When I first heard that Greta Gerwig’s next film would be an adaptation of Little Women, I was skeptical. Little Women has received countless adaptations over the years, including Masterpiece’s 2018 TV miniseries, released only a year before Gerwig’s film. The only way my interest in a new movie could be piqued was if it portrayed Jo and Laurie as they undeniably are: two young trans people struggling against the bounds of a limiting world. I assumed Greta’s third eye wouldn’t be open enough to give me what I wanted.
But to my surprise, I loved Gerwig’s adaptation when I saw it. She doesn’t restrict herself to material found in Louisa May Alcott’s novel, injecting some commentary on women’s prospects in the mid- to late 19th century which didn’t appear in the book but nonetheless rings true to its spirit. Despite the film’s 1860s setting, it also feels relevant to the present moment, particularly the scenes (invented by Gerwig) in which Jo argues with her publisher about what will sell versus what she wants to write.
And Jo and Laurie’s transness comes through in many moments, to those of us looking for it. But I fervently wish Gerwig had chosen to extend these moments and explicitly depict Jo and Laurie as trans. She had a perfect opportunity to take a story largely about gender roles and revitalize it, speaking to the issues with gender many of us are experiencing now. She wouldn’t have even had to compromise her adherence to the original novel to do so, because the book provides countless scenes in which Jo clearly does not want to be a girl, and Laurie does not want to be a boy.
Within the book’s first pages, one of Jo’s sisters tells her not to whistle because it’s too boyish, to which she replies, “That’s why I do it.” In the same conversation she says, “I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy.” She hates being referred to as a young lady, wishes people wouldn’t call her Josephine, and feels uncomfortable with the frills and fashions associated with being a girl in polite society, often spoiling her accessories and scorching her dresses by standing too close to the fire. When she tries to borrow gloves from her older sister, Meg complains that Jo’s large hands will stretch them. She is also the tallest of the March girls, with her hair being “her one beauty,” but she prefers to tie it up to keep it out of the way.
Jo’s family understands her rejection of femininity, to an extent. Their father is fighting for the Union Army in the Civil War, and while he is away, Jo calls herself “the man of the family,” saying he told her “to take special care of Mother while he was gone.” Her sisters, having only female siblings, sometimes view her as a brother instead of another sister. They also sometimes criticize her for her unladylike ways, but they never mean it harshly.
When Jo befriends Theodore Laurence, her wealthier neighbor, she finds another companion who accepts her unfeminine nature. The Laurence boy prefers to be called Laurie, because his male classmates abbreviated his first name to Dora until he beat them up to get them to stop. He doesn’t enjoy the company of other boys because they’re too loud and boisterous. He would much rather spend time with Jo and her sisters, who he finds fascinating. Having been raised by his grandfather with no siblings, he longs to have a place in the March’s warm, loving home. Their lighthearted games, like the plays Jo writes for her and her sisters to perform, seem much more fun to him than the sorts of things boys his age usually do.
After getting to know him and learning of his loneliness, the March girls do their best to include Laurie in their activities. Jo goes so far as to invite him to join the Pickwick Club, an invention of the Marches in which they pretend to be male members of a club led by Meg, with its own newspaper edited by Jo. Each girl has a character that she plays in every meeting. When Jo proposes the addition of Laurie, the others initially resist, but soon come to accept him as one of their own. He too comes up with a male alias and joins in their game, playing the role of a man even though he’s already ostensibly male. One afternoon, the girls fail to invite them along on their adventures because they assume he won’t like the “girl’s game” they’re playing, but he follows and asks to join anyway, assuring them that he likes all their games.
Jo and Laurie’s friendship allows them to access each other’s worlds, showing that they would both be much happier if they could swap places. Jo wishes she had the freedom that Laurie has as a (wealthy) boy — she wishes she had constant access to books and the ability to go to college. Meanwhile, Laurie wants to escape the expectations of his loving but strict grandfather, who expects him to act like a well-behaved gentleman at all times.
Gerwig leaves out some instances of Jo and Laurie’s gender woes, such as the sheer number of times Jo delights in acting boyish or despairs at having to be feminine, and Laurie’s schoolmates calling him Dora. But her film still communicates this connection between the two characters. Gerwig understood and emphasized their androgyny, saying in an interview with Vanity Fair, “They find themselves before they’ve committed to a gender.” Jacqueline Durran, the film’s costume designer, had Jo and Laurie swap clothing items throughout the film; Jo wears several vests that are first seen on Laurie, but appear natural for both characters.
