Imitation of Life: On Women and Art

Little Women (Sony Pictures)

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women opens on Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) pitching her short story — under the guise of “her friend”, fooling no one — to a publication run by Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts). He, rather shamelessly, scratches away a number of pages of Jo’s short story with his quill and notes that she should take care to make sure her women are either married, or dead, by the end of any stories she pitches. It’s a scene that’s as discouraging as it is exciting: Jo’s writing is being published, yes, but she remains nameless (excusing it by saying that her mother wouldn’t approve of these scandalous tales, but more likely knowing that she wouldn’t want to put her name on work that she doesn’t fully believe in), underpaid (given $20 for a story that would typically pay $25 or more), and ultimately discouraged from writing in her own voice, forced to adapt to please an older male audience, presumed to be the sole decider of what is good and bad.

Throughout the film, Jo has to navigate the landscape that is being a woman in a space designed for men to flourish. Her frustrations with this are frequently addressed, occasionally coming to the foreground through misguided anger towards those aiming to help her — notably Louis Garrel’s critic Friedrich Bhaer, whose criticism of Jo’s short stories leaves her baffled, despite his acknowledgement of her talent. And while it’s aimed at the wrong person, her anger is more than reasonable, stemming from years of being told her stories aren’t what the people want. “I’ve been rejected plenty of times,” Jo notes.

Jo March isn’t the first woman, in fiction or reality, that has been told she isn’t good enough, or marketable enough, or up to par with her male colleagues, nor will she be the last. Take filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s own snub at the Academy Awards this year as the perfect example: her film is good enough to be nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Achievement in Costume Design and in Music Written for Motion Pictures, and Best Actress and Supporting Actress for Ronan and Florence Pugh respectively, but the director herself was locked out of Directing. [Bong Joon-ho, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Sam Mendes, and Todd Phillips took the five slots this year, prompting announcer Issa Rae to say, “Congratulations to those men.”]

In fact, a number of other films by women this past year explicitly grapple with how women who are artists must sacrifice their personalities, have their works censored or rejected, or are relegated to existing in the shadows of men, until they’re allowed to attain greatness (sometimes only long after their death) or choose to live a life outside of greatness. Take Zia Anger’s performance art piece My First Film, which stems from an abandoned feature that was rejected by every festival she applied to, or Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, in which the protagonist navigates finding her own voice (as both a human and an artist) while trying to survive her toxic relationship. Both of these stories, stemming from a mix of fictional and personal, are about filmmakers, finally able to tell their stories through their own unique cinematic language.

But what of the films that address this same subject in which the women aren’t allowed to win? Or, at least, not in any traditional standards. Some artists, despite years of trying, are destined to have their histories, their talent, and their passions, kept in the dark. Two queer women — Céline Sciamma with Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Madeleine Olnek with Wild Nights with Emily — not only each delivered their most compelling features yet, but remind us that that not every artist gets what they’re due in their lifetime.

In Wild Nights With Emily, Olnek paints a portrait of an Emily Dickinson that isn’t quite so dreary as high school lit classes might paint her. Molly Shannon’s depiction of Emily is one full of joy and pain in equal parts, complemented by Susan Ziegler’s performance as her sister-in-law and lover Susan. Olnek’s film choose to split its time in two: in part exploring the way Dickinson navigated this relationship, while also explicitly crucifying Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz): the woman who, despite making Dickinson famous by publishing her work, erased her queerness and solidified the image of the poet as we know her today. “Notions persist to this day of Emily Dickinson as a spinster old maid who was afraid to leave her room or publish her work,” the film notes.

The conversation around poems about and letters to Susan by Emily has gained great traction over the years (and Wild Nights With Emily has certainly helped spark more discussion about it) and Olnek’s film is rather blunt about bringing them to life. It allows these women to kiss, to breathe each other in, to write poetry about their experiences, to take pleasure in every moment they get to spend together, to become frustrated with each other, and even to mourn when one of them passes away. It brings to life the beautiful words that served as tribute to Dickinson’s true love in a number of ways, one unique example being when we see and hear her poetry layered over the two women as teenagers, laying together, resting, and watching each other. Another, even simpler, is a close-up on a letter after a fight: “Susan knows she is a siren, and at a word from her, Emily would forfeit righteousness.” Her words are always loaded, poured onto the page out of love.

But for all the beauty present in Wild Nights With Emily, there’s a mountain of pain. A large part of this stems from a sequence of absurd meetings with male authors and editors who deny Dickinson her talent and look down upon the women she admires. One man specifically mixes up the stories of the Brontë sisters while in conversation with her, ensuring to note how “plain” the woman in it is and referring to it as Wuthering Jane. Another instance involves Dickinson being disappointed by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mumbling and inability to discuss his work.

The most damning of these features the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brett Gelman) posturing as a feminist while being unable to keep up with Dickinson’s conversation and outright denying her the chance to publish her work. “When I recognize those with talent — especially women, women’s voices are so seldom heard, we need to hear intelligent women’s voices, but I’m barely able to find any,” he awkwardly explains. He adds the next portion before going into her work and rewriting it as he would write it, quite literally mansplaining her work to her: “When I read your poems, so many of them make me feel unclear. I believe poetry should leave you with a trembling sensation, but when I read your poetry Miss Dickinson, I am left feeling… I’m not sure what. If you are published before your time, and showered with negative attention, you will see how little good it does you when it comes to — various limbs of your poems need removal.”

These men all saw Dickinson as someone whose poetry was substandard, as something that shouldn’t be highlighted or praised because it was different. It was queer, figuratively and literally. Mabel Todd was no different despite heralding her work later, haphazardly adding false titles to poems with no names and publishing Dickinson’s poetry posthumously without her consent. Dickinson was only allowed to flourish as a poet after her death, after believing that her work would never be acknowledged as great by those around her, and after having her passions erased from the world. Olnek closes the film with its most damning images: Mabel Todd erasing Susan’s name from letters and poems, only to be reframed as a mysterious (and male) suitor, to help bolster the sales she made by exploiting Dickinson’s work.

