From social media to awards season discourse people can’t stop talking about Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Much of the praise ties into the Gerwig’s choice to frame the story in a series of flashbacks and flashforwards instead of a standard timeline in which all of the previous 43 adaptations of Little Women had done (fifteen plays, six films, thirteen tv shows, seven musicals, and two radio audio dramas). With this stroke of genius, Gerwig refreshes the 151-year-old classic tale allowing audiences to see the story in a new light. For example, Gerwig places Beth’s funeral, Meg’s wedding, and Amy’s announcement that she is leaving for Europe together in the narrative because Jo sees each event as the times she lost a sister. Without the change to the narrative arc, some audiences may not have picked up on Jo’s strong values of sisterhood and family. Gerwig spends more time with the adult March sisters resulting in perhaps best outcome to the narrative change: an Amy March Renaissance
Greta Gerwig Gets It
Amy March, the youngest of the March sisters has historically been the least liked of the four. Louisa May Alcott positions Amy as a foil to her older sister Jo who is the author’s semi-autobiographical stand-in. Whether intentional or not since Jo is the main character and a stand-in for Alcott, the author raises up Jo’s tomboyish features, feminist values, smarts and independent attitude is praised and looks down upon Amy’s seemingly vain unimportant values like materialism, vanity, and love. This sentiment has been repeated in all of the adaptations until Gerwig’s adaptation. In an interview with the Atlantic Gerwig states that “When I read [the novel] as an adult, Amy was the one who struck me as having some of the most interesting things to say and having the most utterly clear-eyed view of the world. I think I started seeing her as this… equally potent character to Jo.”
In other words, Gerwig understands that Amy is just as important and equally powerful female role model as Jo. It’s why Gerwig chose to have both sisters receive the bulk of the movie’s screen time; particularly a major increase for Amy as an adult. As Stylist writer Hannah-Rose Yee writes, “Gerwig understands that the actions of young children should not be used to judge their true nature.” A key reason why Amy March is successfully redeemed in this adaptation and not the others is because Gerwig equally values and understands each sister. When she talks to the New York Times about the March sisters, she talks about them like they were her own real-life sisters saying “those are my girls.”
Florence Pugh as Amy March
A brilliant writer like Gerwig can write the best screenplay, but it’s also up to the actor to sell it. Gerwig knew who would help sell the rebranded Amy March. Enter Florence Pugh. From Lady Macbeth (2017), and Fighting With The Family (2019) to Midsommar (2019) and Black Widow (2020), Florence Pugh can play almost anyone. Gerwig knew Pugh was her Amy as soon as she saw her saying to the Atlantic, “I felt like every picture I could find of her, she was standing with her legs apart and her hands on her hips and her little nose in the air, and I just thought, That’s her! As the foil to Saoirse Ronan’s formidable Jo, I required an actor who could match Ronan’s ferocity. In Pugh, Gerwig said, she found someone with a “groundedness” who wouldn’t wither in scenes opposite Jo.”
As for Pugh herself, she enjoyed playing Amy and even related to her. Pugh was the youngest member of her family for seven years until a baby sister arrived. As Pugh says to the Atlantic that “Little sisters or little brothers are always annoying because they’ve always had a different type of parenting.”
Florence’s love for Amy March stems from her childhood. Florence grew up with her grandma reading Little Women. Her grandmother always appreciated Amy. “My entire life I’ve always appreciated the slightly cheeky or naughty characters in the books or films,” Pugh tells Junkee. “I find joy and pleasure in making people relatable even when they are not necessarily nice people.” Few people could pull off both a whiny, annoying but lovable teenager and a wise, mature, tough assertive young adult but Florence Pugh nails it. Two of the most shared clips from the adaptation are of Amy March as a child and then as an adult.
Jo Marches of The World: A Hegemonic Master Narrative
When Little Women first was published in 1868, Jo March was a deeply radical character. She is easy to celebrate and held up as a role model because she is an independent, intelligent, feisty, free-thinking feminist. On the other hand, Amy is more complex. Before the 2019 adaptation, audiences remembered Amy as the sister who burned Jo’s play and married Jo’s childhood friend. When put in direct competition with Jo the perfect feminist role model it is easy to disregard Amy as anything other than the selfish brat of a sister and in some people’s mind serves as the villain of the story.
