The Art of the Two-Person Dance Party

Donna (Jenny Slate) and Max (Jake Lacey) dance it out in Obvious Child, dir. Gillian Robespierre (2014). A24.

By Tiia Kelly | September 21, 2021

There is something to the language of dancing bodies that cinema has long understood, and viewers have long felt. Zadie Smith knew it when she looked to the beguiling physicality of figures like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and the Nicholas brothers for lessons on writing. The horror genre, which has developed its own distinct history of contorted bodies, knows it. This Twitter account, committed to posting daily movie dance scenes, knows it especially. 

But there is something else entirely to cinematic dance moments that are less than aspirational — and, at their most joyous, less than coordinated. These, too, contain a certain language: a character’s amateurish flailing during a Saturday detention dance break is, after all, very different to the spectacle of Channing Tatum’s shiny moves in Step Up or Magic Mike. Less visual marvel, more emotionally driven physical outburst, these scenes explore how the openness of messy physicality can dissolve barriers of inhibition and self-consciousness, enriching the dynamics between characters. 

A vital piece of this distinction is the setting. Rather than dancing onstage, in a studio, or a public-space-turned-performance-site, what happens when these acts of dance occur in closed, domestic spaces? What about vast, isolated landscapes, or the fringes of a group of people? In an enclosed rhythmic bubble, absent of any diegetic audience or company, a character’s dance partner is their audience. 

A dance montage in Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, set to the same Paul Simon song the film is named after, depicts a mating-ritual-like encounter between protagonist Donna (Jenny Slate) and love interest Max (Jake Lacey). Donna has just been dumped by her long-term boyfriend, bombed a performance at her regular comedy club, and drunkenly seduced good-natured Max before taking him home for a one-night stand. Over a shot of the pair kissing, the familiar drums of Simon’s song ring out. The film cuts to Donna in her underwear and Max’s unbuttoned shirt, swinging her head and spinning around. In the background is Max: Donna’s beanie on his head, amusedly playing bongos on a couch. 

The montage is characterised by frenetically assembled bursts of activity. Donna and Max jump around, half-dressed, downing beers. They twist their pelvises, spin each other around and wiggle their shoulders. They make out and mouth Simon’s lyrics to one another. In a particularly heart-melting shot-reverse-shot, Max is shown leaning against a wall, smiling, whilst Donna dances about, trying to make him laugh. The scene’s goofiness, representative of any good ‘dance party’ scene, here becomes a shorthand for the characters embracing comfort in one another’s presence. 

Further, the unambiguous song choice — is Donna the titular obvious child? — emphasises the film’s circulating theme of immaturity; the issue of Donna falling pregnant withMax’s child whilst still being a child in many ways herself. Her desire to precede sex with an almost-juvenile dance party mostly offsets any self-seriousness on her part as a sexual being. However, it also grounds her burgeoning relationship with Max in delightfully silly foreplay, and the childlike playfulness of the sequence is the very thing that solidifies their bond. Sex is funny, and there’s no need for pretence or modesty.

Stylistically, Moonrise Kingdom approaches its own dance sequence quite differently. Director Wes Anderson forgoes Obvious Child’s montage approach for a single handheld long shot, in and out of which the characters move. In the aftermath of sharing their first I-love-you’s, Anderson’s two leads, twelve-year-old Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), play a Françoise Hardy record on a remote beach they’ve claimed as their own. Suzy is alone in the frame, bending over a radio to play their song of choice, ‘Le Temps De L’Amour’, literally ‘The Time of Love’. She exits the frame then re-enters, holding Sam’s hand. Suzy sways softly to the music. Sam bobs his head. They move progressively more wildly, with Sam wagging his arms about while Suzy twists her body from side to side. The first cut of the scene brings us to a cosier mid-shot, zooming in as the pair share an endearingly clumsy slow dance. 

Susie (Lara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) dance together in Moonrise Kingdom, dir. Wes Anderson (2012). Focus Features.

