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In Defense of Amy March, the Once-Derided Sister of ‘Little Women’

Thanks to Greta Gerwig’s new film, the Amy March–aissance is here

Columbia Pictures/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“#AmySux.”

This is how I captioned a photo on Instagram in 2014 after seeing playwright Chiara Atik’s hilarious Little Women/Girls mash-up “Women” at the Peoples Improv Theater in New York. Because guess what? Amy March sucks (or “sux”; trust me, I am embarrassed). But now I’m reconsidering my position, and what this piece presupposes is: maybe she doesn’t?

Let’s rewind for a minute. Amy Curtis March is the youngest March sister in Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women, herself based on Alcott’s own youngest sister, May. Of all four March sisters, Amy is the one most concerned with adhering to the rules and acquiring the trimmings of high society. She longs to escape poverty, which she hates, and generally comes off as consumed with superficial and vain things in pursuit of keeping up with the Joneses (though eldest sister Meg does her fair share of coveting riches throughout the Little Women story too). As a child, Amy can be bratty: You may be familiar with one particularly hard-to-swallow incident called, “the time Amy tossed her older sister Jo’s novel manuscript in the fire because she wasn’t allowed to go to the theater.” As an adult, she marries boy-next-door Laurie, who was previously in a years-long, will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation with Jo. Not cool at all.

I once held the manuscript incident, her spoiled demeanor, and her marriage to Laurie staunchly against Amy March. As did others; she’s not typically a fan favorite. Of course, if many of the girls and women who are drawn to Little Women are drawn in particular to Jo—the writer of the bunch who struggles against the bounds of the traditional path for women in the mid-1800s—then it tracks that Amy would be disliked, inverse as she is to Jo and pitted as opposite her so often. And if Jo is your favorite March, Amy’s clashes with Jo can feel quite personal. Yes, it’s extremely rude to burn your sister’s only copy of what could’ve been a great American novel. Silver lining: From this incident, the Josephine Marches of today learned to always command-S while working.

But is Amy March destined to have that fit of sibling rage held against her forever? Does her whole character amount to burning Jo’s manuscript, or longing for her own pickled limes, or going on the EuroTrip Jo had hoped for, or marrying Laurie after Jo rejects him? Well, that all depends … do you think people can change and grow? Especially people who are fictional characters whose change and growth is charted on the page?

It’s the end of the year (and decade): a time for reflection, contemplation, and introspection. A time to reevaluate some things when it comes to Amy March. As with the reintroduction of Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me” to the cultural landscape in the year 2017, we have writer-director Greta Gerwig to thank for inspiring this reexamination of Amy. Gerwig and Florence Pugh, who plays Amy in Gerwig’s 2019 big-screen adaptation of Little Women, have breathed fresh humor and boldness into the character. Pugh is pretty charming, self-possessed, and often hilarious as Amy March. Gerwig’s script and direction, drawing on the source material, bring forth Amy’s ambition and practicality, and her Amy is given ample opportunity to voice both her desires and motivation. Rereading the novel as an adult illuminated more shades to Amy March, and Gerwig’s film draws these shades out even more.

Amy is the March sister who we see grow the most over the course of the story—as evidenced in the beloved 1994 film by the fact that she’s the one sister portrayed by two different actresses (Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis). Amy kicks off the Little Women story as a 12-year-old and ends as a young adult who has seen more of the world and fallen in love and gotten married and had a child. Meg and Jo both age and mature, but they start already on the brink of womanhood. Beth stays fairly consistent in temperament throughout Little Women, and she dies before she gets to embark on any “happy plans.” Amy, on the other hand, changes the most, from a kid who does try to do her best (though she sometimes does her worst), to a young adult who, yes, is still concerned with beauty and wealth, but also knows firmly what she wants in life and “prefers to drive,” as Alcott writes. Amy’s ambitious, yet practical; gracious, yet blunt when necessary. “I want to be great, or nothing,” she says in the novel (and Gerwig’s film) of her art.

Amy is also ready to marry Fred Vaughn partially out of a sense of responsibility for her family, as Meg has already married a poor man, and she knows Jo and Beth aren’t likely to “marry well.” But while Amy likes nice things, her material desires evolve as she grows older. Recognizing that she’s artistically talented but not a genius, she knows that as a woman in the mid-1800s, marriage is her best shot at both living her ideal life and helping provide for her family; in Gerwig’s film, she explicitly spells out the economic contract of marriage. She also wants to give back to those less fortunate than her (as she tells Laurie near the end of the novel) and acknowledges that she’s had help along the way in getting to where she ends up. She continues growing, even as the novel comes to a close, “sweeter, deeper, and more tender” than ever. Amy March at the end of Little Women is far from the little girl she started out as.

No consideration of Amy March would be complete without addressing the fact that Amy and Laurie get married. At best, it always rankled as a weird pivot; at worst, it rankled as disloyal to Jo. (Maybe it was originally a further twist of the knife to fans who wanted Alcott to marry off Jo, probably to Laurie? Who knows?) But now, it no longer seems like the cutting offense it once did. Even on reread of the novel, it’s still a bit odd that Jo and Amy “changed place in [Laurie’s] heart,” but Gerwig’s adaptation does do more work in building Amy and Laurie’s bond. Or perhaps my heart has just hardened after so many years of hoping for a different outcome and it never changing. (This is what happens when you love a story so much that you become personally invested in its trials and tribulations and maybe eventually accept them all as inevitable. Another side effect is writing more than 1,000 words about how you’ve grown to like and better understand the one character you always disliked.)

So the Amy March–aissance is here (perhaps for some of you, it’s been here for years); you can count me as one of the converted. All other past haters, reconsider Amy March: sister. Artist. Lover of turquoise rings, pale roses, and silks. Hater of her own nose. Driver of her own destiny. And when it comes down to it … not that bad after all.

Jessica MacLeish is a pop culture writer and freelance book editor based in Brooklyn (but also on the World Wide Web, tweeting sporadically @jessmacleish).