When reality gets unbearably grim during this nonstop horror show of 2020, fiction seems particularly enticing. For me, it’s a perfect time to plunge into some of the alternate universes that the Netflix streaming service provides. One political drama in particular strikes me as pure wishful thinking, given today’s level of discourse. It features the first woman president of the United States (and hurrah for the imaginary voters who finally got it right!). Madame President has moved up from her previous position as Madame Secretary of State (as a certain real-life figure once seemed poised to do, until the electoral college bollixed up her chances).
Early in the administration of this fantasy president, Elizabeth McCord, she receives credible evidence of Iranian interference in the most recent election. She vows to expose and punish this attack on American democracy … even though that interference appears to have benefited her! Talk about turning reality on its head. In this alternate world, we not only have a president who is willing to risk her office for the sake of principle, but actually listens to her opponents (as proven by her choice of a Republican vice president), tries to advance legislation that has a chance of helping people not in the wealthiest one percent, uses the military judiciously, and faces down irresponsible politicians who make unhinged threats against her and her family. In short, she applies reason and intellect to the pressing issues of the day. Will this ever be the norm again? After three and a half years of nonstop lies, conspiracy theories, tantrums, and plain rank stupidity emanating from the White House, is there any hope for such a reality?
I have also traveled back in time, to an well-honored classic, to examine this reality-tampering process. The most recent remake of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is quite a departure from the countless earlier versions. The 2019 movie directed by Greta Gerwig is more thematic than chronological. The four March sisters, growing up in Civil War-era New England, were based on Alcott’s own family, yet the author herself reportedly referred to her most popular work as “sentimental pap.” It seems that she was forced to betray her own reality in some ways, in the interests of appealing to the popular reading market of the time. Her original intention was to write a story more aligned with the truth. That would have left her heroine unmarried at the end, as she herself was. However, she allowed herself to be persuaded that the book wouldn’t sell unless it featured a “happily ever after” ending.
How well does the new movie restore Alcott’s less idealized reality? We see Jo, the novice authoress, stand up to the prospective publisher of her first novel, even when he appears to have all the power. He offers her an upfront payment of $500 in exchange for the copyright. That was sorely tempting to Jo, the primary breadwinner of a poor family. But she turns down the offer, having enough faith in her work to realize that the copyright, in time, would be worth much more than $500.
Yet after token resistance, Jo does succumb to her publisher’s “happily ever after” edict, just as Alcott did. Gerwig’s movie compromises in the same way. It isn’t certain at first, in this retelling, that Jo will fall for the German professor who courts her during a sojourn in New York City. In fact, when he has the temerity to criticize her writing rather harshly, she lashes out at him, defending her stories for the pulp market. They might not be great literature, but they bring in cash that her family sorely needs. In the end, however, even this somewhat revisionist movie isn’t about to let Jo end up a “spinster.” The professor grows on her, and his writing advice, while unwelcome at first, turns out to be sound. Some time after she returns home, he pays her a brief, unexpected visit. She almost lets him walk away without a commitment, but her sisters know love when they see it. At their urging, she races through a pouring rain to stop him before he gets on a train bound for the west.
Jo’s three sisters have likewise acquired a new complexity. I’ve often wondered if the real Beth, the sister who died at a tragically young age, was as relentlessly sweet as portrayed in the book. A little research into the actual sister (known as Lizzie) suggests otherwise. As the story goes, the girls’ mother is called away to tend to her sick husband at the battlefront. She asks her daughters to take up her charitable work while she is gone, but Beth is the only one who actually does. One of her charges comes down with scarlet fever, which Beth knows is beyond her nursing capabilities. She asks her older sisters to pitch in, since they had the fever years before and presumably couldn’t catch it again. When they claim to be too tired or busy, Beth’s normally placid face betrays a moment of anger. Can’t one of them relieve her burden just this once?
As a result, she catches the disease. She appeared to recover from the initial phase, but as time passes, it becomes clear that permanent damage has been done. She eventually succumbs to its complications. In Alcott’s story, Beth accepts her fate, and after much suffering and prayer, even embraces it. Other sources report that on a few occasions, the real Lizzie lashed out at her sisters and others, as she had every right to. After all, their neglect at a critical time was at least partly responsible for destroying her life.
As in all versions of the story, Meg, the oldest sister, and Amy, the youngest, prove to be polar opposites when it comes to marital choices. Meg marries for love, not money, but she’s only human, and sometimes she can’t help lamenting her continuing poverty. By contrast, the latest version of Amy has been generally lauded as a proto-feminist. A rather self-centered child, and later something of a gold-digger in her determination to “marry well,” she’s not entirely sympathetic. Yet who can blame her? Along the way, she faces the fact that her skills as an artist aren’t sufficient to afford her a comfortable living … although she believes in her heart that her earning capability would be far greater if she were a man. Given the limitations imposed on ambitious women, her best option is to make a match that will enable her to pursue art as a hobby, and perhaps serve as a benefactor to others.
In the end, all three of the surviving March sisters make peace with their choices. Switching back to modern times, President Elizabeth McCord manages to overcome a bogus impeachment attempt, and actually rises in the polls as a result. It’s all rather cheesy, and perhaps wishful thinking, but reassuring nevertheless. Given the circumstances of 2020, why not? Just now, we need all the happy endings we can get.