Oscars 2020: Little Women’s Best Director snub is part of a larger story

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On Monday morning, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women was nominated for the 2020 Oscar for Best Picture. It also racked up five other nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay. But Gerwig herself was notablyshut out of the Best Director race.

Those two categories have traditionally tended to closely replicate each other, on the grounds that the directors who did the best jobs probably made the best movies. But on a fairly regular basis, the Oscars have opted not to nominate directors from disenfranchised groups, Best Picture nomination or not: When Selma was a Best Picture nominee in 2015, director Ava DuVernay, a woman of color, was not nominated. Only five women directors and 22 directors of color have ever been nominated.

The Academy’s failure to nominate Gerwig’s direction, however, has become par for the Little Women course. So far this season, despite box office success and massive critical praise, when it comes to awards, Little Women has been notable for its absence.

At the Golden Globes, Little Women only managed to scrape up nods for Saoirse Ronan’s turn as Jo March and for Best Original Score. It didn’t win in either category. Greta Gerwig’s screenplay has a WGA nomination, but her direction went unnoticed at the Directors Guild Awards. And the Screen Actors Guild Awards ignored the movie completely.

Little Women is one of most successful movies of 2019. It has a 95 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, a score of 91 at Metacritic, and it’s grossed $60 million at the box office. It is, in many ways, the kind of movie that we think of as awards bait. It’s an adaptation of a beloved novel. It stars half the hottest young talent in Hollywood, plus Meryl Streep. It’s the sophomore outing of a director whose first film was heavily acclaimed and awarded. Little Women is the kind of movie that award voters traditionally eat up with a spoon. Yet the biggest awards bodies in film seem to be generally overlooking it, to the extent that its Best Picture nomination has the whiff of a consolation prize.

These consistent snubs fit neatly into another narrative about Little Women that’s been forming over the past few months. It goes roughly like this: Men aren’t watching Little Women. They don’t care that it’s supposed to be great. They don’t care about the cast of stars or Gerwig’s directorial vision or all the critical buzz. They just aren’t willing to watch it.

Little Women has a little man problem,” warned Vanity Fair, citing early screenings that were almost entirely filled with women.

“If many men haven’t wanted to give it a chance because they don’t think it’s meant for them, we still have a way to go in considering all kinds of narratives about women to be deserving of thoughtful attention,” wrote Kristy Eldredge at the New York Times.

The numbers back up that narrative. So far, men have reportedlymade up only about one-third of Little Women’s theatrical audience.

Some analysts have described this narrative as a “media guilt-trip campaign,” arguing that it’s perfectly fine for people to watch whatever kind of movies they personally want to watch, and that Little Women’s strong box office showing proves that it doesn’t need men’s interest to be a hit. But Little Women’s anemic showing when it comes to awards demonstrates that men’s consistent disinterest in a “woman’s picture” like Little Women comes with real consequences.

As long as awards bodies are dominated by men, men’s tastes will dominate which movies we consider awards-worthy and which we don’t. And because Oscar nominations can have real effects on people’s careers — on which projects get greenlit, on what kind of money gets poured into them — they also have real effects on which kinds of stories get told, sold, and distributed.

Little Women is a story about the different ways there are of being a woman. Men are saying they aren’t interested in it, and they are shutting the movie out of awards consideration. That’s a strong signal to the rest of the industry that women’s stories don’t carry the kind of prestige value that men’s stories — which women generally are willing to watch, and which we generally consider “universal” rather than male — are believed to hold.

But that’s not a new problem for Little Women. Louisa May Alcott’s novel has been read and beloved by generations of girls for more than 100 years, but it’s been a very long time since it’s been considered the kind of acclaimed literary classic you study in school. The history of Little Women is in many ways the history of women’s stories being shut out of the canon.

Our schools teach girls how to read boys’ stories. We usually don’t teach boys to read girls’ stories.

Like most girls who read Little Women, I picked it up for the first time because my mother introduced it to me. She gave me her old copy of the book, falling apart at the binding and with crayon marks on the end papers; it wasthe same copy she’d lent to my older sister a few years before. “It’s about four sisters,” she told me, and I set to work reading it and deciding which sister I was. (I wanted to be a Jo, because she was obviously the most aspirational one, but I’m actually an Amy-Beth hybrid.)

Most girls who care about Little Women read it at home, having been turned onto it by a mother or a sister or a friend or the 1994 movie starring Winona Ryder, because Little Women is generally not taught at schools. After enjoying a brief life as a staple on school reading lists, it began dropping off throughout the second half of the 20th century, and by the ’90s, only about 5 percent of American public schools had it on their syllabi. In contrast, Huckleberry Finn — a classic boys’ story — is taught at about 70 percent of American high schools.

