Eyre I walked into English class buzzing like I had a class crush. But so often these characters are idealized. It’s not that their choices seem easy, but the difficulties are always external. The whole point is that they’re unwavering in their commitment to self.
This moment in Gerwig’s film doesn’t take away from Jo’s commitment. She may have doubts, she may feel lonely, but when presented with moments of choice she chooses herself. It’s barely even a choice. It’s simply what she must do.
The “But I’m – I’m so lonely” rang in my ears, but when rewatching the scene I was also struck by a line that comes right before the monologue.
Jo says that she wishes Laurie would propose again and Marmee asks if she loves him. “I know that I care more to be loved,” Jo says. “I want to be loved.”
Jo longs for companionship the same way Amy longs to be a great artist. The desire is real and the unfulfilled carries with it an air of melancholy. That’s the secret about stubborn women in literature and life. It’s not that we refuse to settle. We just settle differently.
If the March family house presents an idealized family unit, then there’s an apartment on Kosciuszko Street that’s my March family house.
Within this four bedroom Bed Stuy apartment lived my first group of out queer friends: Laura, Daniel, Kelly, and Caroline. Even when I was living in a cute one-bedroom with my ex, I felt like Laurie, longing for their queer household.
Well, on the eve of Kelly and Caroline moving out, I got my wish. Amidst all my nostalgic, ex-obsessed melancholy, this is where I stayed in New York.
On Christmas morning we shared a joint – the warmth of a fireplace inhaled into our guts. There wasn’t a tree or a feast and only a handful of presents, but we were very high and we had each other and it was perfect.
That night Laura and I had Christmas dinner at Nitehawk cinema. We went to see Little Women.
This time around I left the theatre thinking not of Jo’s loneliness, but about all the love in Jo’s life – and all the love in mine.
What separates Jo from Rubyfruit Jungle’s Molly and Vagabond’s Mona is she’s not completely alone. She has her family and her friends. Even if nothing lasts forever – childhood ends, people move out – we can cherish those we love and do not control. It’s not a cure for loneliness in the way of a traditional life, but it’s deeper and more important.
There’s a scene in Greta Gerwig’s previous movie where Lady Bird surprises Julie on prom night. She’s ditched her terrible date and wants to go with her best friend instead. She notices that Julie’s been crying and asks what’s wrong.
“I’m just crying,” Julie says. “Some people aren’t built happy, you know?”
And then we cut from this heartbreaker of a line to Julie laughing. Or, as the script says, laughing really hard.
Maybe it’s not that some people aren’t built happy. Maybe it’s that for some people happiness isn’t a state of being, but a fleeting moment. Maybe it’s that for some people happiness will always be a pleasant surprise, rather than the ultimate goal.
Since transitioning I’ve recoiled at the suggestion that this was all for happiness. People say whatever makes you happy, or if you’re happier than it’s worth it. But I didn’t transition so I could be happier. I transitioned so my sadness could feel like my sadness instead of somebody else’s.
I guess that’s the thing. This has nothing to do with queerness and everything to do with queerness. This has nothing to do with being a woman and everything to do with being a woman.
I am queer. I am a woman. I am an artist. And sometimes I am so, so sad.
Nothing brings me greater joy.