Identity

Christian Bale in 'Little Women' Taught Me It's Hot to Be Smart

Watching Christian Bale and Winona Ryder's on-screen sparring in the 1994 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic book, I learned that a true partner won't shame you for having a brain, but love you for it.

"You Make Me Wanna" is a column celebrating pop culture-fueled sexual awakenings—from crushing on cartoon characters to humping pillows while watching boyband videos.

I’d had other pop culture crushes—Macaulay Culkin in My Girl, Devon Sawa in Casper—but I forgot those boys the moment I saw Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence, the gobsmackingly sexy romantic lead depicted by Christian Bale in the 1994 film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women.

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Laurie has full eyebrows, flowing chestnut locks, and canine teeth that are very pointy, so when he smiles, he looks conspiratorial. Because I had trouble differentiating fantasy from reality, I endlessly ruminated over what would happen if I, a seven-year-old girl living in a tiny town in New England in the 1990s, ever met Laurie, a 17-year-old orphan living in a slightly larger town in New England in the 1860s, in real life. In the end, I determined that we would, after many glorious and highly romantic dates, kiss while a full orchestra played behind us and snow fell from the heavens.

Little Women—and when I speak of Little Women, I’m always speaking of the film; I hadn’t encountered the book yet—is a rather chaste movie, on its face. Set during the American Civil War, it’s centered around the March family, which consists of Marmee [Susan Sarandan], the proto-feminist mother, Father [Matthew Walker], who is conscripted into the army, and their four daughters. Laurie, who comes to live with his rich grandfather in an estate next to the Marches’ more modest home, eventually makes passes at three of them: Meg [Trini Alvarado], the prim eldest, Jo [Winona Ryder], an ambitious, tomboyish writer who is the main focus of his affections, and Amy [Kirsten Dunst], the conventionally beautiful youngest. (Beth [Claire Danes], the saintly, ascetic one, is spared his advances.)

Ten years before I self-defined as a Carrie or a Miranda, I sorted myself as an Amy or a Jo. “Which March sister are you?” was my original personal-identification game. (I never really wanted to be Beth or Meg, as Beth—spoiler alert—dies young and Meg eventually shacks up with a broke guy with a goatee, plus she’s boring.) The genius of Little Women is that while, in real life, so many of us would have killed to be pretty and superficial like Amy, the film made us see the value of being a Jo. In my other favorite movie, The Little Mermaid, the prince only fell in love with the heroine after she sold her voice. In Little Women, the prince falls in love with Jo because she has a voice, and he helps her develop her literary skills. Laurie joins the March sisters’ acting troupe, which performs the plays Jo writes in their attic, and encourages her writing, setting up a post office box so they can send letters and treats between their houses.

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While Laurie’s indiscriminate obsession with the March sisters—“I have always known I should be part of the March family,” he tells Amy toward the end of the film—feels creepy now, I thought his love of whoever was directly in front of him was evidence of his burning intensity, the light of which would one day, inevitably, fall on me.

At the time, I was a voracious reader who had just skipped a grade with a real-life crush who routinely told me he was going to “beat the crud out of” me. The idea that my mind could attract men’s affections instead of their disdain was nothing short of revolutionary. And it’s proved to be an enduring storyline: Little Women was remade as a PBS miniseries earlier this year and a Greta Gerwig adaptation, featuring Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, will be shot this fall.

While Chalamet has the hair if not the canines, there’s much more to love about Laurie than his looks. Laurie is fun. While Jo and Laurie spot each other in passing on Christmas Day, they first properly meet at a fancy ball, where Jo flattens herself against a wall to hide the fact that the back of her skirt is burned. (The Marches, who had once been wealthy, still get invited to high-society functions, but can't afford the fashions to match.) Laurie and Jo end up play-dancing in a side room, mocking the decorum of the event.

Jo ultimately rejects his marriage proposal: “We’re both stupidly stubborn, especially you. We’d only quarrel!” she says. Years later, after a period spent as a drunken layabout, Laurie gets engaged to Amy. Jo marries an older professor played by Gabriel Byrne, whose charm does little to offset the fact that they have zero onscreen chemistry. Both make mediocre, yet conclusive, matches.

To me, the fact that Laurie and Jo never ended up together was for the best. Instead of being confronted with the inevitable challenges of such a union, I could idealize it. Laurie is the eternal lover; Jo the eternal beloved.

But he isn’t faultless. In one scene, when Amy is 12 and he’s in college, Laurie promises he’ll kiss her before she dies. Yes, he’s saying that to relieve Amy’s fears of dying from scarlet fever, which she thinks she’s contracted from Beth, but they’re cuddled up closely in a carriage and it’s discomfiting, given the age difference between them. When he proposes to Jo, he pushes too hard, ramming through her disinterest and grabbing her forcibly. He can’t conceive of how she could refuse him, even though they’ve never been together. At the time, I took the former as proof of his compassion (plus, I was little and wanted to kiss Laurie, so didn’t care that Amy was so young at the time), and the latter as proof of his passion. What Laurie does perfectly is show up. He calls Marmee back from a trip when Beth is sick before anyone asks him to. He adorns the Marches’ house with holiday decorations. He helps Jo fish Amy out of a frozen pond when she falls through the ice. He’s a total and true friend, available to their family 24-7. The idea that a guy like that—thoughtful, caring, kind—could love a nerdy girl like me? Well, that was hot.