Warning: This story contains spoilers for Hustlers and Little Women.
“I’ve always known I would marry rich. Why should I be ashamed of that?,” Amy March (a fierce and formidable Florence Pugh) asks close family friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) in a scene from Greta Gerwig’s remarkable adaptation of Little Women.
No longer the little girl who traded pickled limes for friendship, but a young lady living in Paris and studying art, Amy finds his constant teasing about her potential British fiancé’s wealth as tedious as Laurie’s romantic notions about marriage.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he says. “As long as you love him.”
Pugh’s reaction here — a combination of eyeroll and a look to the side conveying utter disbelief — is a work of art. “I think that we have some power over who we love, it isn’t something that just happens to a person,” she, as Amy, replies with a scoff. But Laurie’s not done.
“I think the poets might disagree,” he says, languidly.
“Well, I’m not a poet, I’m just a woman,” she says. “And as a woman, there's no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living, or to support my family. And if I had my own money — which I don’t — that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property. So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is.”
It’s the 19th century equivalent of Jennifer Lopez purring “Doesn’t money make you horny,” as Ramona in Hustlers. Coin is the currency that ties together a modern Robin Hood tale of strippers in New York City and Louisa May Alcott’s classic 1868 story of four sisters coming of age in Concord, MA during the Civil War. Released just three months apart, and both directed by women snubbed by the Golden Globes, Hustlers and Little Women tackle a subject long considered gauche in polite conversation: Money and, more specifically, how women may acquire and keep it.
Amy’s speech is but one of many references to money in Little Women. The ending for example, tweaked by Gerwig to reflect the publication of Jo March’s (Saoirse Ronan) book, shows her negotiating with her publisher over salary and copyright, which thankfully, she knows to keep. It’s a scene pulled straight out of Alcott’s real-life experience (if Dickinson taught us anything, it’s that Alcott loved two things: money and running), further entwining the author’s own story with the fictional one she put to paper, released in two parts in 1868 and 1869.
In an interview in the December issue of Film Comment, Gerwig explained that she also drew from an often overlooked aspect of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in thinking about how women can best create art. basically
“What she actually says is you need a room of one’s own and money,” she said. “Because she was asked to speak on why there are no great women writers, and she said the question isn’t why are there no great women writers, the question is: Why have women always been poor?
In other words, without the financial means to support themselves, women don’t have the same luxury of holing up in a quiet place in order to think for their art.
That sentiment is directly echoed in the character of Aunt March (Meryl Streep), who tells Jo that she will have to marry a man with a fortune if she’s to succeed in this world and help support her family. When Jo points out that she herself isn’t married, Aunt March responds: “Well, that’s because I’m rich.” Wealth is a woman’s ticket to independence — which may explain why society’s made it so hard for us to attain it for so long.
You don’t have to look very far into Alcott’s book to find a reference to wealth. The very first line, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” puts the reader in the thick of the March family’s financial woes. Once rich members of high society, they’ve since lost their money, forcing the young women to make their own way in the world. For someone like Jo, it’s a blessing in disguise, giving her permission to forge a career as a writer to support herself and her family. Conversely, her sister Meg (played by Emma Watson in the movie) feels trapped by poverty, constantly reminded of the life she could have had. She chose to marry Laurie’s tutor John (James Norton), a man of lesser means, following the fairy tale arc of following her heart. Turns out, she needs more than love to sustain her, and their two children need food and warm coats.
Amy’s outburst to Laurie, which comes later in the movie, is all the more potent because we’ve seen Meg’s situation, including an earlier encounter with Laurie where he insults her for wanting the finer things in life. The two meet when Meg attends a Debutante Ball — where women are presented to wealthy men as marriageable — having succumbed to her friends’ insistence that they dress her up in silks and flowers. And yet, Laurie mocks her, making her feel guilty for this one bit of frivolity. As a man of means who can afford to gallivant around Europe coated with ennui and perfectly tailored jackets, he has the luxury of thinking about things like love. Laurie and his grandfather’s (Chris Cooper) affection for the March family is genuine, but it’s born of privilege. His inability to understand Amy and Meg’s financial practicality stems from his obliviousness to women’s subservient place in contemporary society.
Fast-forward 150 years or so, and the March girls might have ended up on a path closer to Destiny’s, Constance Wu’s character in Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers. In a capitalist world that caters to men’s needs, women must use whatever they have at their disposal to get ahead. For Jo, that means her pen; for Amy, it’s her sharp wit and stylish fur stoles; for Destiny and Ramona, it’s their bodies, with a little help from a creative ketamine cocktail. When she finds herself a single mother in the aftermath of the 2008 Wall Street collapse, Destiny realizes she’s short on options. We see her try, in vain, to find work at a department store makeup counter, only to be told she doesn’t have retail experience. Likewise, her former strip club coworker and friend, Ramona (Lopez), finds that her job at Old Navy doesn’t offer her the flexibility she needs to remain involved in her daughter’s life — let alone keep her in the Gucci bags and Louboutins she’s grown used to.
It’s that feeling of seeing the deck constantly stacked against them that pushes Destiny and Ramona to step outside the law to make a living. And frankly, it’s not that hard to understand, as Candice Frederick pointed out in an essay about Hustlers and the gender politics of financial independence back in September. “Of course, we all understand that what they’re doing is illegal, but the frustrating realization that wealth is always just out of reach for women is overwhelming,” she wrote. Their interactions with men on a personal level are just as transactional as those that take place in the VIP room — except, in the club, they’re in charge.
“Let's be honest about it,” she said. “Women give birth. Women get pregnant. Women have babies. They're taken out of the workforce. They're put back into the workforce. They're not thought of as providers, we’re never seen as earning money, only seen spending and shopping. I don't think people made the connection that [strippers] are actually working for a living, that they're like paying their bills.”
As Jo half-jokes to future love interest Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel) when he points out she's always working: “Money is the end game of my mercenary existence.” Ramona would be proud.