Movie Review - Little Women (1994)

NOTE: This review was written under a previous rating system. Some of the older reviews may express opinions and judgment calls that are not in line with our current standards.
Gillian Armstrong
Columbia Pictures Corporation
for two uses of mild language.

Josephine March looked like a lady… as long as she wasn’t moving, speaking or standing where you could see the burnt spot on the back of her dress. Little Women looked like a movie with a biblical worldview… for about as long as Jo March looked like a lady. Oh, both of them have a number of truly appealing qualities, quite apart from their failings, which is why Jo’s tomboyish character pleased even the prim and proper young girls of the late eighteen hundreds, and why Little Women’s positive portrayal of the women’s lib movement and the warped religious and philosophical systems of the March—or the Alcott—family, haven’t exactly prompted any major boycotts of the movie. The difference is that we can forget about, or even smile at Jo’s flaws every once in a while, without compromising our worldview or our standards. Forgetting about the moral flaws of Little Women isn’t such a good idea.

When a movie comes right out and tells you which philosophical grid its characters are using to interpret and reshape the world around them, it makes figuring out the worldview of the movie a lot easier. At that point, it’s a pretty safe guess that the dialogue and themes which appear to match that philosophical grid don’t do so by accident or happenstance.
The worldview of the March family, like that of Louisa May Alcott’s family, is “transcendentalism.” And in case we weren’t already familiar with what that means, one of Jo’s transcendental friends explains it to us, quite enthusiastically. “This is German Romantic philosophy! We throw off all our constraints, and come to know ourselves through insight and experience!” That is actually the transcendentalist method for coming to know everything, including the nature of humanity, the nature of God, and the relationship between the two. Unsurprisingly, its adherents come to extremely flawed—at times heretical—conclusions. In the movie, these conclusions are woven into the whole story, sometimes more obviously than at others.

Feminism, for example, was very closely tied to transcendentalism (and Louisa May Alcott) in the mid-nineteenth century, because they both demanded a strong individualism—transcendentalism, for spiritual reasons, feminism for social and political reasons. Jo March’s mother encourages her to “go out and find a good use for your talent”… in another state, more than two-hundred miles away. “Go,” she says, “and embrace your liberty, and see what wonderful things come of it.” In venturing away from her family in search of her own “liberty,” Jo says that she “stepped over the divide between childhood and all that lay beyond.”

In politics, the feminism comes through in a number of lines about women’s suffrage… and other “rights.” For instance: “It was nothing short of a betrayal of our country’s ideals! A constitution that denies the basic rights of citizenship to women and black people?”—speaking, rather exaggeratingly, of the vote (which, being denied to citizens under the age of eighteen in the United States, cannot be considered a “basic right of citizenship”). Another man asks, rhetorically, “If women are a moral force, shouldn’t they have the right to…” (pay attention, now) “govern and preach?”

Comparisons are made between the social license of men and the lack of such freedom for women, and it is in that context that Jo’s mother “Marmee” wishes there was “a more just world” for her girls. The March ladies do not believe in wearing corsets. They do believe that “young girls are no different from boys in their need for exertion,” and teenage Jo’s boisterous relationship with a neighbor boy of about the same age is encouraged by her mother on those grounds. The girls regularly dress like men in the privacy of their own literary society.

One of the other contrasts of the movie is between the male pursuit of academics and business, and the restriction of females to domestic and charitable enterprises. Much is made of Jo’s hopeless desire to go to college and work for a living, and her neighbor Laurie’s complete lack of concern about such things, except insofar as refusing to pursue them would have been a defiance of his grandfather (“Yes,” Jo replies, “and not [of] the whole of society.”). Youngest sister Amy says, “I wish I was Beth [the home-educated sister] so I could stay at home and do pleasant things,” and Jo responds sarcastically, “Oh, yes! If you call laundry and housework pleasant!” The charitable endeavors are still viewed positively, but, since the March family does not attend church (and since Marmee was based on Louisa May Alcott’s mother, who was one of the first full-time, paid social workers in Massachusetts), charity is also viewed through a socialist, community-based, rather than religious lens—also typical of transcendentalism.

Jo does incline toward matrimony toward the end of the film, but only after thoroughly establishing her “insight and experience” as an individual1. Prior to her season of self-definition, she holds a generally negative view of marriage—at least as far as she and her sisters are concerned. On the other hand, her sensational short stories often include romance of some kind or other, usually of a socially unacceptable nature. Amy sighs, “Oh, I love forbidden marriages!” and Laurie tells Jo, with a smile, that “Grandfather disapproved of” his mother—a theme that is brought down into the real world in Jo’s engagement without her parents’ approval, and Amy’s marriage without their knowledge. As an adult, Amy allows attentions from one suitor, while letting him know that she expects, and plans to accept, another man’s proposal of marriage. She later, as a married woman, tells Jo that “a sister… is a relation stronger than marriage.” An egalitarian, even feministic (not to mention transcendental), view of marriage is represented in Laurie’s proposal, in the line, “I’ll let you win every argument.”

There are strong, favorable references to Goethe, a leader in German Romantic (also called transcendental) philosophy, and to Walt Whitman, a man who, even in his own day, was accused of writing semi-pornographic poetry and involving himself in homosexual relationships,2 and who was an influential figure in you’ll-never-guess-which philosophical movement.

