The old question has faced so many female artists. The choice has been stark for many of them as they faced the option of getting married and relinquishing some or all of their artistic freedom or the option of remaining single and alone in order to devote their lives to their art. Sometimes the choice has been posed by publishers, agents or directors of dance companies, sometimes by the women themselves.
Yesterday, my parents and I went to a movie theater to see Greta Gerwig’s new rendition of Little Women. It was a very good movie, better than I expected. I found the costumes and setting to be perfect, as well as the dialogue and characters. In fact, I might be able to say that the characters were even more relatable in Gerwig’s movie than in Alcott’s original book, which I read a few years ago.
Jo March has, of course, always been my favorite character, closely followed by Laurie, and in the movie, it was no different. I myself am quite like Jo in the sense that I am a writer with a definite sense of liberty and independence. I like my freedom just as much as Jo does. And, like Jo, I don’t want to conform to the norms that society places on people. Yet when Jo talks about how lonely she is, in spite of wanting to subvert the stereotype that women are only meant for romance and love and marriage, I can relate.
She, close to tears, says to her mother:
“And I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. But I’m so lonely.”
Yesterday evening, I finished watching the 1948 film The Red Shoes. The movie covers a ballet of the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the same name, as well as a more reality based story about the girl who dances the lead role, Victoria Paige. In the ballet, a girl is taken in by a lovely pair of red shoes. She buys the shoes, but once she puts them on, they won’t come off, and they won’t let her stop dancing either. She dances and dances while everything, including love, is left behind. Finally, exhausted, she collapses and the man she once loved takes the red shoes off. Then she dies.
The rest of the movie focuses on the story of the young dancer, Victoria Paige, who dances the lead in the Red Shoes ballet. It shows how she falls in love with the music director of the ballet company. The director of the ballet is jealous; he wants Victoria all to himself so that he can make her into the greatest dancer in the world. Finally, he and the music director, who is now her husband, try to force her to choose between dancing and love respectively. Her husband even goes as far as to say “you love me. But you love that [dancing] more.”
Victoria chooses dancing, but then, changing her mind, runs out on opening night of the second production of The Red Shoes ballet. She leaps off a balcony and is killed by the train on the tracks below. Her husband, who was leaving on that train, rushes to her. Her last words are to ask him to take off the red shoes, which he does as she dies.
Obviously, the movie of The Red Shoes is overly dramatic in its posing of the question of art or love. The idea that a woman must choose one and one alone—to pursue her art and devote herself entirely to it or to give in to love and become a wife—is old fashioned at the very least. A woman can be both. She can be artist and wife, artist and lover. She can, if she wants, do any combination of things. Love or art. Love and art. Or neither.
Yet I myself struggle sometimes with a version of this question. I am, as I said above, an independent person by nature. I’ve often somehow felt that I didn’t have the time required to become attached to anyone but my parents. I wanted to be free to follow my own pursuits as I pleased. Now, more and more though, I see how lonely that can be. It certainly works for some people, both women and men, but I’m beginning to understand that I need and even want people and attachment.
The question for me is less of a question and more of me just trying to figure out what I want and need out of life. It’s me trying to decide how best I will be fulfilled. And, unlike how the Red Shoes portrays it, I think that for me, either extreme—only art or only love—would be unhealthy. Anything but a balance of the two would be rather an over dramatic choice. A person’s options in life are rarely so starkly black and white.
Returning to Little Women, when Laurie proposes marriage to her, she turns him down because she doesn’t love him in the way he deserves but also because she values her “liberty” too much. She is vastly independent, and that’s the way she likes it. Later in the story, however, when she admits to her mother just how lonely she is, she decides she would say yes to Laurie if he were to propose to her again. She still doesn’t love him in that way, but her loneliness is enough to make her change her mind. She is lonely enough to say something like “to be loved is more important to me than to love.”
Yet after Laurie comes back from France and announces him marriage to Amy, Jo goes on still alone. She needs a friend. She needs someone who will support her in all her career endeavors and give her all the freedom she craves, yet still love her. And she apparently finds such a man to give her what she needs and who she loves as well. This man is Friedrich Bhaer.
It’s interesting though because although Little Women is one should choose art over love, although not over all human connection. However, the over dramatic portrayal of the question in The Red Shoes, on the other hand, left me feeling that one should never choose art over love.
Oh the contradictions and subjectivity of human existence.