“The thesis of every Greta Gerwig movie is that being a woman, being a girl, not knowing who you are, is an experience worthy of art,” said entertainment journalist Hunter Harris during her talk at FSU. This quote has stuck with me as a perfect articulation of what makes Gerwig’s films so unique and why I love her work.
Gerwig, who began her career co-writing, co-directing, and acting in “mumblecore” independent films, has directed two movies — the indie “Lady Bird” in 2017 and a 2019 adaptation of Louis May Alcott’s classic novel “Little Women”.
Gerwig’s films are unique because they take female relationships and the experiences of young women— subjects traditionally dismissed by the mainstream as frivolous, niche, or only worthy of “chick flicks”— seriously, helping to redefine our cultural conception of what kinds of stories constitute “high art.” Gerwig “makes the case for reframing female stories as epics on a par with genres usually coded as male,” writes Ann Hornaday in The Washington Post.
Before she directed “Lady Bird” and “Little Women,” Gerwig co-wrote and starred in the films “Frances Ha” (2012) and “Mistress America” (2015). Both movies are remarkable for their treatment of female friendships, which are given an unusual degree of primacy in the films’ narratives. Men come and go, but the central focus always stays on women’s relationships to one another- tracking the highs and lows of friendship with an attention and care usually reserved for heterosexual romantic relationships or “bromances” between straight men.
A connecting thread throughout all of Gerwig’s movies is the idea that women’s platonic relationships to one another can be just as intellectually and emotionally fulfilling as their romantic relationships, if not more so.
In one scene of Gerwig’s “Little Women,” Jo March, complaining to her sister Meg about Meg’s fiancé, says “you will be bored of him in two years and we will be interesting forever.” Patriarchy requires women to be dependent upon men — materially, emotionally, and psychologically — and artistic narratives often function to enforce this status quo. Gerwig challenges this convention by depicting women who have full lives and relationships outside of their connections to men.
Her directorial debut, “Lady Bird,” revolves around the tumultuous relationship between the titular protagonist (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother (Laurie Metcalf), treating a teenage girl’s coming-of-age in early aughts Sacramento, with all its “daily tasks and quotidian moments” as every bit as important as “the Heroic Acts of Great Men” (Hornaday).
“Lady Bird” is the rare movie which takes a teenage girl seriously, treating her angst, ambitions, and desires as the stuff of great cinema. In the hands of another filmmaker, the character of Lady Bird could easily be a punchline, just another young woman to be laughed at for her earnestness and self-absorption. Instead, she is depicted by Gerwig as a fully-realized human being who is courageous, messy, and loving.
“Lady Bird”’s most powerful moments revolve around female connection — when its heroine ditches her boyfriend to spend prom night with her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), or when she and her mother flip on a dime from arguing to gushing over dresses in a thrift store. Its cathartic ending hinges upon Lady Bird’s realization of just how much she loves her mother and wants her to be a part of her life.
Even “Little Women,” which is an adaptation of a 19th-century novel rather than Gerwig’s original story, shares many of her other films’ themes and preoccupations. Despite preserving its source material’s various romantic subplots, Gerwig’s version of “Little Women” makes it clear that the March sisters’ true loves are each other, and the movie’s triumphant finale is only realized when the sisters are reunited. “The thing that they’re all yearning for as adults is the thing that we want as an audience, that we see them all together,” Gerwig said in an interview with the podcast The Business.
The most joyous scenes of “Little Women” are whenever we see the entire March clan — Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Marmee (Laura Dern) — together, playing, chatting, bickering, effuscent with sisterly and familial love. Gerwig once again accurately depicts how female relationships can comprise the same intense affection and admiration as romantic relationships, and how their collapse can be more devastating than any breakup.
“Little Women” also offers a metacommentary on our cultural perceptions of female-centered stories like the ones written by Alcott and Gerwig. At one point in the movie, Jo tries to talk herself out of publishing an autobiographical novel about her sisters’ lives, including their “domestic struggles.” “Writing doesn’t confer importance; it reflects it,” she says. Her sister Amy disagrees, arguing that “Perhaps writing will make them more important.”
Gerwig wrote an article dissecting the scene’s importance in Vanity Fair. “This discussion I’m having Amy and Jo have is, in some ways, my thesis,” Gerwig said. “I believe that writing about something makes it important. I think Louisa May Alcott, whether she knew it or not, made the ordinary lives of girls and women extraordinary by turning her pen to them.”
Gerwig goes on to argue that “we very much have a hierarchy of stories. I think that the top of the hierarchy is male violence — man on man, man on woman, etc. I think if you look at the books and films and stories that we consider to be “important,” that is a common theme, either explicitly or implicitly.”
Movies like “Frances Ha”, “Mistress America”, “Lady Bird”, and “Little Women” do not feature male violence, and are therefore not ranked very highly in our cultural hierarchy of stories. Their unapologetic focus on women’s internal, domestic lives and lack of interest in catering to the male gaze cause them to be dismissed by some as niche or inconsequential.
Although “Lady Bird” and “Little Women” both received widespread acclaim and nominations throughout awards season, Gerwig was snubbed by the Academy Awards’ “Best Director” category for “Little Women”, and did not win any awards for “Lady Bird”. As Amal Abdi noted in The Mary Sue, while Gerwig “tackles complicated topics like wealth and money in layered and nuanced way,” her movies do not receive the same praise for their class commentary as her male counterparts do.
Gerwig’s movies have played an important role in my life ever since I saw “Lady Bird” in 2017. Watching that movie, I kept thinking —“she gets it”, how female friendships can be just as heady and fulfilling as falling in love, how you can argue with your mom every day and feel like all she does is nag you but still love her with every fiber of your being, how it feels to desperately want to reinvent yourself, to magically become more glamorous and worldly and talented and wealthy.
It was the first time I saw anything like my own relationships with my friends and my mother depicted on screen, and one of the first times that I realized anything like my experiences as a young woman could be the subject of a serious, artistic “film.”
Adbi says it best when she writes that: “compared to some of her male peers, Greta Gerwig’s stories may seem smaller in scale… her work is distinctly feminine, but is never unimportant.”