There are many positive references to God, prayer and even Jesus, but, connected as they are to transcendental theology, they become heartbreaking negative elements in the movie. Transcendentalism utterly rejects the Trinitarian view of God, and claims that Jesus was only (in Louisa May Alcott’s words) “the Good Man who loved little children, and was a faithful friend to the poor,”3 or (in her father Bronson Alcott’s words) a man whose “faith… inspired his genius.”4 “[S]alvation (if you can call it that) consists of connecting once again with the divinity within us.”5 Jo’s line about an “emphasis on perfecting oneself,” is a little nod to their belief that sin can be purged from the soul without external help, and their rejection of the Atonement. Marmee’s line, “In God’s eyes, we are all children, and we are all equals,” is a little nod to transcendental Universalism. Even the silly line in the girls’ play, “Pray for me, for I have sinned against meself and me brother Roderigo!” conveniently leaves out the concept of sinning against God.

Okay, Amy’s halting, monotone reading of the Bible6 is supposed to communicate the idea that she’s being subjected to absolute boredom, but that isn’t unique to transcendentalism. Nor is Jo’s fascination with an opera about a goddess.

Other than calling her sister a “featherhead” or a “ninny-pinny,” and mocking or belittling Aunt March and Mr. Brooke, Jo’s verbal failings are generally confined to the usual categories of minced oaths, violent exaggeration, sarcasm and occasional lying. “Blast!” is used a handful of times, as is “Jehoshaphat!” The Irish housekeeper swears by the heavens or “all that’s holy” a couple of times.
In a (resolved) fit of anger, Jo shouts, “I’m going to kill you!” and “I hate you!” at her sister.

Sexual Content:
Ball gowns show off women’s shoulders and a bit of their bosoms from time to time, and scenes in the girls’ dressing rooms take that to the next level. There are half a dozen kisses and sundry embraces between couples who are not married (and who never will marry, sometimes).

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
The March family (like many transcendentalists) were proponents of the “temperance” movement, but wine and champagne are still seen in the girls’ hands on occasion, when they venture into society away from the rest of their family. An irresponsible man drinks from a flask, and the girls sing “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” During their literary meetings, the girls, in masculine attire, are seen with unlit pipes in their mouths, and men are briefly seen smoking cigars.

Violent and Intense Content:
The girls’ father is said to have been wounded in the war; Amy falls through thin ice and nearly drowns; and two of the children to whom Marmee had been giving charity are said to have died of scarlet fever, which leads to Beth’s own illness, and eventually her death. With all of these events, the emotional reaction of the other characters is probably the most intense aspect. The transcendentalist rejection of the core doctrines of Christianity—the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement and the justice of God—may also render Beth’s death—and her tearful speech about going to heaven—more emotionally difficult for viewers.

When Little Women told us outright the worldview it was using—and, by its association with ball gowns and strong family relationships, promoting—it was a bit like the scenes when Jo shouts indoors, or gallops across the ballroom with Laurie because she only knows the man’s part. It’s a reminder that we can’t just look at the outward appearance (when they’re not moving or speaking, and when we can’t see the spots on their dresses). Jo isn’t a conventional nineteenth-century lady, whatever her Aunt March or her friends in society may want her to be, and that’s part of what makes Little Women as appealing as it is. Jo never asked us to believe she was something other than what she really was, and whether or not we enjoyed her unconventional antics was up to us. Little Women is the same way, but it’s involving us in a lot deeper issues than Jo selling her hair or putting on wild theatricals in her attic. Little Women told us what its worldview was, and trying to minimize the importance of that worldview would be equal to minimizing Jo’s tomboyish nature. That’s part of who she is, and transcendentalism—and everything that that encompasses—is part of what the movie is.

I understand the appeal of Little Women, and I’m aware of the positive elements that could be brought up in its favor. But, if my understanding of its worldview is anywhere near accurate, enjoying this movie would be, for me, the equivalent of enjoying a movie steeped in a Hindu or New Age worldview. I believe transcendentalism is as bad as that. And, for me, Little Women is as bad as that. I will not be seeing this film again. This is, however, one of those movies where I think it best to leave the final word to the reader’s conscience, not mine. I would not choose to watch Little Women even for educational purposes, but, as long as the viewers knew the worldview they were getting into, and were old enough to grasp the weight of it (twelve would be my minimum audience age), I wouldn’t try to argue them out of it… at least, not very hard. I personally don’t think it’s worth it, and I think there are better ways to study feminism, transcendentalism and Louisa May Alcott.

1 If you want a look at a really horrid perspective on women and marriage, see Margaret Fuller’s ([in]famous feminist and transcendentalist writer of the mid-eighteen hundreds) The Great Lawsuit.
3 Little Men, by Louisa May Alcott (Serenity Publishers, LLC, Rockville, Maryland, 2009) p. 38
4 Conversations with Children upon the Gospels, by Bronson Alcott (Boston, James Munroe and Company, 1836) p. xliii
5, lecture by Prof. Terry Matthews, B.A., M.Div., Ph.D.
6 Leviticus 21:23-22:1, a passage which, in its broader context, gives us deeper insight into the holiness of God.

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