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Little Women and the Importance of Loving Both Amy and Jo

Louisa May Alcott helping sisters understand each other since 1868.

Little Women

Sisters, sisters. There were never such devoted sisters …

Greta Gerwig’s fantastic adaptation of Little Women hits the big screen today, and with it, one of the most iconic sisterly rivalries of all time (aside from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane), Jo and Amy March!

The independent and tomboyish Jo (played to perfection by Saoirse Ronan), who dreams of supporting herself and her family with her writing, often butts heads with her younger sister Amy (in a legendary performance by Florence Pugh), who, in turn, dreams of being a famous painter but is constantly frustrated by feeling trapped in Jo’s shadow.

As the younger sister, Amy feels jealous and stifled at home, and longs to be able to enjoy the freedoms (and attention) that her older sisters receive. Her frustration builds, constantly exploding in minor temper tantrums, until one time she goes too far and burns the story that Jo has been writing for their father, who is off fighting for the Union army in the U.S. Civil War. Realizing only after it has been destroyed that she has wounded Jo far more deeply than she intended, she desperately tries to make amends, but it is only when she literally risks her life and safety in this pursuit (she chases Jo out onto the thin ice of a frozen lake and falls through) that Jo is able to put aside her hurt and forgive Amy.

As the tomboyish oldest sibling of three sisters, I grew up relating to and idolizing Jo March. I had dreams of being a writer and forging a new path into the world, away from my small, rural hometown. I was weird, and rough, and had zero interest (for the most part) in the boys I grew up with—I just knew there were bigger and better things out there, and I couldn’t wait to discover them for myself.

I didn’t care about current fashion trends, instead embracing a more androgynous goth/punk aesthetic. I gave myself many different and terrible pixie cuts. And naturally, my middle sister felt like the perfect parallel of Amy. She was a talented athlete and extremely pretty and fashionable. She was always very put together. She was boisterous and popular. She wasn’t interested in painting (though she actually is quite naturally good at it), but she was extremely competitive and frustrated at being held back from doing the things that I, the older sister, was allowed to do.

As a result, she would lose her temper, lash out, and say the cruelest things she could think of. There was a lot of yelling, a lot of punching, a lot of glares, and a lot of harsh words whispered under our breath at the dinner table. This only intensified as we grew into our teenage years, especially because we shared one small bedroom, and later, again, when I chose to move away for college and she chose to stay in our hometown. We spent a long time with this tension, neither of us able to understand or appreciate the choices of the other.

But watching Ronan and Pugh bring Jo and Amy’s rivalry to life in such a nuanced and humanizing way caused me to reflect on my relationship with my own sister, especially the ways in which our lives echoed that of the fictional March family. Pugh, in particular, pours so much empathy into Amy that I saw my least favorite character in the novel in a whole new light. I truly felt her frustration with Jo and the obliviousness to her older sibling privilege.

And as a young adult in France when she burns out and chooses to give up her pursuit of being a painter—because, while very good, she realizes that she will never be great—I suddenly understood my sister’s choice to give up playing soccer her senior year of high school. Or, at least, I caught a glimpse into her possible motivations and I felt for her deeply.

And Ronan as Jo caused me to reflect on some of my past behavior, as well. Her bluntness, her impatience, and her little, unintentional barbs of cruelty, I saw echoed in my teenage self. As someone who longed for independence and solitude, having my younger sister constantly at my side, wanting to do the same things I did, made me feel claustrophobic and irritated.

As a young person, it can feel hard to forge your own path if it doesn’t feel like yours, and it’s easy to shut out the people who want to partake in it with you (especially if they’re your younger sister). And while we have never fallen in love with the same boy (stay tuned for a Mary Sue piece about Amy and Laurie!), we did constantly find ourselves in competition with each other.

But that is the brilliance of this adaptation, and in particular, Ronan and Pugh’s performances. They managed to capture the full complexity of these two sisters—their admirable attributes and also their many flaws. Jo is no longer the perfect heroine, and neither is Amy the despicable villain (as much as this story actually has heroines and villains). Instead, you cheer and groan for them both as they struggle (sometimes succeeding and often failing) to live together and love each other.

Basically, what I’m saying is that if you have siblings, take them to see Little Women during your holiday break.

(image: Columbia Pictures)

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