When Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women ended, I was dehydrated. It was a Thursday night in January, and I was at a Cinemark near my mom’s house, and I had my period and cried from the opening scene onwards, when Jo pitches her writing and Saoirse Ronan is feisty and runs home towards her sisters and I knew I needn’t worry and that it was perfect.
I had been worried in my mother’s Subaru while we rode towards the theater—because before deciding if I was a Carrie or a Samantha or a Charlotte or a Miranda, I spent hours in my room with my dolls pondering the March sisters. I assigned them the roles of Jo or Meg or Beth, sometimes Marmie, but never Amy. I was always Amy.
There’s a picture on my mom’s living room shelf of me and my older brother standing in front of our house—at nine, he has a beard, and at seven, I’m wearing a green Victorian dress with a lace lapel. The front door behind us says “Go Sox!” It was 2004 and the Red Sox were in the World Series for the first time in decades. It was also Halloween, and I was Amy March.
Why wouldn’t you dress up as Jo? My feminist mother was worried. Because Jo’s hair is short for most of the book, I told her. Also, I’m an Amy.
It should have been obvious. I suffer from Youngest Child Syndrome. I am unhelpful and love attention. From ages nine through 12 I told people that I wanted to be a trophy wife when I grew up. I spent hours every night as a child sounding out vowels in an exaggerated fashion because my grandmother told me it would define my jawline. My brother was smarter, so I was silly, and followed him and his friends around like a puppy trying to make them laugh.
My mother was horrified. She wanted me to grow up knowing that my hair was not, in fact, my one true beauty, and that I could focus on pursuits grander than a defined jawline. She asked me over and over again why I wasn’t a Jo, because she was a Beth-Jo hybrid—and did not understand the need to find a character who was not necessarily good.
Of course I wished I was a Jo. Everyone who reads Little Women nine times before entering middle school wishes they were a Jo. But I knew I was an Amy, and that is a little thing I like to call self-awareness.
When my brother called me a dumb baby and left to build forts in the woods behind our house with friends who I knew I needed to impress, I got mad and put lotion on his toothbrush so it would taste bad. Everyone yelled about how I tried to poison Michael for a couple of days afterwards—they seemed to simply accept, with little debate or reservation, that I would be that vindictive. I was silly and irrational and absolutely would try to poison my only brother because he failed to invite me to the woods with his friends. I cried and tried explaining, but he was more self-righteous. My mom rubbed his back while I returned to my room and did my vowel exercises.
I’d like to think that Amy somehow knew about Google Drive and believed there was another copy of Jo’s work. That she’d at least had the foresight to compose a second copy of her life’s work. Maybe Amy was really mad and knowingly burned her sister’s only manuscript because she did something wrong.
Multiple friends who did not grow up as Little Women fanatics texted me to express their disapproval of my identification with Amy March after watching Gerwig’s adaptation. They referred to Amy as both a “homewrecker” and a “C-U-Next-Tuesday.” After my own viewing of Little Women ended, I sat in the Cinemark with a very wet face while the two women behind me began dissecting what they’d seen.
That Amy. She is irredeemable! Who would act that way?
I did, and sometimes still do. I saw myself when Amy cried and bled outside of Laurie’s window. I saw my younger self when Amy decided she could not afford to be good or selfless like her sisters because she needed to buy limes and fit in at school.
In film after novel after film, audiences learn to identify the humanity in a male villain who has often slain entire cities. Is it too much to ask that we examine the complexities in a young girl who acts out against her older sister and don’t simply write her off as a spoiled bitch?
There is an entire genre of books focused on women like Jo March—witty and in front of the joke and without makeup on, often because they “never need makeup” and they’re hot enough to dress frumpy. No one could ever love a fiery author like Jo, after all, even though two men are willing to off themselves just to get her attention. Women like Jo are played in film adaptations by Winona Ryder and Keira Knightley and Gwyneth Paltrow. They speak in soliloquies and spend no time making molds of their feet or crying about facial features.
Jo is easy to love. But that doesn’t make any of her sisters less deserving of the same compassion and humanity.
