Long before internet quizzes asked women to reduce themselves to female archetypes by finding out “which Sex and the City character are you?”, generations of girls grew up reading Little Women and playing, in their own imaginations, “which March sister are you?”
Like the creative, tomboyish heroine of Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel about four very different sisters, I was a Josephine who went by the more boyish name Jo, the second daughter in a big family of girls. The choice seemed pre-ordained.
It wouldn’t have mattered anyway though – like so many girls who grow up wanting to write and push against social conventions, I hoped to be Jo anyway.
So tight and so obvious was this affinity that when I went to see Greta Gerwig’s gorgeous reimagining of the story with my mum and my two sisters recently, she turned to me in the cinema lobby beforehand.
“You’re the star of this movie,” she said warmly.
But Jo’s appeal has often come with one catch
Unlike her genteel sister Meg, Jo pushes against the strictures imposed on women of her time (“I like boys’ games and work and manners”) but also against the heroine’s typical journey – one defined by the pursuit of love and marriage. Jo was not only an outsider (and many readers believe, with good reason, coded queer) but an artist. She’s often the first one many girls encounter in print.
“She has always been there to greet maverick girls like myself,” wrote Patti Smith in her ode to Jo, “with a toss of her cropped hair and a playful wink to say come along. To guide us, provide encouragement, lay her footprints on a path she beckons us to follow.”
But Jo’s appeal has often come with one catch. Many who love her say it is in spite of the resolution of her story, and not because of it.
Alcott, who never married, wanted Jo’s life to mirror her own into adulthood. She was, by her own description, a “literary spinster”.
But when she wrote the second half of Little Women (the first half, chronicling the girl’s teenage years, was already a published success) she came under a familiar pressure to women of her age, and indeed every age: to wrap things up with marriage.
“Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life,” Alcott wrote in her journal.
The pressure – and desire to keep selling the books that were helping to lift her and her family out of poverty – proved effective.
Alcott resisted the specific match most fans wanted. Jo crushed her best friend Laurie – and the romantic dreams of generations of girls to come – by having her reject his ardent proposal. But she concocted an alternative suitor, Prof Friedrich Bhaer, an older, impoverished gentleman who is at times withering of Jo’s populist writing. He becomes the story’s strange romantic deus ex machina, who swoops in and gives her, and Little Women, something of a conventional ending.
That marriage “felt like an enormous betrayal as a reader,” is how the writer Jennifer Weiner put it recently, a “capitulation”, more than a coupling.
So it was a small thrill to see how Gerwig – a self-described Jo – offered a small restitution for Alcott and her heroine.
She does this by turning the film into a metafiction – or what critic Dana Stevens accurately observed is poioumenon – a story about its own creation. Towards the end of the film, Jo is writing Little Women – a book about her own life. She spars with an older male publisher about how to end it.
“So, who does she marry?” he asks intemperately, and Jo can barely disguise her frustration.
It is a moment of exasperation for Jo that gave me, and I imagine many other single women, a shudder of recognition and a new reason to empathise with Jo. How often have many of us – even today – found the image of ourselves as individuals, heroines and creators, crashing up against prying questions and well-meaning comments about who we’ll end up with – and when.
“If you end your delightful book with your heroine a spinster, no one will buy it,” the publisher says.
So like Alcott, Jo of the film concedes that marriage was “an economic prospect for women” and agrees to marry off her heroine with an eye on her book’s profitability.
It is after this scene that we see a presentation of Jo’s romantic conclusion from the book - chasing Friedrich to a railway station in the rain. He exclaims he has nothing to give her, that his hands are “empty”. And so, just as in the book, she puts hers in his, they embrace, and the music swells in a self-conscious depiction of a storybook, romantic ending.
This ending is redress for Alcott, more than a century and a half later
In parallel though, Gerwig shows us something else. Jo is alone, at a print shop, watching through a glass window like a mother peering into a hospital nursery as her novel – Little Women – is bound and embossed. It is the book that is placed in her empty hands, and she clutches it to her heart.
Both endings feel cathartic in their own way, especially since Friedrich is played by the preposterously sexy Louis Garrel. But there is also romance in the culmination of artistic triumph.
“What if you felt, when she gets her book, the way you generally feel about a girl getting kissed?” Gerwig has said.
This ending is redress for Alcott, more than a century and a half later. It is an affirmation of the writer’s own life, and a challenge to the notion that romantic love is what ultimately defines a heroine’s journey.
It also felt like a small restitution not only for Jo, but those who watch her.
Alcott’s story predates women’s suffrage, second-wave feminism and anti-discrimination lawsbut many of us – married or not – must still routinely push back against the framing of ourselves purely as romantic or domestic subjects, defined by our relationships, usually with men.
Not because romance isn’t thrilling, or partnership isn’t desirable, but because it’s an enduring frustration that even in the 21st century it is still often positioned as the true aim and end of a woman’s life.
I’m too old now to believe any of us conform to simple fictional archetypes, but sitting in that cinema, I felt more like a Jo than ever.