“If You Can’t Teach Yourself” is a monthly series in which a young queer woman explores an LGBTQ cultural artifact in furtherance of her queer education. Think of it as your syllabus for Queer Culture 101.
“I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy.”
So laments a young Josephine “Jo” March in Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s classic 19th-century novel about four tight-knit, different-as-can-be sisters living in poverty in Civil War–era Concord, Massachusetts.
First published in 1868, Little Women was progressive by most standards even then. For one thing, it was a beast of a novel (clocking in at 750 pages) written by a woman, about female characters, targeted to an ostensibly female audience. The fact that it was published at the request of her publisher—let alone that it became a critical and commercial success with legions of high-profile fans more than a century later—was a feat.
Little Women spawned a plethora of film and TV adaptations, most famously the Academy Award–nominated 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Now, yet another onscreen adaptation is hitting theaters: Lady Bird auteur Greta Gerwig’s star-studded reimagining, with Irish-American actress Saoirse Ronan in the role of Jo.
Perhaps most significant, though, was Alcott’s redefinition of what a genteel girl in 1860s America could look like. Throughout Little Women, Jo defies the harshly gendered career and interpersonal expectations placed upon her in a way that is easy to read as queer. Her repeated woes at not being born a boy strike a chord deep within me, a 23-year-old queer woman who came of age more than a century after Alcott’s bildungsroman first hit shelves. Growing up, my best friends were almost all boys. I was something of a tomboy—which I’d later revisit as I played with gender presentation in my adulthood—and I rebuked traditionally “feminine” interests with an adamant passion, preferring instead to play games of Manhunt or tag with friends in the woods that bordered our suburban homes.
Reading Little Women for the first time long after I’d aged out of its target demographic, I was surprised how much of myself I saw in young Jo: her spiritedness, her ambition, her rebelliousness. Among her three sisters (Meg, the oldest and most proper; Beth, the most pious; and Amy, the youngest and most artistically inclined), Jo quickly emerges as the unlikely backbone of the March family. Marmee, the March family matriarch (played by Laura Dern in Gerwig’s version), is left to raise her four daughters virtually alone when the girls’ father goes off to war, and Jo serves as something of a surrogate father figure, rallying and boosting the morale of her siblings.
That’s not to say Jo is a saint. She’s temperamental and prone to outbursts—Ronan deftly portrays that side of her in Gerwig’s Little Women. Jo’s individual relationships to her sisters ebb and flow, none more so than her bond with Amy (Midsommar queen Florence Pugh), which is tested by relatable bouts of insecurity, unfair judgment, and competitiveness as they mature into—well, not-so-little women. At once a talented visual artist and a prim and proper lady, Amy serves as a foil to Jo, whose literary gifts and kind heart are at times overshadowed by her awkwardness, stubbornness, and discomfort in her own body.
On a very basic level, Alcott positions Jo as a gender-bent heroine by having the teen girl eagerly embrace her nickname, a masculinized version of Josephine. That simple linguistic choice is highlighted further when readers meet Theodore Laurence, a.k.a. Laurie, the mischievous grandson of the March’s wealthy neighbor who falls head over heels for Jo in a mess of a one-sided love affair. (He’s portrayed in the newest adaptation by Call Me by Your Name’s twinky breakout star Timothée Chalamet, adding an extra layer of queer appeal to the proceedings.)
Jo is headstrong, fiercely loyal, and a gifted writer—and unlike her sisters, she has no desire to be married off to a man. It’s no surprise, then, that Alcott, who swore off marriage, based Jo loosely on herself. (Spoiler alert: Jo ends up tying the knot with another male character, although Alcott’s publisher basically demanded that conclusion, wanting to see Jo married off.)
Of course, men and women who didn’t marry in the 1860s were far and few between, prompting ample speculation about Alcott’s sexual orientation. The beloved writer powered the rumor mill further by leaving behind a trail of pretty freaking queer letters, one of which Gerwig directly quoted to NewNowNext when asked about the author’s queer legacy: “I believe I am a man in a woman’s body, for I fall in love with half a dozen pretty girls and I have never felt that for a man.” Whew!
So, the question remains: Was Alcott—and, by association, her semi-autobiographical avatar in Little Women—queer? I regret to inform you that we don’t have a definitive answer, and I fear the truth might have been lost in the passage of time since the beloved author’s death at age 55 in 1888. Systemic, deeply ingrained homophobia
was is one hell of a tool for erasure, folks.
I can say this, though: It doesn’t really matter if Alcott or Jo were queer. What does matter is Jo’s sheer existence. She was an early example of nontraditional femininity in American literature, a beacon of hope to many women—straight, gay, queer, gender-nonconforming—who were coming of age a very difficult period in this country.
We toss around the phrase “queer icon” so liberally these days, but please, indulge me in bestowing Jo March with that title. Happy Holigays, lady. You deserve it.
Little Women hits theaters nationwide December 25.