No Little Woman
Updated: Jan 2, 2020
On closing night of Primary Stages' Little Women, I reflect on a fictional female who's inspired me in more ways than one
Before Alexander Hamilton became pop culture's paragon of the pen, there was Jo March. Louisa May Alcott's feisty heroine has stood in literary canon for years as a beacon of inspiration for young writers - and dreamers of any kind, really - to work tirelessly and fiercely pursue their passion.
I would know; I was one of them.
Jo March was one of my idols growing up. When I first read an abridged, illustrated version of Little Women at 10 years old, I was drawn to her. I remained so when I read the actual novel at 13. I saw something of myself in her, or at least something of what I wanted to become. Of course, we had writing in common - I had begun writing creatively for pleasure a few years prior, and Jo was a major reason I began to take it more seriously. I aspired to be a novelist for years because of her - even though I no longer do, you could say it's in part thanks to Jo that I pursued (and am still pursuing) a writing career in the first place.
But as for my entrancement by Jo, there was more to it than writing. Jo spoke up for herself. She knew who she was. She was independent, strong, and a little too stubborn for her own good - but hey, I can relate. Above all, she was her own woman. She didn't care what others thought of her, or if her dreams were impractical, or if she was different. She boldly did her own thing. I like to think I do the same, and it's something I pride myself on. I felt like, reading Jo, I was catching a glimpse of my future self.
Now, it wasn't an exact parallel. I didn't have or want her temper, for one. Nor did I have her tomboyish presentation and attitude. At 10 and 13 years old, I was about as girly as they came: I would almost exclusively wear matching dress-and-legging sets from Justice. My hair was long, my shoes were sparkly, and I wore lip gloss at all times. I still saw myself in Jo personality-wise, as I mentioned, and I never doubted that I could still have her independent disposition even if I wore bows and frills. But that one difference was clear - she stood out because she was a tomboy, I was not one, and I couldn't imagine myself any other way.
Those who know me now might say I've found the best of both worlds. I still wear skirts and dresses and floral patterns. I also wear unisex boat shoes and sweaters I "borrow" from my dad, and I have cut my hair short. That glimpse of my future self in Jo was more accurate than I thought - she was indeed the person I'd grow into in both personality and dress.
One thing worth noting about the novel, though, is that Jo's physical presentation takes a backseat to her personality. Yes, her tomboyish nature is part of what sets her apart (and invites conflict with her family), but what really matters is how she acts. The entirety of her character arc is based on the fact that she differs from the norm exemplified by her three sisters. She questions conventions of marriage, proper decorum, and the boundaries of a woman's sphere. Jo is not a traditional "little woman" in style or comportment. However, any of what I would now call queercoding implicit in her characterization is just that: coding. Perhaps she might be androgynous, or genderfluid, or just generally queer. But that isn't canon; like much classic literature, these conclusions are contingent on fan theory and interpretation.
Earlier this month, I sat front row at Kate Hamill's reimagining of Little Women, in which Jo still isn't queer but gets a lot closer. She dresses in suits (and a fake mustache) throughout the play, casts herself as the male hero in her own play, and openly rejects the conventions of being a woman, instead fantasizing about life as a man. She muses with Laurie - who in turn fantasizes about being a woman - about gender roles and how to defy them.
"If I were a man, people would focus more on what I could do than what I should do." - Jo March, Little Women by Kate Hamill
What works so well about the play is that it's clear Hamill hasn’t fundamentally changed any character. Although everyone's mannerisms and diction are changed a little from the original text, any and all changes are made within the framework of the original characters. None of the characters' integrity is sacrificed as they are updated. That's a tough feat to accomplish, and Hamill does it. Laurie, for example, dreams of being a woman and cries and playfully dances in an overall rejection of toxic masculinity. He also aligns with convention in ways like attending college and proposing marriage to Jo, as in the novel. His character shows that one can be oneself while still upholding some conventions, whereas Jo shows that being oneself can mean defying conventions. Both are equally true concepts already present in Alcott's novel.
Among all the characters, I was most delighted to rediscover the Jo I know and love. She's still headstrong, short-fused, and awkward as in the original novel while being androgynous, semi-butch, and even implicitly aro/ace here, ending the play having rejected all romantic advances and remaining happily unwed. Sure, that's a clear deviation from the book, but remember that Alcott originally wanted to end her book with Jo staying single. Still, those familiar with the book can recognize that Alcott's Jo still clearly shines in Hamill's. To me, this makes it clear that this androgynous side of Jo isn't an artificial, empty attempt at sociopolitical relevance. It's been there all along - it just needed to be brought to the forefront.
So thank you, Alcott, for writing Jo, and thank you, Hamill, for giving me the opportunity to see my childhood hero as she is meant to be. Jo is independent, bold, and androgynous. I am too. We've both changed in the last 10 years, but as it turns out, we've changed together. I look up to her now more than ever.
Happy closing, Little Women, and happy Pride to all!