At this point in the film, Sam and Suzy have deserted their respective homes to run away together. Both characters feel alienated from their peers and guardians, and are drawn to one another’s somewhat uncontainable, curious temperaments. One section of Hardy’s lyrics, translating to the time of love / it’s long and it’s short / it lasts forever, one remembers it, stresses an impermanent moment living on through memory. When you’re young, you feel like you’ll be young forever. Though everything for Sam and Suzy feels eternal and vital in the moment, we see only a brief, formative fragment of their lives. The dance scene epitomises this — the characters try desperately to carve out their own independent space, a mini civilisation for the two of them. Yet their bodies give them away: they’re just kids figuring out what their limbs can do, shooting off energy like sparks. 

In both Obvious Child and Moonrise Kingdom’s dance scenes, the freeform dance party is followed by newfound intimacy. In the former, it’s Donna and Max sleeping together for the first time. In the latter, it’s Sam and Suzy, caught up in their newfound ‘freedom’, trying to mimic adult romantic interactions. Whilst slow dancing, they share an innocent French kiss, after which Suzy invites Sam to place a hand on her chest. “I think they’re gonna grow more,” she says. The succession of scenes indicates, almost, a causality: the shedding of unease and lack of posturing in each pair’s dancing facilitates feelings of closeness. The development of both relationships hinges on this willingness to let go in another’s presence; to be less than mysterious — even embarrassing. 

In Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, this trope is transplanted into the period genre, subverting the classic period film ball scene. These moments, traditionally defined by barely concealed yearning and incredibly charged hand touches, are traded for a scene that places characters Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and Laurie (Timotheé Chalamet) on the literal outskirts of this formal atmosphere. After Jo accidentally burns her dress at a party, leaving her unable to dance with the rest of the guests, she meets Laurie, who suggests a solution: the two of them can dance on the porch surrounding the house, where no one may see her scorched frock.

Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and Laurie (Timotheé Chalamet) in Little Women, dir. Greta Gerwig (2019). Sony Pictures.

The scene, accompanied by the jubilant strings of Alexandre Desplat’s score, is washed in warm light from the party inside. Jo and Laurie mimic partner choreography, clasping hands and performing intricate footwork before bumping into one another, laughing. They vacillate between cultivated and raucous, depending on whether they are visible to the partygoers inside, guiding each other in refined steps around the porch before erupting into looser, whole-body thrashing. The two frolic riotously as literal outsiders — forgoing the decorum of Victorian-era courtship to embrace the unrestrained cravings of their youthful bodies. The physicality of this early scene suffuses Jo and Laurie’s subsequent interactions: they are all scrambling energy and play, lightly hitting and hanging off each other. 

In contrast to Obvious Child and Moonrise Kingdom (and despite what Laurie may later come to think), the porch sequence emphasises the platonic camaraderie central to the dance-party trope. Private, spur-of-the-moment dance parties relish in what our bodies long to do when nobody’s looking. One’s dance partner must, then, be a co-conspirator. Jo and Laurie are bonded by their porch dance, both errantly like-minded and overflowing with energy.

In all three movies, the two-person dance party is a direct expression of intimacy, connecting characters through the wildness of their unseen bodies. These moments become indicative of characters’ places in their ongoing development. Maybe they’re playing at adulthood, or outright rejecting it through unsophisticated cavorting. Perhaps they’re moving on the peripheries of propriety or finding romance in youthful romps around the living room. Whatever the case, the dance party is there as the rollicking language of familiarity and tenderness to carry them through. 

Tiia Kelly is a writer and editor from Naarm (Melbourne). Her work can be found in Voiceworks, Scum, Kill Your Darlings and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @tiiakel.

On Watching White Girls

Winona Ryder as Charlotte Flax in Mermaids (1990) dir. Richard Benjamin. Orion Pictures.

by Sara Hashemi | March 6, 2021

Coming-of-age films are an integral part of popular culture. Films like The Breakfast Club (1985), Stand By Me (1986), Almost Famous (2000),and Superbad (2007) have defined generations of teenagers. Many films within the genre focus on girls: Pretty in Pink (1986), Mermaids (1990), Juno (2007). And yet, while these movies pretend to present different facets of the teenage girl experience, their protagonists are all white — a fact that distanced me from fully relating to their characters, but never stopped me from watching.

