I’ve always loved Little Women. My Mum puts the 1994 adaptation (the one with Winona Ryder) as one of her all-time favourite films, and from the first time we watched it together I was hooked on Jo March. She was a tomboy in a world where she was supposed to be anything but. She had enough independence and self-awareness to know she shouldn’t marry a boy she liked but didn’t love. She was adventurous, and forged her own way in the world – and she did it through the power of writing, no less.
Needless to say, I wanted to be Jo March when I grew up.
And when I look back on my own life, the parallels are certainly there. Uncanny ability to say the wrong thing? Check. Love of storytelling? Check. Hatred of all-things girly? Check (well, maybe). Adventurous? Check (I mean, I guess…) Determinedly independent? Check (albeit, less so these days). Actually, when I stop comparing Jo March with the version of myself I’ve always projected, and start comparing with the person I secretly am, the parallels begin to fade pretty quickly.
My love of Jo March points to a much wider problem. Jo March wasn’t my heroine because she happened to be all of these things; she was my heroine because she made it OK to be a girl and be all of these things. Jo March was independent and a girl. She was a trailblazer and a girl. She hated dressing up and flirting with boys, and she was a girl. And while that’s excellent and we should all raise a glass to Louisa May Alcott for creating such a wonderful role model for generations of real-life little women, if anything she did too good a job. Jo March broke the mould, and then became my new mould for what a “real woman” should be like.
For years, I spent so much energy trying to prove what an out-of-the-box, free-thinker I am. I felt sorry for people with no ambition, because no one would ever make a movie about a person like that. I eschewed anything that might make me fall into a gender stereotype, or lead anyone to believe I actually loved the bloke I ended up marrying. Because the women that ended up the heroines of great stories were all heroines because they were different. Sure there are plenty of books, and particularly old ones, where the nice, quiet girl gets to be the main character, but no one these days actually wants to be her.
But then I watched the new Little Women (2019). I watched Meg March explain how getting married was not an obviously feminist or important choice but still it was – a hard choice, a choice that had some difficult consequences, but a choice that she made because it was the type of life she wanted and the partner she wanted to live that life with.
I watched Amy March, usually everyone’s least favourite character, dare to be great and realise she wasn’t the best artist who ever lived. I watched her unashamedly vocalise her practical attitudes towards marrying well. I watched her enjoy nice things but still shape her life around supporting her family.
I watched Beth March do barely anything at all. I watched her lead a quiet life, one centred on family and being nothing “greater” than just a good person. And I watched how her death left a hole in that family, the pain of which lasted not in one small moment but throughout the rest of the film, such was the impact of who she was.
And yes, I watched Jo March. I watched her be quick, and clever, and boyish. I watched her make quips, and know her own mind, and stay up all night writing – all with a pang of jealousy. But I also watched her move on her own to New York, and dance with strangers in Irish bars, and talk about how lonely she was, and thought, “I would not fancy that.”
And I realised that, if I’m not 100% Jo March, that’s OK. I love the concept of adventure, but just the thought of leaving the house makes me sleepy. I love the idea of writing a bestseller but I don’t think I have the time or patience to actually write one. And I’d call myself independent in a lot of ways, but also I did get married and I like it and I’m pretty sure if James died I’d also be dead within the week because he cooks my dinner and cleans my house and knows what all the cables in the TV cabinet are for.
In fact, I took the Buzzfeed “Which March sister are you?” quiz, and I came out as Meg March – and I was OK. Because the book isn’t called, Jo March, and her sisters. Sure, she’s the more obvious main character. She’s the one that many of us gravitate towards. But the book is called Little Women. It’s about four women (and their Mum, for that matter) who are different in a lot of ways and similar in some ways and they’re all the subject of the book because they all matter.
Because it’s OK if you want to fall in love and get married. And it’s OK if you don’t.
It’s OK to be adventurous and independent. And it’s OK to like hanging around your home and your family.
It’s OK to follow your dream and fight for your book to get published, to try to be a great artist and fail, to play your music just for you in your house, or to teach acting to others instead of becoming an actress on the stage.
It’s OK to be Jo, Meg, Amy or Beth. Or some combination of all of them. Or to be Jo on some days and Meg on others and wish you were more like Beth but know you’re really like Amy. There’s no one, perfect way to be a woman, or a person, and life would be pretty boring if we all tried. Everyone is different. Everyone has their own merits and faults. Everyone has their own story with its own highs and lows. I think that’s kind of the point of Little Women. So, as the tagline to the new movie goes: own your story.
Written Chloe Satchell-Cobbett, Deputy Editor, Liberti