When analyzing novels about 19th-century women, one can see a pattern. Every book includes an Amy March or a Lydia Bennet by which the Jo March’s and Elizabeth Bennet’s were compared to. We praise the later; women who have rejected their prescribed roles entirely. We assume that the “Amys” and “Lydias” are only there to lift up their better counterparts. Thus began a hegemonic master narrative that the only good type of female were females who completely rejected society’s rules. As Ms Magazine correctly points out ‘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. 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.”
Additionally children’s literature was still a new genre when the novel first came out. Louisa May Alcott created one of the first coming of age novels written specifically for girls. However in 2020, as Ms Magazine said we have an abundance of Jos, Hermonies, Katnisses, and Annabeths. Don’t get me wrong we still need these fiercely badass free-thinking characters. It’s simply time to start celebrating different types of female role models.
A Slytherin to Jo’s Gryffindor
People’s hatred of Amy very much hinge on Amy’s interactions and relationship with Jo. A lot of people’s dislike, annoyance, or inability to comprehend Amy’s perspective and why she does the things that she does is because audiences love Jo. Jo herself spend the majority of every adaptation in conflict with Amy. Because we the audience are mainly in Jo’s head, we judge Amy in the same way Jo does. Audiences agree with Jo that Amy is handed things on a silver platter. Since Amy achieved her dream very easily (from Jo’s perspective), it becomes that much more frustrating we Jo struggle every day to achieve her dream. Jo eventually does achieve her dream, so why do we celebrate one sister getting what she wants and not the other? Just because Amy didn’t struggle as much as Jo, does that mean she doesn’t deserve to have her dreams come true? The Vulture points out, “it’s a strange complaint to lodge in our hustle-heavy, go-get-’em-tiger, girl boss-riddled society to be annoyed by a character who gets what she wants.”
Amy and Jo are a lot alike. Both are assertive, uncompromising, impulsive, hotheaded. Most importantly, both of them are ambitious artists who are seriously talented. In an interview with Deadline Gerwig says “some of Amy’s lines are lines that stood out to me as if they were written in neon. As if they could have been said yesterday. For example Amy says “I want to be great or nothing.” Which is so ambitious and big, and such a statement from a 20-year-old about art. It’s not a cute pursuit. It’s a completely egomaniacal pursuit in the best way. Amy also says, “I don’t pretend to be wise, but I am observant.” You think, Holy sh*t, this girl sees everything. She knows everything. She can’t necessarily change the world, but she’s going to figure out how to win. And that seems profound. Another thing Amy said is, “The world is hard on ambitious girls.” And the world is still hard on ambitious girls…the other thing about Amy that I think is telling, and it’s interesting how this has changed, is Amy is a character of profound desires and lust that she has no problem expressing. And I think it’s interesting that for years, the character we hated the most is the character who most expresses her desire.” Gerwig understands the link between the unfair hatred towards Amy and her loud ambition. In a postmodern femminst world we often respect or even admire women with ambition. The whole “girl boss” movement is founded upon celebrating and helping women with big dreams and are willing to work hard for them. In short, the movement is about being the boss of your own life. Amy wants just that. She knows that she wants to be an artist in Rome and be the best painter in the world. She wants to be great or nothing. We should celebrate that.
The main difference between the sisters is that Amy is pragmatic and a realist. Jo and Amy want the same thing in life: to make art and live a beautiful, stimulating life. The key difference is how they go about achieving their dream. Jo is determined to make her living as a writer, whereas Amy plans to make her life by marrying someone with money. As the Washington Post beautifully puts it, “Amy’s pursuit of wealth matures into one driven not by materialistic self-interest, but by a realistic view of how the world operates.” In other words, the main difference in their ability to achieve their dreams is the time Amy and Jo live in. Jo wants to be independent, make her own money, support her family, and live off her money. These dreams are very hard to achieve in the 1860s, and she must willfully ignore her society’s rules to achieve her dreams.
As a result, Jo struggles to make her dreams come true. Since Jo is the narrator, the audience is with Jo in her times of hardship and feel for her while she struggles. Amy, on the other hand, works within the conventions of her time to get what she wants. She is not like Jo. Amy is not a rebel turning away from societal expectations and refusing to adhere to patriarchal standards. In short, she plays within the rules of society. She works within the gender hierarchy, structures, and parameters that are placed upon her. In Amy’s eyes working within the system instead of going against the system is a far more practical way to provide for her family and continue her art. As YouTube channel The Take explains it, “Amy’s a Slytherin to Jo’s Gryffindor.” Amy’s outlook on like is pragmatic, but she is ambitious, doing whatever it takes to get what she wants. The metaphor explains that a Slytherin will often work within the system to get what they want, and Gryffindor would rather dismantle the system and build a new system to suit their desires.
