How Greta Gerwig’s Little Women Reclaims the Brilliance of Amy March

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How Greta Gerwig’s Little Women Reclaims the Brilliance of Amy March

Illustration: Arati Gujar

For years, a generation of girls who grew up reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women have known that it was the original “Which Character Are You?” fan quiz format now popularised by Buzzfeed. If you’ve read Little Women, I’m willing to wager that you instantly identified with one of the four March sisters – the ever-popular writerly protagonist Jo, or the responsible, kindly eldest Meg. As a younger sister however, I always knew that I belonged to the tribe of Amys – the bevy or choir of Amys as the self-assertive youngest March would no doubt prefer.

In a family of pathologically generous individuals, Amy stands out for being slightly more materialistic than Meg, as sanctimonious as Jo, and far more self-absorbed than sweet, martyred Beth. That’s why Greta Gerwig’s painterly reimagining of Little Women – the seventh film adaptation of the 1986 novel – has seen a storm of conversation not only around Jo (a sparkling Saoirse Ronan), but also Florence Pugh’s turn as Amy. Gerwig, true to the novel, frames her story around Alcott’s autobiographical heroine. But Amy emerges as the foil to Jo, the only sister who challenges her rigid views on freedom, feminism, and art, and the one who consequently propels Jo, kicking and screaming toward change.

Of course, Amy’s methods are frequently questionable, but they also go to the heart of revealing the invariably petty side of human emotions. The scene where she, seething at being excluded from an outing with her elder sisters, callously burns Jo’s beloved manuscript, has cemented her as a villain. Amy acts with the recklessness of a child – which, for all her big words and prim manners, she still is. I’m reminded of an occasion when I, a similarly snub-nosed eight-year-old, scribbled a moustache on my big sister’s favourite Cabbage Patch doll in a fit of pique, only to find that the ink would not wash off.

Pugh brings to this unloveable Amy a defiance that resembles Jo’s own attitude toward anyone who dares stand in her way

Moreover, Pugh brings to this unloveable Amy a defiance that resembles Jo’s own attitude toward anyone who dares stand in her way. In Amy’s 12-year-old world, Jo is the gatekeeper refusing her entry into the realm of womanhood, confining her to a life as the overlooked kid sister and making her a perpetual object of ridicule. Amy, we see, has a sensitive, artistic temperament just like Jo, with even less maturity to govern it. No wonder Gerwig herself loves this much-maligned March (Which ambitious woman can’t relate to Amy’s nihilistic desire to be “great or nothing”?), recognising that her importance isn’t only in her own mind.

And as Little Women shows more clearly than ever, Amy’s existence is symptomatic of Jo’s biggest flaw: Of all the sisters, Jo is the most judgmental of those who don’t live up to her impossible standards – including herself. When Amy announces her intention of being a famous artist in the film’s opening sequence, Jo scoffs that the same ambitious nature she displays sounds “crass” when it comes from her younger sister. She can’t seem to understand why Amy wants to grow up so badly when the idea is loathsome to Jo. On Meg’s wedding day, Jo, perennially terrified of change, pleads with her to run away together, prompting Meg to patiently explain that her dreams are not unimportant just because they don’t check Jo’s boxes. As usual, Jo is given the kind of gr.ace that she – and by extension, readers — rarely extend to Amy.

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In a family of pathologically generous individuals, Amy stands out for being slightly more materialistic than Meg, as sanctimonious as Jo, and far more self-absorbed than sweet, martyred Beth.

Columbia Pictures

Perhaps, it’s this unvarnished commitment to beliefs that makes Jo, a favourite of bookish girls. But in her adaptation of Little Women, Gerwig finally gives Amy credit for having unabashed clarity about what she wants from life. While the rest of the Marches live in a state of noble idealism, Amy is rooted in reality. In the film, Amy swallows the bitter pill that her talent doesn’t translate to genius and acknowledges in a speech to Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) – laden with restrained emotion and practicality – that she has no option but to marry well. Laurie’s response extolling the virtues of love lays bare his privilege as a rich man. It doesn’t take him long to see Amy but for what she really is: An accomplished woman who knows her own mind and who is as formidable in her flouncy dresses as his tomboyish love, Jo. If Jo is determined not to have her story told for her, Amy is equally unapologetic about her hustle.

For the bevy or choir of Amys then, Little Women is a fantastic vindication of what we’ve known all along about our pet March sister. She’s always been an ancestor of unlikable, enterprising women like Big Little Lies’ Renata Klein, who signify the transformation of what womanhood is expected to look like. Amy’s brand of independent feminism, so often brushed aside in the face of headstrong, “unladylike” Jo, takes on a fresh relevance in an era where Amys have, at long last, fulfilled their destiny and inherited the earth.

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