The actors also emphasized their characters’ androgyny. Thanks both to the costuming and their physicality, Jo and Laurie appear almost interchangeable with one another as they dance and skate and roughhouse together. Ronan clearly leans into Jo’s more masculine characteristics, and Timothée Chalamet plays the perfect carefree, rambunctious but gentle counterpart. When Laurie joins the Pickwick club, a scene which stays very true to the novel, Chalamet easily echoes the girls’ drag performances with Laurie’s own male character.
In the same Vanity Fair interview, Saoirse Ronan acknowledged that, while she and Gerwig “didn’t want to label [Alcott] as anything,” there are passages from the author’s letters and journals which suggest she herself was uncomfortable with her gender. In an 1883 interview, Alcott said, “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body . . . because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls, and never once the least bit with any man.” In a journal entry from December 1862, writing about leaving home to serve as a Civil War nurse, she says she felt like “the son of the house going to war.”
Gerwig also used the film’s sets to emphasize her characters’ longing for each other’s worlds. The March and Laurence homes starkly contrast each other. While the March house is cozy, almost crowded, and full of energy, the Laurence house is darker, with high ceilings and huge rooms that feel empty when populated only by Laurie, his grandfather, and his tutor. In the film, Laurie first sees the March house after bringing Meg home when she twists her ankle at a ball, and as he watches her sisters and mother bustle lovingly around her, awe and longing clear on his face. Their mother notices, because she insists that he should call her Marmee just like her daughters when he addresses her, and Laurie appears visibly delighted to be welcomed in. Jo is also awestruck when she visits Laurie’s home for the first time and sees the vast Laurence library, clearly imagining her own life if she had constant access to such knowledge.
Like in the book, Jo and Laurie’s relationship sours when Laurie proposes to her, but Gerwig adds another wrinkle: later in life, Jo regrets turning him down and says she would change her mind if he asked her again, when, unbeknownst to her, Laurie has already proposed to her sister, Amy. But this regret seems out of place after Jo’s forceful rejection. She knows that a marriage between them would be disastrous. In the film, she points out how they would both be dreadful at their respective roles and grow tired of each other. It’s easy to read slightly deeper into this statement and imagine Jo understanding that she and Laurie don’t want to marry each other, they want to be each other.
If I were writing my own version of Little Women where Jo and Laurie could be as explicitly trans as they like (and maybe someday I will), I’m not sure how I would end it. It would undoubtedly be difficult for Jo and Laurie to live as a man and woman respectively in their time. And yet, trans people have found ways to live out their true identity throughout history. It would be difficult, but not necessarily impossible. Maybe Jo would accept Laurie’s proposal out of convenience, and they could be true to themselves and each other in private while putting on the appearance of a proper couple in public. Maybe I would give the Jo/Laurie shippers what they want, sort of, and write them as a T4T couple. Maybe they would both never marry, but stay lifelong friends. Jo’s canonical marriage with Friedrich Bhaer would probably have to be thrown out, but even Gerwig’s version leaves it up to audience interpretation whether Jo actually marries him. Or maybe, in a sadder version of the story, they would decide that pursuing new lives with new identities wasn’t possible, but they would still acknowledge that truth when Laurie attempts to propose.
There are many directions in which the story could go, and if anyone with Hollywood connections wants to take any of my off-the-cuff ideas and make them a reality in a few years when the next Little Women adaptation comes along, they have my blessing. Greta Gerwig’s film succeeds in taking a well-worn story and making it feel fresh and relevant. She also proves that it’s possible to make an adaptation that stays true to the book in tone while diverging on certain plot points, so the canonical ending doesn’t have to be set in stone. The logical next step, if we as a society are determined to keep remaking this story ad infinitum, is to give Jo and Laurie the freedom to pursue the identities they both clearly long to take on. The core of Gerwig’s retelling is a story about people rebelling against the stifling gender roles of a strict society, and today, many people pushing against the limitations of societal gender roles end up rejecting their assigned gender all together. It’s time. Make it trans, cowards.