The Economics of Marriage and Female Empowerment
Perhaps the best new addition to the Little Women adaptation world is Amy March’s monologue towards the end of the second act. As CinemaBlend writer Sarah El-Mahmound writes, “In the 2019 movie version, Greta Gerwig takes the story in her own hands by giving Florence Pugh a monologue that allows Amy to explain how she was quite clever for her time by embracing femininity and uses it to her advantage.” In the scene with Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), she tells him about how marrying a rich man is an economic aspiration and her only outlet to be safe and comfortable in the world.
“I’m just a woman, and as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family, and if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.
According to the Atlantic, Meryl Streep who plays Aunt March convinced Greta Gerwig to include the monologue, pointing out to the writer-director that she had to make clear to the audience why there’s so much pressure on Amy to marry and to marry well. In an interview with Deadline Greta explains the monologue saying, “you have to understand that women could not only not vote, they couldn’t own anything not even their children. They could leave a bad marriage but they would get nothing. So, when you’re talking about marriage, you’re talking about the biggest decision you’ll make, because if you yoke yourself to the wrong person, you will suffer for the rest of your life. So really it’s not just an economic proposition, it’s all-encompassing, and it was the decision you have to make. You have no possibilities outside of that.”
Amy is a very intelligent and observant person who notices the way that her sisters act and the choices that they made. Sometime before the monologue, Amy has a revelation. She realizes that everyone in her family is a romantic. Her parents married each other, and they are penniless. Meg tossed away her chance of being a part of high society and traded it in for a humble life and loving marriage. Jo is absolutely 100% dedicated to her art and will not marry anyone. Beth is not a viable option because she is in and out of good health. Therefore whether she likes it or not, Amy must take on the role of the realist. She has to be pragmatic. She has to be responsible. She must take the only path that she sees available to provide for the family she deeply loves. As previously discussed audiences as Jo puts it believes “Amy has always had a talent for getting out of the hard parts of life.”
From the little actions like donating their Christmas breakfast to their poor neighbors to cutting off her hair for money, sacrifice is a huge theme in Little Women. When Amy tells Laurie in the monologue that marriage is an economic proposition, she is telling him marriage is sacrifice. As YouTube Daria says, “She has to give up her romantic notions of being in an amazing artist, marrying for love, and all the other things her sisters hold on to. She has to give all that up so that she can uphold her family in the most realistic way possible.” In an interview with The Atlantic, Gerwig acknowledges the benefits of Amy’s pragmatic realist thinking, saying, “Amy is the sister with the greatest understanding of how her femininity could work for her. There’s something about Amy, Jo can’t put her ego aside long enough to get what she needs to get, but Amy can. It’s just, I loved that [Europe] section of the book … I wanted that feeling in it, of Amy’s utter practicality when it comes to how to get ahead.”
Sadly we don’t live in Lousia May Alcott’s or Gretta Gerwig’s warm golden world where sister love and strong wills, and stubbornness will always conquer over the oppressive harsh world in the end. The truth, even if we don’t like it, is that we wanted to grow up and be Jo. We believed that anyone and everyone who had the courage to rebel against systems would be successful. In the end, we all turned out to be at least a little like Amy. We learned how the world works around us. We learned how to navigate it as best as we can to our advantage. At the end of the film after finishing up the first draft of Little Women, Jo asks her sisters “Who will be interested in a story of domestic struggles and joys? It doesn’t have any real importance.” 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.
In her own words, Amy tells Jo, “Maybe we don’t see those things as important because people don’t write about them. I’m not sure…perhaps writing will make them more important.” In response, Jo asks a pointed question—” when did you get so wise?” As if talking directly to the audience and in true Amy March cheekiness, she delivers a pointed response: “I always have been, you were just too busy noticing my faults.” After 151 years and 44 adaptations, thanks to Gerwig’s screenplay and Florence Pugh’s portrayal like Jo March people are finally appreciating Amy March.