Any views expressed within media held on this service are those of the contributors, should not be taken as approved or endorsed by the University, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University in respect of any particular issue.
Little Women: The Rehabilitation of Amy

Little Women: The Rehabilitation of Amy

Little Woman 2019

Amy March is a pain. Even her creator, Louisa May Alcott, more or less describes her as such in her much-loved novel, Little Women. The novel follows the four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – as they come of age in Concord, Massachusetts.

From her insistence on accumulating limes to ensure her popularity at school, to wearing a clothes peg on her nose, to snatching Laurie from the arms of her sister, Amy has never been anyone’s favourite March sister. The book was written semi-autobiographically and it is assumed that Alcott based Jo on herself, creating a multi-layered, complex character, easily relatable to any young woman with any aspirations in life. Every reader thinks she is just like Jo. Amy, on the other hand, is the typical baby of the family – spoiled, petulant, and air-headed. Why Beth dies rather than Amy is a constant matter of consternation to generations of readers. 

And yet, there’s something about Amy…

Apart from two silent films and a couple of mini-series, the novel has been adapted for the big screen four times, twice by male directors (Cukor, LeRoy) and twice by women (Armstrong, Gerwig). The first of these, in 1933, has the March sisters embodying the spirit of the Depression with personal resilience and a make-do attitude. Played by a much older Joan Bennet, Amy here is an afterthought, with no depth or motivation. She is thoroughly out-flounced by Katherine Hepburn’s Jo and although she is in almost every scene, she is ‘the baby sister’ – nothing more, nothing less. Sixteen years later, director Mervyn LeRoy crafts a similar tale of a vain, silly younger sister, played by a disconcertingly blonde Elizabeth Taylor. This Amy is absent or silent for much of the film and only matures when she marries and is finally dressed in the elegant clothes she longed for as a girl; her happiness is assured by her husband’s wealth. A treat for the eyes, LeRoy’s Amy is a figure of fun and fashion.

Once the text is interpreted by female directors however the tone shifts, first slightly and then in a quantum leap to whole-heartedly embrace a passionate, outspoken ‘little woman’, one who can equal the bravado of her sister and perhaps even outpace her in her acceptance of her self and of her power. 

Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version endeavours to develop Amy March in far greater detail than was attempted in the previous films. If Amy is not yet a feminist icon of determination and self-sufficiency (as is Jo in this version), she is at least by the film’s close, an emotionally mature woman, not simply a place setting or decorative plot device.  

Casting her twice – as a child (Kirsten Dunst) and as an adult (Samantha Mathis) – allows for a character growth missing from the earlier films, where young Amy and her older self look and behave as one underdeveloped being. This young Amy is still vain and immature, but she is a much loved and indulged youngest sister rather than an irritating, spoiled one. Her sisters smile at and do not correct her many amusing malapropisms and they are willing both to give her the money to buy her highly coveted limes and also to fight the strap-happy schoolmaster on her behalf. Reinstating the plotline (strangely omitted in the previous films) of Amy burning Jo’s manuscript reveals a more complex individual, capable of deep jealousy and frustration. In spite of Jo’s overwhelming despair at the loss of her work however, she is still devoted enough to forgive Amy. The casting of Kirsten Dunst here lends Amy an element of charm. Instead of an Austen-style frivolous Lydia Bennett, Dunst’s characterization reveals a feisty, funny, and delightful little girl, who dreams of one day becoming a successful artist. In an almighty betrayal however, Armstrong fails to allow this girl to grow into an interesting woman. Restating her intent to marry a wealthy man without explaining why this is vital to her, she rapidly meets and marries Laurie in Europe. Until this time, there has been no spark of a connection, never mind a romantic frisson between them and so their marriage appears passionless – a union to provide her with the means to continue painting and to provide Laurie a firm connection to the March family. Surely the bubbly younger Amy would not have embraced such a union? She seems content when she returns to Concord as a married woman, but gone is the feistiness of her childhood. Dunst’s Amy would certainly not have settled for quiet domesticity and so we are led to believe that with maturity and out of economic necessity, Amy has tamped down those aspects of her character that made her engaging.. Perhaps Armstrong is making a point here; hers is often described as the ‘feminist’ Little Women after all. Girls, no matter how engaging and ambitious, are not permitted to retain those qualities as adults, given the gender constraints of their time. 

