While perusing Twitter, I came across a perfect thread from Anne Thériault, a Canadian writer who is a delight to follow. That thread was about the characters from Little Women as personality types. As is typical when Little Women comes up, everyone started bashing Amy. And since there is a new PBS miniseries out now, it’s time for me to write this screed in defense of Amy March. It’s also time, for all of us, to come clean: we are all Amys.
Oh, I’m sorry, you thought you were a Jo, right? Or maybe even a Meg? (I know I left out Beth. If you reallllly want to claim to be a Beth, I will not stop you.) It’s tempting to think of ourselves as the unconventional, fiercely smart, stubborn heroine with martyr tendencies. But I’m not afraid to admit that in reality, I am much more like the sometimes selfish, surprisingly practical Amy.
Jo is flawed too, of course—and seriously irritating a lot of the time, don’t @ me–but for some reason it’s Amy’s flaws that Little Women fans seize on. I’ve always wondered why.
Is it because she’s blonde? (We all know Jo has the best hair. It’s canon.)
Is it because she’s the youngest and therefore most spoiled of the sisters? (Beth is a little spoiled. She gets to sit around playing with kittens all day even before she gets sick!)
Is it because Amy admits that she wants material things, like the most goddamn pickled limes money can buy? (Meg has a shallow streak, too.)
Is it because Amy ends up with Laurie? BECAUSE JO REJECTED HIM. I will never stop shouting this at people. And it was the right decision! Laurie would bore Jo senseless, and Jo would frustrate Laurie every day of their lives. Admit it, people.
At this point most people will cite the Amy-destroying-Jo’s-manuscript episode as the root of their Amy rage. I get it. That’s pretty bad and I have no defense to offer. But…if Jo can manage to forgive Amy, can’t the rest of us? We all want to seek revenge for petty slights sometimes, it’s fine.
(Plus, have you ever had a friend who was working on something, be it a novel or a line of hand-knit characters from classic literature, and it was the only thing they talked about for months on end, and you were proud of them for pursuing their dream but also maybe a little tired of hearing about it all the time? I’m just saying that a very small part of me understands why Amy threw that thing in the fire.)
No, I think readers really dislike Amy because she gets what she wants without appearing to work very hard for it. Jo is often thwarted or humbled in her pursuit of her dreams. She also has to submit to lectures from a random German professor. Meanwhile, Amy is whisked off to Europe, learns enough about art to realize she’ll never have the talent of a true artist, and perfectly executes her back-up plan of falling for and marrying a wealthy family friend.
It’s easy to forget, if you’ve watched one of the film adaptations in lieu of re-reading the book, that Amy is almost as serious about becoming an artist as Jo is about her writing. That’s why she wants to go to Europe in the first place, to study art. Amy also likes dresses and pearls and pretty things, so I think people (and the movies) tend to gloss over her more serious ambitions.
I hope no one needs me to tell them that it’s perfectly fine for anyone of any gender to like the kinds of things traditionally coded as feminine. It doesn’t make you an inherently silly or less worthy person. Yes, we can empathize with Jo when she says she wishes she were a boy so she could have the same opportunities that Laurie does—but can’t we also empathize with Amy when she wishes she could be just a little more elegant? Like it or not, these women live in 19th-century America. Amy and Meg obviously feel more pressured to conform to socialized gender norms than Jo does, but let’s not blame them for that.
Amy does “work” for what she ends up getting: she’s nice to a rich old relative, something that Jo finds difficult. Aunt March isn’t all that pleasant, but Amy knows how to play the game. Yes, I admit that I, too, would befriend Aunt March for a free trip to Europe. Just because Jo is incapable of swallowing her opinions during teatime doesn’t mean everyone in the family should miss out on going to Italy. Look, when your father is always off at war and your sisters are marrying a broke tutor, slowly dying, or putting all their eggs in the basket of literary fame and fortune, you have to be practical.
In all seriousness, I’ve loved Little Women since I was eight years old; I make fun of the characters because I love them. I’ve always related more to Amy than Jo. Call me shallow if you want, but I love a good pickled food item and a pretty dress. It’s hard to admit this in public because everyone hates Amy and loves Jo, as though the entire book is forcing us to choose between the two of them. And it’s not, of course; there are two other sisters to identify with, although Meg’s life post-marriage is boring as heck, I’m sorry, and Beth dies, so…okay, maybe it is between Amy and Jo, but I reject the impulse to pit sisters against each other.
I think they’re more alike than we suspect. Both are motivated by dreams of artistic careers. Where Amy is practical, realizing that she doesn’t have the talent for it, Jo is a dreamer, intent on honing her craft. Both learn how to handle their flaws over the course of the book. Amy grows up and stops being quite so shallow and bratty—remember, she’s younger than the others, so of course she seems extra spoiled. And Jo learns how to curb her temper.
It doesn’t surprise me that everyone wants to be Jo. She doesn’t seem to care about convention or what fashionable people think. She’s so far ahead of her time that she feels closer to us, like a modern heroine. (I am choosing to ignore everything that happens in the sequels.) But I’m honest enough to admit that that just isn’t me, at least not all the time—and is it really the rest of you? Do we actually have the energy to rail against convention every minute of the day? Don’t we all want to be able to treat our friends to pickled limes sometimes? Aren’t we all capable of admitting that sometimes we are shallow? (I know you’re all spending a lot of time and money on skincare right now!)
Everyone wants to think they are a Jo March, or an Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, or a Cassandra Mortmain of I Capture the Castle. Think about knowing those characters in real life—wouldn’t they be kind of intense, and maybe even annoying? Imagine, you tell your friend that you’re giving up your artistic dreams because you know yourself and what you’re truly capable of (which is very mature!), or that you need to marry some disappointing dude to secure your financial future (which is a big bummer, but also still pretty mature). Their reaction is holier-than-thou shock and horror. They’re off turning down marriage proposals and thinking about their art like their actions don’t have consequences for those around them. Even when Meg wants to get married for love, Jo’s first reaction is outright disgust.
So while I hope none of us have to marry for money or give up our creative dreams, I do think it’s fine to admit that we want security, a bit of elegance, and to feel accepted. I’m here to tell you to go ahead and embrace your inner Rose Mortmain, Charlotte Lucas, or Amy March. Pickled limes for everyone!
(P.S. Want more Little Women? Check out these LW-inspired items and take a quiz to find out which March sister you really are. I got Meg! Life is a rich tapestry.)