Among fans of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Meg March is no one's favorite. The ballgown-loving, jelly-making girl has sparked a thousand feminist critiques, deemed by many to be wannabe socialite who "settles down" with a slightly mansplain-y teacher. And look, I get it: Meg is not exactly a progressive character the way that Jo or even Amy is. But I have to confess: I always loved Meg anyway. And after seeing the latest movie version of Little Women, updated to the modern day, I finally feel vindicated. Because for all those people who've turned their noses up at Meg for years, this movie just might finally change their minds.
The new film, in theaters Sept. 28, makes explicit something that is only touched on in Alcott’s novel: that Jo fiercely disapproves of Meg’s choice to be a wife and mother. In the novel, Jo's ire is more directed at John Brooke, who she doesn’t deem good enough for her sister, even though she understands that Meg, like most women at the time, must marry. In this new movie though, set in a modern world where women are no longer required by society to marry, Jo’s anger is all at Meg, who’s breaking a pact the two of them made to not marry before 30. She vents to her sister Beth that Meg is “making a mistake” and “is going to regret this.”
It’s easy to understand where Jo (played by Sarah Davenport) is coming from, but we also can see Meg’s (Melanie Stone) side of things. She asks Jo to simply respect her decision, yet her sister — in this version, a deeply awesome feminist writer who skewers the literary patriarchy with every line — has trouble coming to terms with the idea that a “traditional” life could actually be Meg’s own choice.
Lea Thompson, who plays Marmee, remarks on this cultural flip from the original when we speak on the phone on Sept 19, saying, “I loved the idea that Jo was the revolutionary character when it was written, but the way that [writer/director] Claire [Niederpruem] did it, the sister who wants to get married and have children is the one who’s going against the grain [for her time]. That was an interesting take.”
And speaking of Marmee, that’s the other thing we don’t give Meg enough credit for: she’s pretty much a more modern version of Marmee, the most beloved mother in literature. Meg makes the same choices Marmee does: to be a wife and mother and not pursue an independent professional career, but so many readers love Marmee but get frustrated with Meg. Perhaps it's because Meg is younger, and supposedly not as bound to societal norms as her mother, but it also might be because Meg is flawed and Marmee isn’t. Marmee is beloved because she’s the mom every kid wants and “the mom every mom wishes she could be,” as Thompson puts it, while Meg represents a more realistic, complicated facet of womanhood. “Motherhood’s very complicated," the actor adds. "It’s easy to get stuck in a trap thinking you’re supposed to be absolutely perfect, which is kind of impossible.”
But that’s the great thing about Meg, in my book: she isn’t the perfect happy homemaker image that we’ve been inundated with for years. Female characters who have home lives are too often boxed into a few categories: the June Cleaver, who's practically perfect in every way; the Betty Draper, who's starts out as traditional as can be and develops into an antiheroine; and the Supermom, who spends most of the story marveling at how she somehow manages to “have it all,” or breathily bemoans trying and failing to “have it all.” Meg is none of these: she isn’t perfect, she’s not angsty and resentful, and she’s not trying to force herself to have a little of everything. She knows what she wants out of life, and she’s not ashamed of making mistakes along the way — yes, even if the jelly doesn’t jell.
This Little Women adaptation makes it clear that Meg is simply making the choice she knows will make her happiest, just like her more artistically and professionally-minded sisters. And while over the years, Meg's critics have managed to overlook this while praising Jo for similar traits, this new version of the classic tale finally gets at the truth: that Little Women is a story about women needing to support other women's choices, even the ones that we wouldn't choose for ourselves, and regardless of the stereotypes that surround those decisions.