October 31, 2017 - mh9868a

Little Women Critique: Traditional Female Roles in Broadway’s Little Women

Typically, American theatre has portrayed women in a traditional way. Usually, the female character is shown as an innocent woman who wants to find a husband and start a family. As Helen Chinoy describes in her book “Women in American Theatre” she describes female characters as living dependently with her family until she meets a man who can become her husband (Chinoy). Then, she marries and starts a family. As Chinoy writes, this way of thinking about women has not varied much in American theatre since the nineteenth century with a few feminist wave exceptions. In the twentieth century women started to play stronger female characters as opposed to their old wallflower characters. However, even with attempts to create more feminist roles for female characters, the stigma of the traditional wife and mother is still prevalent in American theatre today. This traditional way of thinking in American theatre is still portrayed in the 2005 Broadway adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s nineteenth century classic novel Little Women because the musical portrays the four March sisters as traditional women with destinies to become domestic wives and mothers (Alcott).

Theatre has come a long way in the past few decades to try to change the typical American theatre interpretation of women. Playwrights are trying to show women in a new, more modern and feminist way. Yet, after several waves of feminism in the past forty years, shows like Little Women still appear on Broadway. The 2005 musical adaptation of Little Women, created by Allan Knee, Jason Howland, and Mindi Dickstein, shows nineteenth century women depicted through a traditional American theatre lense (Knee). All of the surviving women become wives, and at least two sisters become typical domestic housewives and mothers. Thus, none of them represent truly feminist roles that many women today want to see. Despite this, the show had a stint on Broadway and a national tour. Instead of being popular for its feminist characters, perhaps the popularity of the musical stems from its basis in the widely read and adored classic novel. That is, Louisa May Alcott’s novel is widely celebrated even today, so it would make sense that audiences would want to see her classic novel adapted into a musical. Overall, the surprising popularity for this traditional and not-so-feminist Broadway show in the age of feminism could stem from the show’s classic roots.

One instance in Knee’s musical in which the four sisters are depicted as traditional domestic women is when Josephine (Jo) and Meg go to the ball. Before the sisters leave, Marmee makes it clear that they are supposed to use their best manners so they have the best chance of finding a husband at the ball. On one hand, Meg is thrilled to meet a man and cannot wait to dance in her gown. On the other hand, Jo is annoyed and wants nothing to do with the ball. After Jo persistently and openly protests to her family about attending the ball, her younger sister Amy, who is too young for such a ball, begs to attend in her place. Of course, both Jo and Marmee deny Amy’s request, and Jo goes anyway and ultimately meets a possible suitor. Furthermore, in this scene most of the women in the family fall into the American theatre stereotype of innocent women who need husbands. That is, Meg, Marmee, and Amy are all depicted as traditional women who encourage that young women find husbands who can support them. Despite the author attempting to show Jo as a strong woman who neither wants nor needs a husband, she ultimately betrays her principles and attends the ball anyway which results in her meeting a man she could possibly marry. Thus, in this scene Knee depicts Jo as another nineteenth century woman who attends a ball to meet a man who could one day become her husband.

Another scene in Knee’s Broadway adaptation of Little Women that shows traditional ideas of women is when Jo and Professor Fritz Bhaer agree to get married. At this point in the play, Beth has passed away, Meg is married with twins, and Amy is getting married that day. Meg and Amy have both already found their paths to traditional lives in nineteenth century Massachusetts. However, until this point in the show, the audience led to think that Jo will remain an independent, unmarried author. If this had been the case, then Jo would have broken the mold for traditional gender roles at the time. However, Jo ends up accepting a marriage proposal from Fritz. Her decision to get married, though it is a happy one, stills breaks her ideals of being an unwed, independent writer. Even with her determination to stay independent and outspoken, Jo becomes a wife like nineteenth century women were expected to. Thus, although Knee and the other creators of the musical adaptation of Little Women attempted to make Jo a feminist woman, she ultimately fit the mold of traditional women of her time.

The Broadway musical adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women continues a tradition of depicting women in domestic ways in American theatre. That is, the musical, which debuted after years of feminist waves, conforms to Broadway’s tradition of showing women as dependent people whose goal in life is to become a housewife and mother. Even Jo, the most headstrong March sister, ends up getting married in the end which is something she swore she would never do. Thus, the March sisters are shown as typical nineteenth century women who need to get married. Furthermore, the show’s success is most likely due to its classic roots as opposed to its depiction of women. Overall, the musical rendition of Little Women is an good adaptation of a classic but ultimately fails to measure up to modern feminist standards.


Works Cited


Alcott, Louisa M. Little Women. New York: Signet Classic, 2004. Print.

Chinoy, Helen Krich, and Linda Walsh Jenkins. Women in American Theatre. Theatre Communications Grou, 2006.

Knee, Allan. “Little Women.” Duke University Press, 2005.

Essays broadway / littlewomen /

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