I would watch these movies religiously as a teenager — living vicariously through the characters on screen. I would see these American kids go to parties, yell at their parents, sneak out, and mess up in ways that I never could. In my own Canadian adolescence, my Iranian mother would not let me come home past 8pm, go to sleepovers, or have a Facebook account. I felt alienated from my group of white friends who, I assumed, were having the experiences I so badly wanted to be a part of. In a way, my relationship with those girls was similar to the one I had with the movies I watched: I wanted in but was constantly left out. Even as I watch coming-of-age films now, at 22-years old, I can’t help but feel like everyone is in on something I don’t know about, that there’s some universal teen experience I’ve missed out on.

Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles (1984)

Molly Ringwald is the bonafide queen of coming-of-age movies, with her iconic roles in John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984) and Pretty in Pink (1986). Her characters in these films are unpopular but conventionally attractive, and they go through the typical motions of a teenager in the genre; she wants to go to the big dance, she’s preoccupied with social cliques, and has a crush on a guy more popular than she is. Nothing really happens to her, but she feels as though everything is happening to her. However, I was most taken by Winona Ryder, who played the foil to Ringwald’s more palatable, All-American characters in movies like Beetlejuice (1988), Heathers (1989), and Mermaids (1990). Her roles were often edgier — she played slightly neurotic, dark teenagers. That drew me in. “My whole life is a dark room,” she solemnly declares behind a black veil as Lydia Deetz. Ryder was the perpetual outsider, and for that, I felt a sort of kinship towards her. 

I was struck by Ryder’s portrayal of Charlotte in Mermaids when I first watched it at 15 — the melodramatic voice-over, the black collared outfits, the constant guilt. I was so attracted to this vision of Charlotte. It’s how I wanted to see myself. It’s as though the complete lack of diversity in film predisposed me to identifying with any character with dark hair. 

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Winona Ryder and Cher in Mermaids (1990).

That’s the thing about coming-of-age movies. They’re meant to be relatable, perhaps more so than any other genre. The audience is supposed to look at the protagonist and recognize a part of themselves—either because they’re currently having the same experiences, or because of nostalgia for when they were—and feel comforted. Their whiteness is supposedly universal, and through it the audience is reminded that high school is miserable, their crush won’t pay attention to them, and their parents don’t understand them. They get to feel less alone. 

These negative experiences are still wrapped up inside the benefits of the leading characters’ whiteness — everything is coated in a privilege that is never addressed, and alienates non-white viewers. When you aren’t white and you’re looking to see yourself in these movies, watching them is like staring into a broken mirror. I’m searching for a reflection, but it can never be accurate. It’s not that high school wasn’t miserable, it’s that many of the reasons it was came from feeling othered by my white friends. They got to be the protagonists, and I was the token character who ate lunch with them; I wasn’t allowed to do much else. As Zoé Zamudzi writes, “[i]t’s almost as if characters like Lady Bird and Juno were created to prepare me for a life of subordination to the trials, yearnings, and humanities of white women.” 

I was a side character in my own story.

Clearly, I thought, there was something wrong with my life, and that’s why these things weren’t happening to me. I still do. When the lives you see in film are supposed to be “relatable,” it’s hard not to feel inadequate when they don’t match up with your own. My experiences aren’t given the same attention as those of white protagonists, even though I can recognize now that they are valuable. I love being Iranian, speaking Farsi, and eating Persian food. They’re all a part of how I was raised, and they make me who I am, but they seldom are reflected on screen in a nuanced, respectful way.

My reality was entirely different from Charlotte’s, just as it was from Ringwald’s characters, and just as it was from most other female protagonists. But I kept watching these movies, because if anything, they gave me a window into the teenage experiences I felt I was missing out on. I couldn’t fully relate to their narratives, but they helped me relate to the world.

Even in a time when diversity in capital-F Film is a hot topic, all of the major, critically acclaimed female coming-of-age movies I can name from the last five years feature a white protagonist. There’s Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017), Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018), and more recently, Karen Maine’s Yes, God, Yes (2019). But however varied their personalities, the protagonists all share a specific brand of indie-girl whiteness. Which isn’t to say I didn’t relate to them — their white “universality” leaves enough of a blank slate for me to project onto. 

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Lady Bird (2017) dir. Greta Gerwig. A24.

