When the film version of Little Women was released in 1994, I was eight years old. I’d read the book — or at least someone had the book read to me — but it wasn’t until seeing it on the big screen that the four March sisters came alive and became an indelible touchstone of girlhood, sisterhood, and growing up.
The movie made me feel nostalgic in a way I couldn’t then understand. At the time, I still had my teenage years ahead of me — there isn’t much to reminisce over when you’re only eight. But Little Women is a tender portrayal of the pain that comes with leaving your childhood behind. I ached for these little women and the girls they once were.
I remember thinking Trini Alvarado was impossibly beautiful and mature as Meg. (Though it would take 10 years for me to discover, one night on IMDB, that the actress was Trini Alvarado and not lookalike Andie MacDowell. I’d wager some people still don’t know.)
Kirsten Dunst was perfectly odious as the book-burning Amy. (I seethed with jealousy at the scene where Laurie — a teenager! — offered to kiss her.)
Winona Ryder as Jo was revelatory: funny, passionate, fiery, and warm.
I loved all of her costumes, and all of her lines. I was too young to relate to the angsty character she played in Reality Bites, out the same year, but I wanted to be Jo.
Claire Danes as Beth was, well...Beth. Good ol’ sickly Beth. Never anyone’s favorite, but important to the story nonetheless. (Watch her death scene for the OG Claire Danes cry face.)
And then there was Christian Bale as Laurie. My first crush. The ideal boyfriend: flirty and cute and rich, and madly in love. I never, ever understood how Jo could have turned him down when he proposed to her in the woods. Honestly, I still don’t.
If you look at the movies that came out in 1994 — Pulp Fiction, Shawshank Redemption, Natural Born Killers — Little Women stands out. There weren’t a lot of period pieces released that year, and this was one of the few films set in any era that starred a primarily female cast. In the early ‘90s, a Hollywood movie all about girls was a rare thing. Twenty years later, it still is.
Perhaps that’s why the movie had such an impact on my generation. I saw myself in the sisters. Like Amy, I knew what it was like to feel left out, to want to hang out with the older girls. I had a temper that flared at perceived injustices the way Jo’s did. As I made my way through my teen years, I’d recognize moments where I felt poorly dressed for a party, because I’d seen the same thing happen to Meg at Sally Moffat’s ball. Like Beth, I too had moments where I was in no particular hurry to grow up.
Everything that happened to me had happened before. Girlhood in the 1990s, and in the 1860s, and in the 2000s, has stayed much the same. Girls in their teens still sit around in rooms and talk about boys and curl each other’s hair and fight and make up and try on clothes and talk about what they want to be when they grow up and wait, seemingly forever — though looking back it happens so quickly — to finally become women.