The suppression of queerness extends to Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, where queer women must sacrifice their romance to societal expectations, but their love lives on by way of art. Whatever one might think of the paintings themselves in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, there’s no denying that they have immense meaning for Sciamma’s characters. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is aware that she’s required to create a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) that is ultimately appealing to a man, one that will rouse his interest in the soon-to-be wife he’s never met. But despite creating this piece (and doing so with absolute attention and care, knowing that her vision of Héloïse is what will exist for ages in a home she’ll never visit), Marianne knows that it is nothing great. She would rather destroy it than lose her lover.

Instead, it’s Marianne and Héloïse’s observations that results in the most meaningful art, art that must exist in the shadows, its true meaning only known by those who helped create it. Their first realization of this comes after their maid Sophie get an abortion; with Héloïse deciding to recreate the scene of the abortion for Marianne to document it with her paintings. It’s a moment of defiance in a world where all of the discussions of these happenings must happen in secrets and whispers; a moment that, while not explicitly stating it, serves as a reminder that depictions of women dealing with their own experiences are not allowed. A portrait of a lady, created for a man, is what should be created.

And Sciamma then builds upon this idea of documenting the forbidden and creating art pleasurable to women by having Marianne create two pieces: a portrait of Héloïse for herself and a nude painting of herself for her lover, drawn on page 28 of the book she is reading. They now have a piece of art to hold onto, something they each see as beautiful and meaningful and, thus, attains a sense of greatness. The latter of these especially gains even more import at the film’s end, where Marianne navigates an art show that she has submitted a painting of Orpheus and Eurydice to (under the guise of her father’s name). She is complimented by those around her, one man noting that “her father” is in fine form, creating a work of art that is especially unique, even within the constraints of other paintings telling this myth. She has successfully smuggled her queerness into a work of art that others deem great. Not only is Marianne an active participant in telling her story, but a passive one as well, which she realizes upon seeing another portrait of Héloïse, her hand subtly holding a book open on the page 28. Even in their separation, they’ve smuggled in their experiences and their romance into what people consider works of art important enough to display. The talented Marianne, while not necessarily being heralded as a “great artist” by anyone, finds fulfillment in this, and that’s all that matters in telling this story.

Greta Gerwig, then, smartly approaches talent and genius through two lenses: that of Jo March, who gets to have her book published and maintains her copyright by the end of the film, and that of Amy March (Pugh), who seemingly gives up her aspirations of being a great artist to instead marry Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) and teach at the school her sister creates. Both Amy and Jo get their speeches about women and how they’re underestimated at every turn, but it’s the former’s conversation with Laurie that comes across as more jaded. “I’m giving up all my foolish artistic hopes,” she says, with Laurie countering that she has so much talent and energy. She retorts: “Talent isn’t genius, and no amount of energy can make it so. I want to be great, or nothing. I won’t be a common-place dauber, so I don’t intend to try anymore.”

Amy is aware she is talented, much like her sister is aware of this, but the film places emphasis on how — despite being a talented painter — she isn’t necessarily a visionary artist. In one scene, Amy witnesses a nearby man painting the exact models as her in an emerging new style versus her more classical form. Where Jo defies convention at every turn — she may or may not be a visionary, but her refusal to quit and ability to write unique women turns her into the voice of a generation starved for representation — Amy is drawn to established rules that appeal to the sensibilities she’s internalized over the years despite her bold personality. Aunt March’s (Meryl Streep) words of wisdom, if they can be called that, ring in her ears: “You are your family’s hope now. Jo is a lost cause, and from what I hear Meg has her head turned by some penniless tutor. It’s up to you to marry well and save your family.”

Amy’s experiences with artistry provide a necessary contrast to Jo’s success and drive, while also serving as an ideal companion to the beats of the film where Jo leans into her pessimism. “Women… they have minds and they have souls, as well as hearts. And they’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent as well as just beauty, and I’m so sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it,” Jo preaches to Marmee (Laura Dern), and she’s right. This speech comes with a caveat though, as she ends it by adding, “But I’m so lonely.” She deserves more than sacrificing her art for marriage; why not have both success and love? Gerwig, in her brilliant ending, lets her have it all. She publishes a book about her life, proving to the men in charge that people do want to read about the lives of women (even if she has to make some small sacrifices to her ideal character arcs to get there), she keeps the copyright to her story and characters, she opens a school that encourages children to embrace the arts (from writing to painting to acting to musical performing, each area representative of one of the March sisters), and she gets the guy (though some could argue that this romance is a fiction she invented).

For Jo, great art looks like the life she’s been leading all along. It’s not to say there aren’t fictional flourishes along the way, but she becomes aware that her life mirrors the lives of other little women. Her fulfillment comes in being allowed to share her story, just as Marianne fulfillment comes in knowing her story exists, even if she and Héloïse are the only ones that know it. Women deserve to experience these stories, to know that their own stories matter and are reflected on screen, whether they’re about Jo March or Emily Dickinson or three young women isolated from the world on an island in France. If great art is a reflection of life itself, women telling beautiful, complex stories about their lives and experiences should be celebrated, just as the world has done with men’s art for centuries.

Little Women is in theaters now, Portrait of a Lady on Fire releases wide theatrically on February 14th, and Wild Nights With Emily arrives on home video on February 11th.

Neurotic queer Latinx. Programmer for Flaming Classics. Florida Film Critics Circle. Writer for Miami New Times, Dim the House Lights, and more.

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