Like the titular Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), I went to a Catholic-adjacent all-girls high school (most of the nuns had retired and we only had mass four times a year). I have an intense and often fraught relationship with my mother. I want to go to New York! At the same time, there’s a lot that separates me from Lady Bird. I’m Muslim, instead of Catholic; I’m Middle Eastern, not white; I grew up in Montreal instead of Sacramento. I also considered myself an outsider in my high school friend group for entirely different reasons than Lady Bird. Still, in a way, I felt connected to her — maybe that’s the point. In her review of the film, Aditi Kini writes that “white mediocrity is the lowest common denominator for experience.” Whiteness is seen as neutral, despite its very real — and often violent — social and political implications. People of colour aren’t afforded that same privilege.

My relationship to female protagonists today is a complicated one. Despite my love for these films, I’m simply too aware of the differences between us. Jia Tolentino articulates this feeling in her essay Pure Heroines: “My hesitation, as an adult, to find myself within the heroine universe has been rooted in a suspicion that that identification would never truly be reciprocal: I would see myself in Jo March, but the world’s Jo Marches would rarely, if ever, be expected or able to see themselves in me.” Ryder, who notably played Jo March in the 1994 adaptation of Little Women, embodies a figure far removed from my reality. She’s a wealthy middle-aged white woman. I’ve spent years latching onto Ryder and her characters, desperate to recognize a part of myself somewhere, but people like her have never needed to find themselves in me. Our relationship is entirely one-sided. 

There are, of course, many female coming-of-age films that do not centre a white character. Hearts Beat Loud (2018), Jezebel (2019), and The Half of It (2020) are just a few of the movies featuring young girls of colour, each of them tackling different themes. It’s not productive to say that these movies aren’t out there. As Nijla Mu’min states in a piece about Black coming-of-age films, “when we make definitive statements about the total lack of coming of age films about Black girls, we might actually aid in the erasure of the narratives that do exist, and that will exist.” Popular culture relegates these movies to the margins. 

Kiersey Clemons and Nick Offerman in Hearts Beat Loud (2018) dir. Bretty Haley

People of colour are told, again and again, that their stories aren’t as valuable as those of white people. It can be disheartening, especially as a teenager, when the things you most relate to, the ones that make you feel the most seen, are sidelined in favour of more of the same. Movies shape the world we live in, and they shape us. They’ve shaped me. They’ve brought me comfort, and they’ve made me insecure. They played a huge part in conditioning my perception of the world, but also of myself. Coming-of-age films made me feel as though my own story was not enough—that I should want to be more like the friends who made me feel like I did not belong. I don’t want to feel like that anymore. Kids of colour shouldn’t have to settle — they need to see more than just white kids growing up on screen. They deserve to know their coming-of-age experiences are meaningful. Our stories matter, too.

Sara Hashemi is a writer and editor from Tio’ta:ke (Montreal). You can find her buying statement earrings on Etsy, or on Twitter @sara_wtv.

Finding Your Person: Platonic Soulmates in the Films of Greta Gerwig

Saoirse Ronan and Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird and Julie in Lady Bird, dir. Greta Gerwig. A24.

By Claire White | February 23, 2021

I may not have seen every episode of Grey’s Anatomy, but I know Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey, and the phrase “you’re my person.A connection so strong that ‘best friend’ doesn’t even cover it. If someone is your person, they are it for you, they were put on this earth for you. Sure, this term can be used by romantic couples, but Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey made it about friendship. Female friendship has been depicted on screen for a long time, but rarely have I seen the deep connection and fulfilment female friendship can provide as the words “you’re my person.”

This intensity of friendship is something I believe Greta Gerwig knows well. Across three of her films as director, screenwriter and star — Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012), Lady Bird (Gerwig, 2017) and Little Women (Gerwig, 2019)— Gerwig focuses her love and attention on exploring the relationships between young women. In particular, friendships: deep and fulfilling connections that make you wonder if maybe the love of your life might be your best friend.

