In Jo’s Image

Jeanna Kadlec considers the impact of Little Women’s matriarchy — and its heroine — on the formation of her own queer identity.

Jeanna Kadlec | Longreads | December 2019 | 9 minutes (2,136 words)

Some stories get inside you in that way where, later on, it’s unclear if you’ve built your life out of the seed that was the art.

To grow up queer, especially if you don’t have the language or the worldview framework for understanding queerness, can be an isolating experience. It is profoundly strange, to feel unrecognizable, beyond language, even to yourself. This can create a gravitational pull toward characters who, for the first time, hold up a mirror and say, me: you’re like me. This phenomenon of first recognition has inspired an entire category of queer art, like the song “Ring of Keys” in the Tony Award-winning musical Fun Home, sung by the child version of the protagonist (Young Alison) when she sees an older butch for the first time: “Someone just came in the door — like no one I ever saw before! I feel… I feel!

This was my experience with Jo March, the protagonist of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

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The internet is abuzz over Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Little Women, but for some of us, the film is only sparking nostalgia around another formative adaptation: the 1994 film starring Winona Ryder as Jo. For me, in particular, the Little Women Renaissance has brought up just how much the story was formative for me, as a child, informing my desire for community with other women, and also affirming my sense of innate difference — a difference it would take decades to attribute to queerness.

‘I want to change, but I can’t.’ What young queer person — even closeted to themselves — has not thought this?

Little Women was never sexual for me, never a beacon of burgeoning desire or even tomboyish proclivities (Jo famously declares her desire to be a boy within the first few pages of the novel; conversely, I couldn’t get enough of Barbie, Disney, and Pretty Pretty Princess). Rather, the world of Little Women — centered on sisterhood and women’s bonds — seemed the opposite of the conservative, rural Midwestern world I grew up in. In Little Women, there were (it seemed, to my childhood self) no men to answer to. It was a kind of Themyscira, with men decentralized from the narrative. To my childhood self, it seemed a utopia, for reasons that were beyond what I could articulate at the time.

First, it’s vital to understand that, for me, the Little Women story — focused on the four March sisters and their mother, as they traverse domestic life in Massachusetts during the Civil War, while the patriarch is off fighting with the Union — ultimately means the 1994 film, not Louisa May Alcott’s book. I know; I know. Introduced to the movie first. I still tried the book on at various points throughout life, including during graduate school (an English Literature PhD), but the film always felt truer, somehow. Maybe it’s the brain chemistry of nostalgia; maybe it’s the fact that this particular film was explicit in its political commitments in ways Alcott, writing in 1868, was never free to be on the page. Robin Swicord, screenwriter of the 1994 adaptation, kept the bones of the story arc but crafted the dialogue from scratch, reimagining the conversations and emotional lives of the March family as Alcott might have had she been “freed of the cultural restraints” of the mid-19th century. In Swicord’s script, the March family boycotts silk mills due to their use of child labor, and Marmee (in the film, named after Alcott’s very real, very political mother Abigail) imbues her daughters with an awareness of — and in Jo’s case, a passion for — women’s suffrage. “Feminine weaknesses and fainting spells are the direct result of our confining young girls to the house, bent over their needlework, and restrictive corsets,” Marmee (Susan Sarandon) says offhandedly in casual conversation with her (male) neighbors. The 1994 film was my first introduction to feminism, without ever using the word.

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The March family is a matriarchy, where women are active participants who create their own lives and livelihoods. Even today, this kind of story feels rare. “Woman-identification is a source of energy, a potential springhead of female power, violently curtailed and wasted under the institution of heterosexuality,” Adrienne Rich writes in her seminal work, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” When stories center and focus on a group of women living in community, supporting each other and truly thriving, this kind of energy and potential springhead of power becomes visible, tangible.


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Never mind that it was a matriarchy of white women whose relative independence was tolerated solely due to wartime, or that the patriarch was a constant spectre, present even in the first scene of the film when a letter of his is read aloud: a man’s words of instruction carried out even in absentia. But I craved that kind of peace and solitude from a young age; my father — ever shouting at the television with a beer in hand, pushing my mother against a wall or down a staircase — was a disruptive force. When I watched Little Women, it showed a fantasy world where men were seemingly inessential.

Men (and their approval) were particularly inessential to Jo, the second oldest March, known for her independence, flaming temper, and commitment to writing strained at the social structures that bound her. I strained at mine, too: at the expectations of evangelical Christian obedience and submission, of the conservative cultural pressure that my life and dreams would always be secondary to my husband’s — because there would, of course, be a husband. In my small Iowa hometown comprised of about 1800 people, my friends doodled their names with Mrs. {Boy Crush’s Last Name} in school notebooks and wanted to play “wedding” on the playground. I, meanwhile, wrote fantastical stories, started researching colleges in third grade, and listed the potential names of characters the way my friends listed the names of their future children. I didn’t know what it was within me — even as a teenager, I never quite knew what it was (Being smart? Being called by God?) — but there was a dissonance, a friction, between my own innate sense of self and the paths available to me in the rural Midwest. Marriage and motherhood wasn’t for me. Get out get out get out get out. A siren song, always calling.