In college, I took a class called Gender, Class and the Nineteenth Century Novel with one boy and nine women. That boy loved women like Jo and often spoke over us in classroom discussions. Once, when I mentioned wanting to be famous, he was repulsed—because he was comfortable with women who were overlooked geniuses, who published with pen names, whose success fell upon them, but admitting to needing attention like water was crass. When we read The Mill on the Floss, he praised the Jo-like protagonist, Maggie, by comparing her to, and then mocking, her silly cousin, Lucy—George Elliot’s Amy. He championed Maggie by reducing Lucy to sexist stereotypes, and then blamed her for fitting them.
Every book about wealthy white women from the nineteenth century includes a Lucy or an Amy by which the Jo’s and the Maggie’s were compared, proving what they were not. The women in nineteenth century novels who adhere to, or aspire to mold into, Virginia Woolf’s Angel of the House, are never allowed to act as revolutionary or complex characters within the trope. We only examine their conventionally attractive, wealthy, white counterparts, who’ve rejected these prescribed roles entirely, as women worthy of novels. We don’t examine how the women adhering to gendered norms are hurting, because we’re too busy mocking the women who aspire towards them—instead of critiquing the society that instructed them to.
Louisa May Alcott avoids this in Little Women, with Jo as her heroine and the subjectivities and complexities of the three remaining sisters presented without judgement. Greta Gerwig does, too. Amy is a young girl without a clear perception of herself. She isn’t bad, but she isn’t necessarily good—she doesn’t know yet. Her actions are shaped and swayed by the need to impress both the girls at school and the boys she wants to love her, the mother who taught her well and her inner self, which is always there even when it isn’t powerful. She is intelligent but often feels silly and weak, and sometimes even plays it to get things. Her self-esteem is low, and we don’t blame her for it. Instead, Gerwig and Alcott examined the world shaping and shrinking her self-perception and prospects.
Jo is easy to celebrate. She was exceptional. It is easy to differentiate Jo from her gender identity because she is above silly, womanly concerns. She clearly diverges from gender roles that were and are assigned to women, standards we are learning to reject. But Jo is complex, too, and filled with conflicting identities and passions and limitations. She wants to kill Amy when her sister burns her manuscript and calls her stupid and selfish and vain. She sobs when that same sister falls through the ice.
When Amy is older, living in Paris and talking with Timothee Chalamet, she explains why love isn’t always romantic, why she’ll never be a genius, why marrying for money is a necessity and her only means for survival as a woman in the nineteenth century who is not a genius. And at the end of Little Women, when Amy explains to Jo that the writing and telling of stories can infuse them with importance and tells Jo that the importance of a story isn’t based upon the quantity in which it is revered or told, and Jo asks a pointed question—”when did you get so wise?”—Amy delivers a pointed response. She has always been wise, but everyone was too busy pointing out her flaws to notice.
Amy was wise as she was vain and silly and cruel. Amy loved deeply while remaining practically materialistic. Amy embodies stereotypes about women and femininity just as easily as she proves herself wildly imperfect, talented and intelligent—bucking them all. Amy is a young woman in a novel written in 1868 who does questionable things like burn a manuscript and marry her sister’s kind-of-ex and constantly complain about her nose, all while maintaining her individualism. Amy is a whole person.
With age and time, I learned that I was smart and that I could care about more than the definition of my jaw. I also learned that I could care about the definition of my jaw without being an irredeemable fool. A teenage girl who is sometimes shitty but is not an irredeemable bitch was an important representation for me.
I knew that Amy could be silly without being stupid, and that she was maybe even in on the joke. Louisa May Alcott and Greta Gerwig knew this, too. I knew it when I was seven and found a perfect green dress and wanted to be a writer. I knew it in the Cinemark, when I cried as Florence Pugh brought Amy to life—every inch calculated and funny and talented and selfish and imperfect.
I was very angry on Halloween in 2004.
That year, I picked out my Amy March dress from a box of hand-me-downs from my older cousins. I found the dress earlier in the year, in April. It puffed out at the bottom like it had a hoop, and the sleeves pinched around my wrists. It was perfect. I slept with my hair in wet braids for two nights before we went trick-or-treating; I wanted hair that waved and I wasn’t allowed to curl it.
My neighbor Hailey wore a store-bought costume instead—Belle from Beauty and the Beast. Her gown was really yellow, and she used a hair curler. When she twirled for our neighbor two houses over, they told her she was a perfect Belle.
And what are you supposed to be? Mrs. Lewis asked me. Are you a Pilgrim? I was horrified. No, I am not a fucking pilgrim, Mrs. Lewis, I wanted to yell.
I am Amy fucking March.