little women

We’re All Amy

The Little Women character has served as our national totem of spoiled little turds for 151 years, as if we didn’t all yearn to be her. Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures/YouTube

As the youngest of three girls, I rarely landed the choicest parts when my two sisters and I staged our favorite dramas. We’d put the Les Misérables original-cast soundtrack on my parents’ ancient record player, and I’d glide, impassioned, across our dining room — until Fantine dies of a combination of exposure, tuberculosis, and shame. Then I’d lie on the floor for the rest of the production, an afghan draped over my still body to indicate my death. At other times, my oldest sister played blind Mary Ingalls and tapped around the room with a stick; my middle sister claimed the heroine, Laura; and I’d be stuck as useless Carrie toting around a Cabbage Patch Kid with the even worse fate of playing baby Grace.

But I found odd glory when we imagined ourselves as Little Women’s March sisters. Along with yearly viewings of the 1949 Katharine Hepburn film version, we had a record and a read-along book for kids. Just after it flipped to the B-side, Amy would crash through the ice of Walden Pond and let out a scream so shrill we’d grin at one another with goosebumps on our arms even after we’d heard it a couple hundred times. And I, as the youngest, got to play Amy, to act out that scream and the accompanying thrashing, to purposely miss the stick my sister was proffering to “pull me out of the pond.” What a triumph for a benignly neglected littlest sister.

When I’d boast about the role, my sisters would chide me. “Amy is a brat,” they’d proclaim, “and she’s selfish.” As if either of those traits weren’t also descriptors of us, as if any of us didn’t yearn for Amy’s perfect golden ringlets or the heaps of Christmas gifts she laments not receiving or the grand European tour she takes with her Aunt March. They hated Amy because they saw themselves in her, and I loved her for the same reason. Finally, a little imp who gobbled up everything she wanted and still got her happy ending. Christ, was it fun to turn up the impudence quotient to 11.

Amy March has served as our national totem of spoiled little turds since Louisa May Alcott published Little Women, the nearly autobiographical tale of her four sisters and their hardships that I probably don’t need to describe to you, in 1868. That’s 151 years of Amy bashing, poor girl. It’s hard to know if Amy simply fits the mold of the whiny, cosseted littlest sibling, if she presaged it, or if she kicked off the whole trend. Regardless, that has been her entire identity: the preening narcissist who pins down her nose in an effort to shrink it, who swans about trying to avoid school lessons but hoping for riches, who has an uppity tendency toward malapropism. (“I know what I mean, and you needn’t be statirical about it!”) Meg is the envious but responsible eldest, who seemingly marries a poor guy as a personal challenge; Jo, the galumphing literary tomboy and spirited heroine; Beth, well, she gets away with lacking a personality because she dies tragically young (in other words, Beth is nice). Amy is simply regarded as an empty vessel, a pretty little thing obsessed with things, as flat and uninspired as the paintings she can’t quite turn into masterpieces.

To be fair to Amy haters, the novel offers a lot of juicy material to work with. While Meg toils away as a governess to the brutally rich King family and Jo is shut up all day reading to dusty Aunt March, a bejeweled cornhusk of a human, Amy cries so fiercely about being left out of the latest trend at school (preserved limes, apparently the equivalent of Hydro Flask bottles for Civil War–era VSCO girls) that her sister offers her money the family can’t spare to buy some limes of her own. Amy, of course, is caught with said forbidden limes and smacked across the hand with a ruler. She’s also a tagalong and a whiner, refusing to do the schoolwork Jo assigns her. In an act so cruel I struggle to type these words lest they disappear too, she throws her sister’s only copy of a novel manuscript in the fire as vengeance. Oh, and she marries Laurie, who everybody except Louisa May Alcott hoped would end up with Jo. (Alcott to her diary: “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”)

Greta Gerwig’s new film adaptation does a fair bit to rehabilitate Amy’s image — where in earlier versions Meg, Beth, and Amy share equal billing as supporting sisters, Florence Pugh’s (silly but philosophical) Amy is set up as a counterweight to Jo. She’s certainly as petulant as ever in childhood (she tells Jo that, if she tried, she “could be pretty!”) and obsesses over the diminutive nature of her feet, making a plaster cast of them as a gift for Laurie. (She calls them “the best in the family,” as if people regularly rate these things.) But Gerwig takes great pains to remind viewers that, even if Amy the child swooned over trinkets, adult Amy sees marrying well as a duty. Meg has married poor, Beth will never marry, and Jo has embraced low-earning work. So when Aunt March reminds her, “You are your family’s hope,” it’s essentially a demand. The other members of the March family might thrive on sanctimonious self-deprivation, but Amy gets that people gotta eat.