Similar to Christina and Meredith, in their book, Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman find the term ‘best friends’ to describe their years-long friendship too limiting, not meaningful enough. They instead use the term Big Friendship, “because it’s one of the most affirming — and most complicated — relationships that a human life can hold.” They lament the lack of exploration of how friendship can be just as meaningful as a romantic relationship. After all, they are based on the same principles of attraction and connection, and like any long-term relationship, they take work to maintain. The friendships in each of Gerwig’s films go through a stage of break and disconnect. This narrative of bliss – break – reunion is typical of any romantic narrative seen on screen, but like Sow and Friedman’s own relationship, is also typical of friendships. By putting platonic love at the same level as romantic relationships, Gerwig likewise argues the case for the romance of friendship.

Frances Ha, co-written by and starring Gerwig, is a story about Frances (Gerwig), who considers herself only half an adult, still coming of age. As much as she spends the film trying to find her place in the world, it is also a breaking apart of Frances and her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumners). The film opens with a montage of their friendship. It’s happy, domesticated: scenes of romantic bliss. However, when Sophie moves out of their shared apartment and in with her boyfriend, the two become distant, and descend into hurt, much like a break-up. Frances floats from one living situation to another, mourning the loss of her best friend, describing Sophie moving out as “Sophie dumped me.” However, she continues to exercise devotion, clinging to the memory of the one she loves by continually bringing her up in every conversation (even to people she’s just met): Sophie is “the best person I know,” Sophie is her other half.

Sumners and Gerwig in Frances Ha. IFC Films.

When describing feelings of friendship, one usually uses the term ‘platonic,’ which derives from the philosopher Plato. In his book The Nature of Love, Irving Singer describes Plato’s theory of love as a state outside of sex where there is a “yearning for one’s other half.” He believed that in prehistoric times, humans were split into two, destined to roam the earth forever in search of their soulmate to make them whole again. 

Throughout the separation, Frances not only longs for her best friend, but searches for her place in the world, a chance to feel whole again. Although she dabbles in other friendships and romantic relationships with men on her journey, these relationships are found to be unfulfilling. 

At one point during their time apart, Frances describes what true love is to her:

“It’s that thing when you’re with someone, and you love them and they know it, and they love you and you know it, but it’s a party and you’re both talking to other people, and you’re laughing and shining and you look across the room and catch each other’s eyes, but not because you’re possessive, or it’s precisely sexual, but because that is your person in this life.” 

This definition of love is epitomised in one of the final scenes of the film. At a party after Frances’ debut choreography performance, Frances is talking to her old boss when she looks up across the room, and meets Sophie’s eye. Sophie smiles at her and laughs. Although eventually Frances was able to find the strength and courage to take her career as a dancer into her own hands and produce her own work, with Sophie back in her life she is stronger. Sophie is her person in this life.

The idea of platonic soulmates is something I have been passionate about for a long time. I haven’t dated very much, but I have felt the deep connection between friends, a recognition of myself in them, that makes me wonder “where have you been all my life?” I have no hesitancy to say my friends are the loves of my life, my soulmates, to call a friend my person. This is one of the main reasons why I connect so deeply to Gerwig as a filmmaker. While Frances Ha undoubtedly carries Gerwig’s mark, in her directorial debut, Lady Bird (which she also wrote), she clearly demonstrates how important these ideas of grand romance between friends are to her as a filmmaker.

Lady Bird’s Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), are no doubtedly two halves of the same whole. There is symmetry in the way they dress (matching purple nail polish, backpacks, and friendship bracelets), and they are always by each other’s side for life’s mundane moments (in class, flipping through magazines at the supermarket), as well as the Big ones (homecoming, heartbreak). When they audition for the school musical, they sit so closely together, Julie’s body overlapping Lady Bird’s, it’s like they have merged into one person. 

Julie and Lady Bird, two halves of a whole in Lady Bird. A24.

Best friends are not uncommon in girlhood films, more often than not, these friendships can be toxic (Mean Girls), fatal (Jawbreaker) or center around the pursuit of a boy (most of everything else). To be fair, throughout the narrative of the film, Lady Bird pursues relationships with two boys, sweet Danny (Lucas Hedges) and cool Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), and it is during her pursuit of the latter that Lady Bird and Julie go through their own friend breakup. 

