After my sister died two years ago, I couldn’t understand why the change to our number — no longer four, but three — distressed me almost as much as how much I missed her. Watching Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation, though, I started to realize why.
People always have the most incredulous reactions to hearing you’re one of four sisters — as if a house of three women was reasonable, but four or even five women including mother!? That’s one too many, a preposterous amount of girlishness under the same roof and surely torture for our “poor” father.
We were four.
Image: Courtesy of jess joho
Together, we became like a force of nature, dominating every space we entered with flurries of femininity. Wherever we went, we brought our cacophony of excitable crosstalk and high-pitched giggles, a whirlwind of perfumed air and rustling dresses.
Four sisters are an undeniable presence, a constant commotion of distinct personalities colliding with one another. And when you’re a little girl, feeling undeniable, being loud, taking up that much space, is utterly intoxicating.
Governed by its own rules of unspoken understandings, the sisters club teaches all the things they forbid you from knowing: the incorruptible strength of sisterly solidarity, the thrill of creating something that is yours and yours alone, the daring to ask yourself what you really want from life, the audacity to believe you deserve it, and the courage to seek it out.
“I will be the greatest writer in the world!” you declare before your sisters, and they don’t laugh or even doubt your far-fetched fantasies for a second. You see the woman you dream of becoming reflected in their gazes and make a quiet promise to do right by their unquestioning belief in you.
The sanctity of the sisters club is captured best in how the girls of Little Women play. In all their silliness, adorned with bowler hats and ill-fitting pants, they transform the pomp and privilege of powerful men into a game of dress-up. The safety of sisterhood emboldens them, gives them permission to break the rules, and turn the perpetrators of their oppression into a thing to be laughed at rather than feared.
For centuries now, women and girls have been asking themselves if they’re a Jo, an Amy, a Beth, or a Meg. Starved for authentic portrayals of our girlhood, we can’t help but literally see ourselves in at least one of the March sisters.
Four inseparable parts of one whole.
Image: sony pictures
Chronologically speaking, I’m the Amy. But in very Amy fashion, I’d burst into a fit of tears whenever my sisters would point that out and laugh at my overreaction. But I was clearly the Jo! The writer in the family! I’d never burn a book, steal a man, be that annoying!
Of course I was, in fact, that annoying.
But really none of us liked the sister we were ascribed to, or the speculative futures they foretold for us.
I was the only one restricted to being the March sister who aligned with my age (unfair). But our Meg still seethed at the suggestion that, out of all of us, she was the one most fit for domestic life. Meanwhile, our Beth was rightfully indignant that we pigeonholed her into being the sick one since her epilepsy often rendered her chronically ill. On the other hand, our eldest was absolutely thrilled to claim the coveted role of Jo for herself (and if we’re being honest, she always was the one turning down marriage proposals from men hopelessly in love with her).
Years later, when our Meg miraculously recovered from stage four cancer (twice), I made the extremely dark joke that we’d have to reconsider our original casting. They all laughed, since another perk of the sisters club is never needing to explain yourself or excuse your fucked-up coping mechanisms.
She was our Jo, my brain kept repeating irrationally at her funeral, as if that would correct this cosmic mistake.
She was our Jo, my brain kept repeating irrationally at her funeral, as if that would correct this cosmic mistake. She was the one to hold your hand when you were sick, demand you keep fighting, forbid you from going and leaving the rest of us behind.
Little Women (and Gerwig’s adaptation in particular) is a confrontation of the inevitable fate that befalls all sister clubs — the tragic transition every healthy sibling relationship must undergo, really. You are born together, grow into who you are together. For the first decades of your life, your worlds orbit each other, your happiness living and dying on the fights and frivolities you share.
Then you leave home, one by one, testing the mettle of the person they helped you become. No longer four, but one here, another there, the other one in Paris, and the last of you dead.
In Gerwig’s adaptation, the four girls are almost always together in the childhood scenes, linked arm in arm, looking more like four inseparable parts of a single whole rather than individual people. It’s a stark juxtaposition to the present day, when each is alone, physically separated in different parts of the world, following her own path.
Now we are three.
Image: Courtesy of JESS JOHO
“Girls have to go into the world and make up their own mind about things,” Marmee explains when John expresses concern over Meg attending the debutante ball.
You leave the sanctuary of the sisters club, finding yourself suddenly unprotected, with no one to lock arms with or make you feel undeniable. They let you believe you could become the greatest writer in the world, that you deserved to want more. But in the real world, the powerful men in bowler hats see only a little woman.
Every version of Little Women emphasizes this distinct shift between childhood and adulthood (Alcott actually separated them into different books altogether). But Gerwig is the first to interweave the two dissonant life stages together. She grounds the film in a matter-of-fact present always cast in a cold shade of blue, interlacing warmly lit scenes of childhood in between. It makes the past read like a nostalgic memory rather than a strictly factual representation of what happened.
No matter how much time passes between the gold-soaked memories of a girlhood spent together, the past remains stubbornly in the present, those scenes of happiness becoming reminders of what you’ve lost. Beth dies, but she never really leaves either. Directly after the shot of Marmee’s tear-soaked face sitting across from an empty chair, the camera cuts to the past and finds Beth alive, picking flowers.
Image: sony pictures
You can’t ever go back to when you were four instead of three, when you were four parts of a whole instead of one individual, divided. Worse still, the memory of who you were — how powerful and undeniable you felt when you were four — only grows more potent once it’s gone.
When you become three after being four, life is defined by the asymmetry of missing pieces. That cacophonous chorus of high-pitched giggles that used to ring out suddenly lacks the essential note that turned your dissonant notes into a harmony. The silence is deafening.
So the best way to tell the truth now, I’ve found, is to become our Jo. To face the past I can neither get back nor get rid of, I write it down, make it my present. I regain the sanctum of our sisters club — the one that protected and emboldened me to do the things I wasn’t allowed — by writing down the story of our domestic struggles and joys, insisting on their importance.