“Don’t tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is,” she tells Laurie in one of the film’s best scenes, as the two gaze across the classroom of her Paris art school and bicker over whether she ought to marry the blindingly rich, malignantly dull Freddy Vaughn. While Jo has trotted off to Boston to scribble away in penury, unsure of her talent, Amy is measured about her own painting skills. She tells Laurie she will be “great or nothing” but already knows that greatness eludes her. And so marriage it must be if the Marches are to carry on. For this Amy, matrimony isn’t the culmination of her girlish desire for frippery and wealth; it’s a mark of her evolution from selfish to expansive.

In Gerwig’s version, it’s clear that Amy has been thirsty for Laurie since childhood — she fawns and sighs in his presence (and attempts the aforementioned plaster foot cast to remind him of her podiatric desirability). Admittedly their marriage is a bit … hmmm … hasty. But it’s a love match that also happens to be financially advantageous for Amy’s entire family, to a man her sister soundly rejected, then literally fled, and whom Amy has intimately known since childhood. Sure, Amy gets everything she wants in Gerwig’s version and every other. But why is everybody holding that against her?

Most likely because that’s what pisses Jo off about her, even though Jo too receives a happily-ever-after ending when she and her beloved Professor Bhaer turn Aunt March’s McMansion, Plumfield, into a school. But Jo, Alcott’s own stand-in, is the arbiter of fairness in this world, and she can’t stand the fact that, as she puts it, “Amy has always had a talent for getting out of the hard parts of life.” So Amy, despite putting up with the same dull companionship job that Jo endured with Aunt March, despite growing up in the same poverty as all her sisters, despite a vanity no less all-encompassing than Meg’s, is cast as the asshole little sister who — wait for it — ends up happy. How … dare she?

What’s funny about the whole ordeal is how much more Alcott altered her own sister May’s story than those of her other sisters. Lizzie (Beth) did die at 22, weeks before the family even moved into Orchard House, her body weakened by scarlet fever that she’d contracted from a poor German family. Two years later, in 1860, Anna (Meg) did marry a penniless man named John Pratt, who bears far more than a passing resemblance to Little Women’s John Brooke. But May didn’t actually marry until she was 38 — her husband was a 22-year-old merchant whom she met abroad, not a family friend and certainly not Louisa’s former love. Rather than entirely abandon her art at a young age, the real May exhibited broadly in Paris, including in the famed Paris Salon. She’s also the only sister who lived with Louisa into adulthood.

So this whole time people have been buying Alcott’s jealousy-fueled mutations of her sister’s life. And Little Women acolytes have continued to bash Amy for the kind of shit we’d celebrate in other women. When Renata Klein anger-pointed that she would “not not be rich,” we memed her. When Amy wants a rich husband (quite literally the only route to wealth available to a woman) to keep her family from starvation, she gets branded a gold digger.

That’s really at the center of the Amy hatred, that she ends up rich beyond imagination after repeatedly stating that she wants to be rich. It’s a strange complaint to lodge in our hustle-heavy, go-get-’em-tiger, girlboss-riddled society to be annoyed by a character who gets what she wants.

The real deal is that Amy is wild fucking fun. She’s greedy and ambitious and desperately tired of playing second fiddle to her brilliant older sister. She maneuvers and manages her way into high society and has the stunning good luck to end up in love with a very rich, very lively dude. She claws a little bit, and she preens a lot, like we all do. She lives for drama and probably relished falling through that ice, just like I did. If you don’t appreciate Amy March in all her wicked glory, then I have to wonder … are you maybe just a tiny bit jealous?

We’re All Amy