A couple of years ago, I elevator-pitched my second novel as “It’s like if Little Women and Picnic at Hanging Rock were the same book.” I was only about 90 pages into writing it and, even as I said the words, not yet sure if they were at all true. So I decided I’d need to re-read Little Women just to make sure. I hadn’t read the book since I was a child but remembered the basics: Marmee was a saint, Jo was a badass, Amy was a bitch, Meg was in no way remarkable, and Beth was dead.
Like many little girls who wanted to grow up to be writers, I idealized Jo March as the blueprint for the type of woman I wanted to become. She hated fussing with bonnets and slippers and social conventions, because she was serious about her art. Winona Ryder’s big-eyed earnestness in the 1994 film adaptation sold it even more, and somewhere in the years just before I discovered the kinds of sisters I would truly spend the rest of my life thinking about—murder-y ones like the Blackwood girls from We Have Always Lived in the Castle—the March sisters, mostly Jo and excluding Amy, the little brat who burned Jo’s manuscript and thus did not deserve Laurie, were the models for what women, especially women writers, were supposed to be. Consciously or not, this description of Jo’s writing process would become the working definition of what it means to be a Serious Writer by which I would measure myself for the next two decades:
She did not think herself a genius by any means, but when the writing fit came on, she gave herself up to it with entire abandon, and led a blissful life, unconscious of want, care, or bad weather, while she sat safe and happy in an imaginary world, full of friends almost as real and dear to her as any in the flesh. Sleep forsook her eyes, meals stood untasted, day and night were all too short to enjoy the happiness which blessed her only at such times, and made these hours worth living, even if they bore no other fruit. The divine afflatus usually lasted a week or two, and then she emerged from her ‘vortex’, hungry, sleepy, cross, or despondent.
That blissful life—living through words on the page, free of the desire to eat, sleep, or take a quick break just to pop into Glossier and put sparkly things on my eyelids for a few minutes—was what it meant to be a real writer, and becoming a real writer might finally provide a cure for the silly condition of being a woman.
But something unexpected happened when I read Little Women as an adult woman who had actually become a writer. It was now Jo I found insufferable and Amy I was rooting for. Every time Jo pouted away from “girlish gossip,” longing to talk about real subjects, like ice skating, with the raucous boys in the parlor, I found myself rolling my eyes. In Little Women, the only interests worth pursuing, at least where our heroine is concerned, are those enjoyed by men and boys. Works by Dickens and Bunyon are real literary works. Scary Gothic scribblings, mostly by women writers, are unimportant, the ultimate waste of Jo’s talent and time. Jo wants to be a writer, but she wants to be a writer like men are writers. Written off as “trash” is the kind of fiction that so delighted another literary favorite of mine, Northanger Abbey’s Gothic novel aficionado Catherine Morland:
Jo accepted it with a smile, for she had never outgrown her liking for lads, and soon found herself involved in the usual labyrinth of love, mystery, and murder, for the story belonged to that class of light literature in which the passions have a holiday, and when the author’s invention fails, a grand catastrophe clears the stage of one half the dramatis personae, leaving the other half to exult over their downfall.
“Prime, isn’t it?” asked the boy, as her eye went down the last paragraph of her portion.
“I think you and I could do as well as that if we tried,” returned Jo, amused at his admiration of the trash.
As a girl, I also learned to dismiss the things I liked: labyrinths, love, mysteries, and, most of all, murder, as trash, while understanding male subjects—war, honor, and getting shot in the dick—as literary. I was an easy mark, since, like Jo, I hated small talk and social gatherings, much preferring to sit in a tree and read about the more interesting lives of other people. Little Women was the first book to reinforce my suspicion that disliking how hot my feet got in too-tight church shoes and pantyhose was a telltale sign of nascent feminism.
My father was the opposite of a feminist, a four-times married man who liked women to conform to all the standard conventions of beauty while simultaneously believing that all the trappings of those standards were vapid and unworthy of a serious person’s notice. So I believed the message coming from both sides: Jo, the feminist hero of Little Women, telling me that engaging in conversation with women about clothes and hairstyles was something only unwriterly women did, and my own parent, on the opposite end of the spectrum, agreeing.