Gerwig at last gives Amy a more hopeful voice in the 2019 film. Again, casting plays a large part in how Amy is perceived. In casting an actor (Florence Pugh) with range enough to play both a young, high-spirited girl and a woman, well aware of her gender limitations and what she must do to negotiate them, Gerwig successfully presents a fully rounded Amy. 

Deconstructing the timeline of Alcott’s novel means that the viewer’s first glimpse of Amy is that of her adult self, restrained and yet still showing evidence of her younger effervescence. Correcting her aunt, Amy states that she is in Paris primarily to complete painting lessons and only then to consider a marriage proposal. Unexpectedly spotting Laurie, however, she quickly sheds her adult reserve and races after him. Yes, this Amy is mature but she has not lost any of her joy and impulsivity. In her initial conversations with Laurie, Amy reveals a steeliness and belief in the value of hard work as a defining characteristic. 

In flashback, Amy is seen as ambitious in the grand fashion of children – she intends to be “the best painter in the world” – and still has the vanity described in the source novel as well as the earlier films. Although she is capable of the heinous crime of manuscript burning, she is still very much the impulsive and engaging Amy the viewer now expects.  

Gerwig, unlike Armstrong, has her Amy grow up without losing those qualities. In fact, in this version, Amy manages to retain her childhood charm while also developing a strong sense of self worth, free from her earlier vanity and pretension. In a conversation with Laurie in her art studio, Amy recognizes her limitations as both an artist and as a woman. Although an admirable painter, she is not “a genius” – a revelation that causes her to abandon her dreams of a career in art.  As devastating as this might be (both for Amy and for the viewer, by now wholly enamoured with this determined woman), she is level-headed enough to logically conclude that she now has to marry for financial security. In art, as in love, she refuses to be anything other than the best. She knows that, as a woman at this time, she is not capable of making her own money in order to support herself or her family and so, to Amy, marriage is not primarily for love but is out of necessity an economic proposition. This straightforward appraisal of her situation is one of the stronger monologues in Gerwig’s film and sets Amy apart in her singular approach to life. Although missing from the earlier films (even Armstrong’s), this monologue is present in the novel and is therefore closer in spirit to Alcott’s original vision of Amy. 

In the closing scenes of Gerwig’s film, Amy is seen teaching painting to the children from Jo’s school, smiling, and handing over a baby (presumably hers) to Laurie. She has not achieved her childhood goal, but instead Gerwig suggests that she has managed to negotiate a path through this gendered quandary, able to find love, family, and still involve herself in the world of art, albeit in a different way. It is heartbreaking to see someone as spirited as Amy fail to reach the giddy heights of her childhood ambition. Nevertheless, she is still recognizable as the girl she once was and one suspects – and hopes- that she will live a happy life.

It is perhaps the case that each generation gets the version of Little Women befitting their era. In the case of the Gerwig version, we may have found the Amy we all deserve.


Written by Lesley Finn for The Film Dispatch



Report this page

To report inappropriate content on this page, please use the form below. Upon receiving your report, we will be in touch as per the Take Down Policy of the service.

Please note that personal data collected through this form is used and stored for the purposes of processing this report and communication with you.

If you are unable to report a concern about content via this form please contact the Service Owner.

Please enter an email address you wish to be contacted on. Please describe the unacceptable content in sufficient detail to allow us to locate it, and why you consider it to be unacceptable.
By submitting this report, you accept that it is accurate and that fraudulent or nuisance complaints may result in action by the University.