This post also appears on Mockingbird.com.
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Back in August, the first trailer for Greta Gerwig’s Little Women was released to the world wide web. I watched it approximately fifteen times, enraptured by the casting, the energy, the excitement surrounding a new version of a movie I loved growing up. I texted friends messages about it all caps (TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET!!!) emailed my mom, posted the YouTube video on Facebook. I was already in love.
The trailer was cut from scenes that suggested that the movie would take the feminist messages of the novel and run with them. We see Meg on her wedding day—but she’s marrying for love, not convention. We see Amy dreaming to be a painter—but she’s painting to be the best, not just the best woman. And finally we see Jo, our beloved heroine, rejecting a marriage proposal from Laurie before the clip cuts to her later in the story telling her mother with tears in her eyes: “I am so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it!” How modern! How brave, I thought. Then I went to the movie. Turns out Jo had a bit more to say than the marketers wanted you to see.
There’s a scene shortly after Beth March has died when Jo and Marmee (her mother) are in the attic where the March sisters spent their childhood laughing and playing and creating. Jo tells Marmee how she always used to be content with the life she had chosen. But then from the mouth of Jo, our feminist hero, comes that little word that changes everything: but. She says these words:
“Women have minds and they have souls as well as just hearts. They’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent as well as just beauty. I am so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it! But—I am so lonely.”
But—I am so lonely.
I’m not surprised that the marketers who cut the Little Women trailer excluded that line from the preview. It’s not exactly something that leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy, excited or empowered — all emotions you’re trying to inspire as you sell people on a movie, as you try to persuade them to give a little time and money to Gerwig’s Little Women. After all, wouldn’t it make Jo seem…less brave? More desperate? Wouldn’t it weaken her image as an independent badass who don’t need no man? Would a true feminist be lonely and tell her mother she wants to be loved? Including the rest of that line could knock Jo March down a few spots in the Hall of Fame. But. But what if it’s the line we all needed to hear?
I never connected to Jo more during the film than in that teary moment—that heavy admission to her mother in the attic of her childhood home that she was lonely. In that little line was a powerful, vulnerable admission: an admission and position I think many of us have heard and held in our own minds but were too scared to say.
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A couple of months ago, I was listening to a podcast with author Kate Bowler in which she was interviewing US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams about the loneliness epidemic. As the podcast went on, Bowler said something that stopped me in my tracks and caused me to pull out a pen and paper to write down what she had said:
“I don’t know why, but it took me so long to admit that I have had my own struggles with loneliness. It felt a little bit like admitting to being unpopular… If we say we’re lonely, it means that we’re not likable, and God-forbid, that we’re not lovable…”
Bowler goes on to say that she sometimes feels guilty to admit that she is lonely. She is married. She has a child. She has a great career. But there’s tremendous truth in what Bowler says next: “You can be lucky and lonely.”
I love this admission by Bowler for the same reason I love Jo’s admission in Little Women. Admitting that we are lonely is a truth many of us are too afraid to say. We worry that other people will judge us: for being ungrateful, for being not-feminist-enough, for idolizing and idealizing relationships. Jo has many talents, she still has relationships with her living sisters, she has a handsome professor back in New York who clearly adores her. She is lucky…isn’t she? Perhaps she is, but in a moment of humanity that movies rarely show, our feminist hero shows us a moment of authenticity that struck a chord so deeply in my own complicated heart.
This fall, I traveled mostly alone in Scotland for 10 days. I did see a few friends along the way, but for the most part, the majority of my days and time were spent alone. I had friends tell me they were proud of me, that they admired me traveling alone. While the feminist in me wanted to accept their praise, I knew that just like Jo March, I had my own but.
Traveling alone and being independent are fine things to do, but it would be a lie if I told you I didn’t encounter profound loneliness in my travels, too. I would be lying if I told you that it didn’t cross my mind wondering if this is how the rest of my life would be—traveling alone. I would be lying if I told you I didn’t see families hiking on trails and children standing with their parents on the marathon course and feel a pang of longing and loneliness. Yes, I can travel and be independent and be feminist and enjoy being alone, but it takes bravery to admit to yourself and others, just like Jo March, that loneliness haunts you wherever you go, that you wonder…are you unlikable? Unlovable? That you have regrets in your past, fear for your future, and find yourself dumbfounded and discontent that things are the way they are. That you feel it all, and you aren’t sure what to do with it besides eek out the courage to say it out loud.
So many movies and stories give us characters who are either too glamorous or too terrible to relate to. So many heroes have bravery and grit that seem too challenging for us to muster. But in Gerwig’s Little Women, Jo March was the kind of brave hero that I needed, the kind of hero marketers didn’t initially want me to see. So yes, Jo March: women have minds and hearts, dreams and hopes. We have ambition and independence, beauty and talent. We are feminists that demand and deserve respect. But we’ve got hearts that long with loneliness, too. It’s not wrong to feel lonely even when you’re lucky, and it’s not wrong to have needs. It’s human.
Even with our gratitude journals, feminist manifestos, independent spirits, resilient hearts, and strong minds, I am and you are, to borrow a phrase from a friend of mine named Brad Montague, “Just humans who want to be loved.” To admit this is not a resignation to the patriarchy, an embarrassing thing that we should label as TMI or TMV (too much vulnerability). Wanting to be loved is a natural response to the human condition, for our hearts were not made to be cold, cut off, unattached from affection and warmth and relationship with the people we share our lifetimes with. Because at the end of the day, we were created with imperishable souls, souls made in love by love Himself.
The folks who cut the Little Women trailer did a good job at getting me in the theatre. And Greta Gerwig did a great job in reminding me what it is to be human. To be human is to be complicated, compelled by kindness and assuaged by anger, simultaneously saddened and delighted by others’ joy, full of greed and humbled by gratitude. To be human is to want to love, to be loved, to have our tears seen and wiped away.
One response to “Little Women and the Truth We’re Too Scared to Say”
[…] the beginning of 2020, I had an essay published on a website called Mockingbird titled “Little Women and the Truth We’re Too Scared to Say.” 11 months later on Christmas Day, my friend tipped me off that I had made #2 on their list […]