Little Women’s drop-off corresponds to the invention of gendered children’s literature. In the early 19th century, all children were given the same kinds of books, mostly moral books about the importance of obeying one’s elders. But in the late 19th century, publishers began to put out adventure books for boys, often featuring disobedient youths. Little Women was part of an answering trend of books for girls that were supposed to offer obedient, submissive girls an alternative to the kind of outdoorsy, wild books offered to boys.

But as Little Women scholar Anne Boyd Rioux has pointed out, boys kept reading Little Women throughout the end of the 19th century, because it was considered so good as to transcend gender boundaries — at least, it was until the gendered book split had ossified so much that Little Women’s femininity started to be considered an unbreakable barrier for boys.

But the masculinity of a book like Huckleberry Finn was not considered to be a similar barrier to girls. Masculinity in our culture is aspirational, while femininity is denigrated, and as a result, it’s generally more accepted for girls to aspire toward masculinity than it is for boys to aspire toward femininity. (Think of how women in menswear are considered chic and fashion-forward, while men in dresses generally are either considered deviant or are Billy Porter.) So the culture decided that it was fine for girls to be exposed to boy books. What was to be avoided at all costs was trying to force boys to read girl books.

Over the 20th century, we found our way to a gendered split on school reading lists. Now, in the 2020s, books about boys and about masculinity get taught as a default to both boys and girls, while classic books about girls and femininity are generally left behind, for boys to ignore and for girls to discover on their own. Boys, in general, are not taught to empathize with girls in school. Girls, meanwhile, are trained from an early age to empathize and identify with boys.

When books with female protagonists do become public school staples, they tend to have emphatically tomboyish heroines, and they aren’t particularly interested in thinking about femininity and what it means to be a girl. Most kids read To Kill a Mockingbird in eighth grade, but Scout is about as androgynous as possible for a little girl character, and she doesn’t spend much page time thinking about her gender and what kind of girl she wants to be. The book feels almost designed to make it easy for boys to identify with Scout without thinking too hard about what they’re doing.

No such androgyny exists in Little Women. Jo might be a tomboy who talks about wanting to be a boy, but the book all around her is concerned with what it means to be a girl, and with which ways of being a girl are acceptable. If you read it, you can’t forget that you’re reading about a bunch of girls — and in general, we tend to discourage boys from making that sort of stretch.

I read Catcher in the Rye in the ninth grade, like everyone else, and I remember feeling puzzled about why my male teacher seemed to think it captured a universal adolescent experience but supposing I must just be a very strange teenager. Ten years later, I picked up The Bell Jar and felt a blazing shot of recognition for the person I’d been in high school, and after I caught my breath, I thought, “Oh, this must be what it’s like for boys to read Catcher in the Rye.”

It must have been comforting for boys, I thought then, to see an exact replica of their emotional state on the pages they were studying in school, right as they were feeling those emotions. It would have been comforting for me to feel that at 14, too, instead of in hindsight at 24, but that wasn’t what I was doing at 14: I was learning to empathize with boys instead.

When boys actually do read Little Women, they often like it. Turns out it’s a good book!

Despite the gendered split we’ve created, boys who do read or watch a version of Little Women consistently tend to find themselves appreciating it. Teddy Roosevelt “worshipped” Little Women and its sequel, Little Men, ashe wrote in his 1913 Autobiography, “at the cost of being deemed effeminate.” Male writers like John Green and Stephen King cite it as an influence.

When Gillian Armstrong made her 1994 movie adaptation, male-led studios consistently turned down the film. “They called [women-led films] ‘needle in the eye’ movies, where a guy would say to his wife, ‘I’d rather have a needle in the eye than go to that movie,’” producer Denise di Novi told the New York Times in a 2019 oral history of the film. But after Columbia Pictures finally committed to the movie and Armstrong shot it, the male executives ended up loving it. “Fifteen men in suits watched” the rough cut, Armstrong said in the same oral history, “and one of the most moving, memorable moments of my life was when the lights came up and they said, ‘We were dreading having to come and see this little girls’ film, but we loved it and we cried. We want to give you some more money.’”

As a culture, we are consistently selling both men and women short by treating women’s stories as less-than. We teach girls that their problems and stories are not worthy of empathy or serious literary consideration. We teach boys that they have nothing to gain from stories like Little Women; that there is no point in their learning to empathize with girls or think about girls’ problems. And in the process, we keep them away from stories it’s more than possible they will love and find emotionally meaningful.

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women deserved more consideration from this year’s awards organizations than it got. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women deserves more consideration from our culture than it’s getting and has long gotten. And in general, women’s stories deserve more from all of us: more time, more attention, more respect, and more empathy.

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