But, the relationship with Kyle was never going to last. Not only once she realised how unfulfilling it was, but also because in order to be a part of his world, she had pretended to be someone else. It is undeniable that Lady Bird (her self-given name) is going through a process of identity formation and transformation into her ideal self, but with Kyle, she is surrounded by people who do not understand her. 

This is best encapsulated the night of senior prom. In the car with Kyle and popular girl Jenna (Odeya Rush), Lady Bird’s dreams are dashed when the popular kids decide to skip prom. Lady Bird’s disappointment is visible, but she concedes. She might have gone through with their plan and lived with this disappointment had ‘Crash Into Me’ by Dave Matthews Band not begun to play on the car radio. It’s the same song that Lady Bird and Julie sang along to while sitting in an empty car, holding hands and crying over Danny earlier in the film, an intimate moment of shared heartbreak. Unlike Kyle, Julie is someone who understands Lady Bird, and feels what she feels. Someone she can feel complete with. 

Instead of a grand declaration of heterosexual romantic bliss, as is typical in the genre, the major romantic reunion in Lady Bird is not between her and a boy, but between Lady Bird and her best friend. Rejecting Kyle’s opinions and declaring she actually wants to go to Prom, when she tells Jenna that Julie is her best friend, it is filled with the same reverence, and sounds a lot like “she’s my person.”

Lady Bird reunites with Julie and takes her to the prom. ‘Crash Into Me’ continues to play as they dance among the other couples on the dance floor, get their pictures taken in the typical prom-couple pose, and cling to each other all night. Their happiness from being together again is palpable. With this reunion, Gerwig once again shows us that romantic moments don’t always have to be sought after with a guy. They can be found with your best friend. 

Frances and Lady Bird both go through a break with their best friends, but it is in reuniting with Sophie and Julie that they are able to become the best versions of themselves, demonstrating how, as Sow and Freidman write, friends “grow in response to each other.” This is equally true of Jo and Laurie in Little Women, albeit their journey is a little different.

Jo and Laurie in Little Women. Sony Pictures.

Even Jo (Ronan) and Laurie’s (Chalamet), friendship represents a wholeness. Not only in the immediate way their energies match as they dance wildly in secret at the ball where they first meet (in a manner most improper, but suiting to them both) but also in the way they share clothes, swapping waistcoats and hats so that in many ways, it is hard to see where Jo ends and Laurie begins. Unfortunately, like Frances and Lady Bird, they also go through their own break, as a result of a rejected proposal, and Laurie escaping, heartbroken, to Europe. During this break, the emptiness Jo feels without her best friend is felt in a letter Jo writes to ultimately accept his proposal, because “the worst fate is to live my life without you in it.” During the time Little Women was set (Civil War-Era America), there were few examples of the way attachments between a man and woman could be expressed, beyond marriage. But, that is not the only way love can manifest. Jo and Laurie eventually reconnect, as Laurie realises the love he feels for Jo is different to the love he feels for her sister Amy (Florence Pugh), who he marries, which he may never have realised if Jo did not stand her ground and refuse his proposal, knowing that marriage is not the way they are meant to love each other.

It is important to have these films such as Frances Ha and Lady Bird focusing on loving-friendships and platonic soulmates, because they offer an example, and recognition, to audiences that Jo and Laurie lacked. Too many times I have witnessed my friends (and myself) in tears over how hard and demeaning dating can be, and it breaks my heart, because being in a romantic relationship shouldn’t be the only way we gain value. 

Often, when I’m with my friends, I sit back and think about how lucky I am to have them, to love them. These beautiful, bright, shining people. It has taken work, but I have never been so happy as when our instant connection is solidified by dancing in a circle, our arms wrapped around each other on the dance floor; passing the mundane hours away by dancing to early-2000’s hits around our bookshop, until we are interrupted by a customer; sending each other flowers; going on dinner-and-a-movie dates; hiding upstairs at a party with a plate of cupcakes between us; or laughing around a dinner table. By consistently bringing attention to these deep and meaningful relationships, Gerwig’s films show us that these close friendships are just as, if not more, important and worthy of attention. We learn that it is possible to find love, romance and fulfillment outside of romantic-sexual love. That no matter what happens, if a person breaks your heart, if you can’t find a date, as long as you have your friends beside you, there is love.

Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen film tragic from Naarm (Melbourne), Australia. She is a Co-Founder of Grow Up, a founding member of online film journal Rough Cut, and Greta Gerwig Scholar. You can follow her on Twitter @theclairencew.

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Me and Jo March: Locating Queerness at Orchard House

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Little Women (1994) dir. Gillian Armstrong. Columbia Pictures.

by Anna Burnham | September 21, 2020

There is no stream in the current of my memory that exists without Jo March and Little Women in it. I imagine there must have been a time when I first watched Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, or a first time when I read the illustrated children’s version of the novel that now lives as a sacred text on a shelf in my parents’ house, but I cannot remember them. There is no time before this story was a part of my internal chemistry, my cultural vocabulary. And there, at the center of that story that has always seemed to be a part of my bones, is Jo, a heroine before her time: headstrong, independent, loud, smart, boyish, moody, antsy, different. For my entire life, Jo March has been a friend, a kindred spirit, a character that exists in some palpable way in a magical space distinct from the page and screen.

In the same way that I can’t remember a time before Little Women entered my life, I cannot remember a time when I did not feel within myself a deep, aching difference. Not even a difference “from my family” or “from other girls,” but a sense that something about me — maybe everything about me, maybe my body, my spirit, my mind, my interests, my entirety — simply did not fit. My adolescence was marked by a sort of constant longing, a frustration at the feminine trappings expected of me as a girl, a desire to burst out of my skin and my world. It was marked by the sense that I was meant for other, better things, that I had outgrown my hometown before I had even grown up myself. I now look back on that difference and name it all as the lifelong signs of the queerness I would recognize, name, and own in my mid-20s. It was always there. I just didn’t have the language for it. But before I had the language for it, I had Jo March.

Every girl who likes to write and is perhaps a bit more drawn to playing outside than to playing at domestic things inside considers themselves “a Jo,” and while I mean no offense to all those other girls, I like to think the kinship I feel with her is special. About five years ago, I developed a “hot take” that Jo March was obviously queer. I thought it was such a hot take that I would spout my theory to whomever would listen, use it as my go-to reply for all those “gimme your best hot take” Twitter threads. I had no idea that there was already a long history of fans unearthing queerness in our most sacred stories and that I was entering into it. Looking back, I realize that I couldn’t name myself as queer without first establishing that my heroine and lifelong companion was, too.

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Winona Ryder as Jo March in Little Women (1994) dir. Gillian Armstrong

There are many screen versions of Little Women, but Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation starring Winona Ryder as Jo remains the most formative for me. It is a roaring-fire-in-the-hearth sort of movie, cozy and soothing as it moves through the seasons of both the year and of the characters’ lives in Concord, Massachusetts. Ryder’s Jo is a classic tomboy — a term that I now, in adulthood, recognize as loaded and normally signalling some innate queerness in young girls, but that at the time I embraced with vigor. She hates “blasted skirts.” She hides from boys at balls that she didn’t want to go to anyway. She “rather craves violence.” She’s eternally disappointed in not being a boy. She crashes through sylvan streams barefoot and free to gather wildflowers. 

Growing up watching this movie, I saw who I wanted to be in her spunkiness, her uniqueness, her wit. As I got older, though, I responded to something less obvious, something deeper and more profound: a sort of deep longing Jo can’t shake, a sense that she does not fit not only in her home, but perhaps anywhere, ever. In a scene right after Jo rejects Laurie (a young Christian Bale), she sits in her frustration and sorrow with her mother, wondering at her fitfulness, her restlessness, her oddity, at how it is that she just feels so different. “I’m ugly and awkward and I always say the wrong things,” she laments. She is lonely, craving. “I love our home but I just can’t stand being here! There’s just something wrong with me. I want to change, but I can’t, and I just know I’ll never fit in anywhere.” When I was younger, I thought I was drawn to Jo for her spunkiness; I now think that I recognized my own innate not-fitting in her clumsy ache to be something different, to do something different.

