“The world is hard on ambitious girls.” – Amy March, Little Women
The past week has affirmed Amy’s view. Two very different but equally ambitious women, Elizabeth Warren and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, have endured difficult public moments, each dressed down for her effort to assert personal truth and agency over her own story. Greta Gerwig, the author and director of the sixth version of Little Women to hit the silver screen, was herself incomprehensibly passed over for an Oscar nomination in the Best Director category this week as well. Over a century and a half has passed since Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel began captivating young women, but many of the book’s truisms on the problems women face when trying to exert power are still applicable.
There have been six film versions of Alcott’s iconic story; my husband and I saw the Gerwig remake yesterday. The first two were early twentieth century silent films. The 1933 rendering, which I was captivated by as a child when it aired as a rerun on the Sunday afternoon TV show Million Dollar Movie in the late 1950s, starred my idol Katherine Hepburn as Jo. I don’t remember the June Allyson “girl next door” 1949 depiction, but it strikes me that Elizabeth Taylor, who played Amy, had more of the fire that I associate with Jo. I took my own teenage daughters to see Winona Ryder in the role in 1994. I’d put Saoirse Ronan’s Jo in the pantheon with Hepburn’s. My husband commented at the movie’s conclusion that Ronan is this generation’s Meryl Streep (who played Aunt March in the current version). I agree.
But back to Elizabeth Warren and Meghan. What exactly, brought on their respective public shamings this past week? In each case they were accused of being conniving, manipulative women impeding the rightful career progress of powerful men, in Warren’s case by confirming her recollection that her rival (and longtime friend) Bernie Sanders had shocked her by saying that a woman couldn’t win the 2020 presidential election and in Meghan’s by her allegedly shoehorning her husband Prince Harry out of the royal family due to manufactured grievances and the lack of an appropriately stiff British upper lip. Both controversies have the air of “he said, she said” melodrama, and both are perfect examples of women being criticized for acting on what they perceive as hurtful, personal untruths being spread about their motivations and character.
When Warren refused to shake Sanders’s hand after his public statement at the Democratic debate that he had never said such a thing, her righteous anger in defending herself and confronting him was portrayed as female hysteria at best or a publicity stunt at worst. When both Harry and Meghan allowed as how the invasive, judgmental and at times overtly racist British tabloid press presented a threat to their mental health if not their physical well-being, with Harry referencing the trauma he had suffered due to his mother Diana’s gruesome death at the hands of the paparazzi, their desire to step back from public life was branded selfish, lazy and disrespectful.
Whether or not Sanders said what he is alleged to have said, or whether in fact his remark was taken out of context if indeed he said it, Warren heard what to her felt like a put down. Elie Mystal in a piece in The Nation writes persuasively that both things can be true at once: Sanders doesn’t remember saying anything offensive and Warren remembers feeling offended. In my previous post I wrote about just this kind of misunderstanding when reconstructing past events in memoir writing.
As for the Duchess, a Buzzfeed side by side on press treatment of Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle shows without a doubt the reason that the Sussexes wanted to be rid of the Royal Rota, the obligatory press availability demanded of senior royals. Friends hinted at the Sussexes’ displeasure with the lack of understanding, even bullying, they felt they had received from the rest of the royals, especially Prince William, showing that alleged slights can fire up all sorts of simmering resentments.
“I intend to make my own way in the world,” proclaimed Jo.
In the end, both Elizabeth Warren and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex decided, that like Jo March, they wouldn’t be stopped from speaking their truth and working toward their dreams. In her October interview, Meghan shared her view: “I’ve said for a long time to H—that’s what I call him—it’s not enough to just survive something, right? That’s not the point of life. You’ve got to thrive, you’ve got to feel happy.” And as for Elizabeth Warren, just as she had in 2017, this week she refused to succumb to the pressure put upon her to go along with someone else’s narrative. “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”