Amy, on the other hand, does not give two shits about the opinions of Jo, my father, or anyone else for that matter. As a girl, I read the story of Amy being struck by a teacher over bartering pickled limes for friendship as a lesson about the evils of corporal punishment, but as an adult, I can see it is also a parable about the dangers of women being too proud of their own talents, especially if those talents involve performing femininity for any sort of advantage:
“Do you mean you are glad I was disgraced before the whole school?” cried Amy.
“I should not have chosen that way of mending a fault,” replied her mother, “but I’m not sure that it won’t do you more good than a bolder method. You are getting to be rather conceited, my dear, and it is quite time you set about correcting it. You have a good many little gifts and virtues, but there is no need of parading them, for conceit spoils the finest genius. There is not much danger that real talent or goodness will be overlooked long, even if it is, the consciousness of possessing and using it well should satisfy one, and the great charm of all power is modesty.”
“So it is!” cried Laurie, who was playing chess in a corner with Jo. “I knew a girl once, who had a really remarkable talent for music, and she didn’t know it, never guessed what sweet little things she composed when she was alone, and wouldn’t have believed it if anyone had told her.”
Amy is performing her womanhood a little too well, a little flashily. She is doing so well, in fact, that she is earning notice for it, and in the world of Little Women, winning attention and praise for anything is distasteful but earning it for false talents as silly as tying ribbons well or cleverly designing a party dress on a limited budget is a disgrace.
It is Amy’s disregard for all the rules around which talents are real and which “little gifts” are virtuous that has made her a hero to me when she used to be the closest thing the story had to a villain. Even the book, which offers some hard critiques of Amy’s character, refuses to dish out a Vanity Fair-style, Becky Sharp punishment for her transgressions, though the two characters similarly barter femininity for personal gain.
Amy uses distasteful girlishness to win her place in wealthier family members’ hearts, then parlays that love into a trip to Paris along with the art education she’s longed for and finally marriage to Laurie, which brings the financial security she craved as a child. While the only real villains in Little Women are the Civil War and the patriarchy, I came away hating Amy as if she had set my own manuscript on fire. I wonder now how big a part of that hatred comes from the lessons we internalized as children about vanity, the trivial nature of girlishness, and the desires women are so often expected to sacrifice in service of others’ comfort.
Opinions vary on whether or not Jo belongs with Laurie, but it seemed one thing on which we could all agree was that Amy sure as shit did not deserve him. Because whether you view Laurie as a hot literary sad boy or an annoying slice of milquetoast moping about the March’s property line, for Amy, winning Laurie means eating your Christmas breakfast and giving it to the Hubbles too. For some reason, it is difficult to believe Amy, who so unabashedly desires pickled limes to trade for pretty paper and trips to the theater, deserves a life like that. Especially after watching Beth free herself so completely of any desire but to shoulder the burdens of others that those burdens finally become so heavy she can no longer lift a sewing needle to make toys for needy children, and she dies, nobly, having given all she could.
But isn’t Amy’s way better? Amy is the only little women to embrace the fact that she has desires untethered to the service of others. Save Amy, no one in the March house enjoys herself without first examining the fact that she shouldn’t. And despite being told over and over by her mother, her sisters, and even Laurie that her talent for winning advantage by currying favor with the nice manners society demanded she adopt was inappropriate, Amy never stopped trading those limes for “selfish” desires like comfort and security, desires she takes seriously in defiance of the fact that every rule her in world mandates she dismiss them. The feminine barter she practices over the course of the novel, exchanging one trivial, girlish interaction for something just a smidge bigger until she walks away with an education, love, and a fortune is every bit as much of a triumph, given the restrictions of the world in which the March sisters live, as Jo learning to write like a German man and opening a boy’s school.
When I was a girl, being called an Amy was an insult. We were supposed to all want to be Jos, or if not Jo, Meg, or at least Beth. Dying of unselfishness was a more desirable fate than understanding an inherently unfair social system so well you could manipulate that system until you won it. Even as an adult, I’ve been called an Amy by people using the term to mean I enjoy contour palettes a little too much to ever be a Serious Writer like Jo.
But as a grown woman, being an Amy is fine by me. Though my adult opinions are not ones that would garner much approval from Jo March, and lord knows they have never pleased my father, I continue to root for the Amy Marches and even the Becky Sharp of the literary world because they fight dirty with the only weapons their shitty, gendered world has made available: the silly niceties and double standards designed to keep them in their place.