Now, the tomboy-ish qualities I loved in Jo seem like obvious markers of her queerness, but so too does that ache she carries around. Some have posited that the chief characteristic of queerness is a chronic sense of longing. There’s another scene, after Jo has moved to New York to try and make it as a writer, where she dazzles a room of men with her argumentation skills. “You should have been a lawyer, Miss March,” one of them says. “I should have been a great many things,” Jo replies, a stunning note of sadness in her voice. Even in New York, ostensibly living out her dream as a working writer, she thinks with sadness of all that she never was and never can be because of the circumstance of her gender and place in society. In the tumult of my coming to terms with my own queerness, I responded to that longing within Jo because it was also deep inside me.

But Jo is not an inherently sad person, though she has that strain of melancholy. She is fierce, she is loyal. She loves her family and her home in Concord. She goes away, yes, but she returns when her family needs her. She wants to be a writer not to be wildly successful, but because it is something that she must do, that she cannot do without. She buys her sister Beth a new coat with her earnings from a story. She opens a school in Concord at the end of the novel. I think Jo March — in all her messy longing, in all her clumsy return — has been teaching me how to build a life of love, community, and purpose for a very long time.

In Armstrong’s film, that love, community, and purpose is richly shown through the setting of a singular, very real place that also came to mean a great deal to me: Concord, Massachusetts. Concord is not only Jo’s home, but was Louisa May Alcott’s, as well. Like Jo, Alcott grew up in a house called Orchard House on a road heading out of town. You can still visit Orchard House and take a tour there. You can visit her family’s plot in the local cemetery and lay a pen on her stone in gratitude, as so many have done before. Concord is just a 25-minute drive from where I used to live in Cambridge as a graduate student at Harvard. During graduate school, it became my refuge. I was drawn there repeatedly, inexplicably, throughout the seasons. In the summer I made pilgrimages at least once a week to the banks and impossibly perfect waters of Walden Pond (of Thoreau fame) on the far edge of town. In the fall and winter I would leave Cambridge for the entire day and retreat to the Concord Free Library’s reading room to write my master’s thesis. Sometimes I took a mid-day break to go for a run, always making a point to pass by Orchard House. Concord is where I went to think, to write, to wander, to slip into the cool waters of a famous pond, to feel more intentional and in control of my solitude when it crept too close to undesired loneliness.

The tail end of the lifelong process of realizing I was queer overlapped with the length of graduate school. It can’t be a coincidence that I grew attached to the town of Concord at the same time as I was coming to terms with, naming, and living into my queerness. That a stretch of three years that started with the quiet desperation of my “hot take” that Jo March is gay and ended with the writing of this piece brought me, over and over, to the gentle magic of the town imbued with her legend. Perhaps visiting Concord reminded me of Jo’s spirit. Perhaps being there compelled me to not live a life with quite so much unresolved longing as her circumstance had resigned her to. Facing that meant finally, slowly naming that difference I’d felt for so long.

Orchard House body image
Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord Massachussetts

When I found myself in Concord over and over, joking with friends who noticed that I just loved pretending I was in Little Women, I was creeping closer toward naming something that I still think only could have happened there. Identifying with a character in a beloved film is a way of expressing parts of who we are in the tumult of adolescence when our language does not yet match the complexity and breadth of what we feel inside ourselves. I recognized a certain sameness between me and Jo years before I could point to either of us and and say “Duh, queer.” Representation can show us a model of something, spark recognition, encourage us to consider a possibility we hadn’t before. When I began asserting to others that Jo March was deeply, obviously queer, I was trying to tell the people around me — I was trying to tell myself — that I was, too.

On my way out of Boston after graduation, I went for one last swim in Walden Pond. I floated in its devastatingly perfect waters, thinking about the marvel of place and history and story. I thought about the little pin on the map of the world that is Concord, Massachusetts, and how I had first visited there in my mind through the page and the screen, and then how it had held me for real as I became something new, something full. I drove past Orchard House. I put on the 1994 soundtrack and cried for a bit as I did. I thanked Louisa. I thanked Jo. I said goodbye. I brought it all with me.

Anna Burnham is a writer, researcher, and organizer who loves talking and thinking about community, religion, public life, social movements, gender, and pop culture. She currently lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, but if you spend more than five minutes with her, you will quickly learn that she grew up amidst the farmlands of central Pennsylvania. You can follow her on Twitter @ac_burnham.