It was Jo’s own anxiety about where she was from, about the limits of her options within the town of Concord, that spoke to me. On a good day, it looks like, My dreams are too big for this. On a bad day, I am too much for this; I do not belong here – do I even belong anywhere? I am too much. Crying to her mother, Jo says, “I’m ugly and awkward and I always say the wrong things…. I love our home, but I’m just so fitful and I can’t stand being here! I’m sorry Marmee. There’s just something really wrong with me. I want to change, but I — I can’t. And I just know I’ll never fit in anywhere.”

I want to change, but I can’t. What young queer person — even closeted to themselves — has not thought this? It would be easier if I was different. Easier if I just wanted what everyone else wanted, even if what everyone else wants feels intolerable to my spirit. Jo said she couldn’t stand it, and I felt my heart leap, every time. Even today, in my 30s, I cry during this scene. “Do you feel my heart saying hi?” Young Alison asks, later in “Ring of Keys.” “I know you. I know you.”

I am you, I felt, watching Jo on screen: who so loved her family, but was so deeply unsettled by the burgeoning sense of something crawling inside her, trying to get out. The pain of the inexpressible sense of difference that was irreconcilable with heteronormative society, with the stifling expectations of gender conformity.

It’s hard to describe the depth of the inertia and ennui that settles itself in so many of the people, where I’m from, even as the land and the crops follow the changing of the seasons: seed, growth, harvest. It’s easy to liken this to the centuries-old inertia of heteronormativity: those deeply dug pathways baked in practical, Midwestern Protestantism that it’s so easy to tumble down with so little thought to how one got there. My childhood dream of being a writer (probably not insignificantly influenced by Jo) and of living anywhere-but-here might seem normal, even expected, to many; in my hometown, trust, it was not. For some girls in a church I attended, even going to college was still, in fact, a very big deal; better to get married right out of high school and start a family as soon as possible, as that was our God-ordained destiny. One of my best friends (who would stop speaking to me after I came out) did exactly that; I held her first newborn in the hospital when we were just 19.

Jo gets out. Like so many queers before her, she runs toward the city and all it offers: opportunity, anonymity, freedom to take up space in decidedly untoward ways. She can kiss men in the wings of the opera house and publish lascivious fiction under a male pseudonym; she can drink alcohol and argue with men in public and find her voice. She can do all the things she never thought she’d do. Even if some things don’t stick, the point is, she isn’t crying in her bedroom I’ll never fit in. She’s experimenting: seeing what fits, and what doesn’t.

“You have so many extraordinary gifts. How can you expect to lead an ordinary life?” Marmee says to Jo, before she leaves for New York. “Go and embrace your liberty.”

I got out. It took me longer to come out, but I always knew that getting out was a possibility, that there was a world beyond – and that I could leave. That, in fact, cities like New York were full of people like me, people who didn’t fit back home, who were looking for a home somewhere else. I knew, because Jo March did it first.

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When I go back to Little Women, now, what I see is possibility. What I, personally, was — and remain — drawn to in Jo is her unabashed shucking of societal norms and her pursuit of freedom, even at a personal cost, even with anxiety. Jo March is not ashamed of who she is. Jo March owes nothing to her mother or her father or her sisters or God. Jo March does not give a shit about whether or not she gets married; Louisa May Alcott did not want to marry off her heroine and was famously furious at being forced to do so. In response to pressure from her publisher, she married Jo not to fan-favorite Laurie (who ultimately marries the youngest of the March sisters, Amy), but rather to the decidedly unromantic and stodgy Professor Bhaer, a German philosopher she meets in New York.

Jo gets out. Like so many queers before her, she runs toward the city and all it offers: opportunity, anonymity, freedom to take up space in decidedly untoward ways.

I’m not the only one who considered myself to be like Jo; Louisa May Alcott based Jo on herself. There is, of course, Alcott’s own purported queerness to reckon with. For one, Alcott famously never married. When asked to write an advice column for her fellow spinsters, Alcott titled the essay “Happy Women.” Truly, the sincerest nineteenth-century fuck you title in existence.

But more pressing are small quotes buried in interviews that seem to be bright flashing lights to a modern queer audience. Alcott, like Jo, was explicit about her identification with men rather than women; unlike Jo, she was also explicit about her love for women. In an 1883 interview with Louise Chandler Moulton, Alcott said, “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body… because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least with any man.” While language around sexual orientation and gender identity has undergone shifts over time, this certainly goes beyond the suggestive and into the definitive of what a modern audience would call a legibly queer experience.

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Alcott was surprised at the life Little Women took on, the wild fandom it created even in her own lifetime, the way that people would identify themselves as “a Jo” or “an Amy.” But that’s the power of a story that pulls back the curtain on your own life, that shows you who you are, and who you could be. Even though Jo ultimately returns to Concord, it is her own choice — and she is profoundly changed, no longer knotted up in her roots the way she was before. This is the power of a queer heroine’s journey: to define herself on her own terms. (I know you. I know you.)

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Jeanna Kadlec is a culture writer living in NYC. Her writing has appeared in ELLE, O the Oprah Magazine, LitHub, NYLON, Allure, and more.

Editor: Sari Botton