Posted: 07 January 2020

Why Little Women still works for young people today

Boxing Day saw the UK release of the latest film adaptation of Little Women, starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen as the eponymous young women who we watch progress through girlhood to womanhood.

This is the fourth Hollywood adaptation of the literary classic. But despite this, the film has managed to draw in audiences all over the world, taking over $50m globally. Why does this story – first published in the 19th century - still resonate today? And how does director Greta Gerwig address the concerns of today’s young people?

Defying expectations

The principal character of Little Women is the feisty Jo March - a lover of literature who rejects romance to pursue a career as a writer in New York.

Jo's ambitious nature as well as her strong-willed personality are unconventional for a young woman of her time. Her father even nicknames her ‘son Jo’, while a love interest brands her his ‘dear fellow’.

Despite her talent and drive, female gender stereotypes mean that Jo is expected to marry, rather than pursue her ambition of making a living from writing. Challenging these traditional gender norms isolates Jo and makes her miserable:

‘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.’ - Jo March

Familiar female stereotypes

For young women today, Jo’s frustration with the gender stereotypes she’s expected to conform to is all too familiar. Stereotypes are a feature of their everyday lives, and have a clear impact on their well-being.

Gender norms particularly affect how young women feel about their appearance.

‘I feel judged all the time based on what I wear. It’s like girls are expected to fulfil certain ridiculous expectations and no one knows what to wear anymore.’ - secondary school girl

But it’s not just young women who struggle with gender stereotypes, and Little Women reflects how societal pressures affect young men too.

Be a man

Laurie is Little Women’s romantic hero. As his androgynous name suggests, his character isn’t a portrait of an archetypical male in 19th-century America.

Laurie’s dream is to pursue music, to the disdain of his grandfather. For Mr Laurence, his grandson’s disinterest in entering the world of business makes him less of man.

Even Amy March, sister of Jo, mocks Laurie for her not matching up to masculine stereotypes. ‘Aren't you ashamed of a hand like that?’, she asks him, ‘it looks like it's never done a day of work in its life’.

Her suggestion that Laurie is less of a man because of his occupation and the way he looks will ring true for many of today’s young men.

Pressures to look or act a certain way are increasingly affecting young men’s well-being. As they try to live up to the body ideals perpetuated by Instagram or Love Island, boys’ happiness with their appearance has significantly declined. Our latest Good Childhood Report found nearly one in twelve boys aged 10-15 are unhappy with their appearance.

Be yourself

One of the core messages of Little Women is to be your true self despite what society thinks. And it’s a message that today’s young people desperately need to hear.

The gender stereotypes which Louisa May Alcott addressed in her 19th-century novel are still harming young people. As a society, we need to be more positive, inclusive and attainable in setting out what it means to be a young person moving into adulthood.

Only by listening to young people can we help them overcome the challenges of modern childhood and face their future with hope, confidence and optimism. Sign our petition to make sure young people are heard.

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By Lauren Cain
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