Illustration by Ben Beechener
As a child, I lived in Australia for a year. It was an adventure, sure, but I was ten, and unable to really do any adventuring on my own. I spent the year relatively isolated from people my own age and living through books instead. I read the Lord of the Rings, I read The Diary of Anne Frank, I read the entire Anne of Green Gables series (yes, all eight of them); but the book that meant the most to me was Little Women. Picking it up in a Melbourne bookshop, I would go on to read the book eight times while in Australia. It’s become a touchstone in my life, a book which has nestled into the centre of myself. Maybe that’s because, as a lonely kid, I needed this book about sisterhood more than ever; but it’s also because, at some point or other, I have been each March sister.
Looking back on my childhood, I was definitely an Amy. A little spoilt, a little precocious, a little too convinced I knew everything. Shy, but not so shy that I never made mistakes; I did, often in plain view of everyone, and will be haunted by those memories until my dying days. Proud, and therefore easily mortified; always convinced I was right; certain at any moment I could be whisked away into a magical world. Though, while for Amy this meant Paris, for me it meant I wanted to be in Percy Jackson. I’m certain that every human alive has been Amy: immature, foolish, but with a big heart to see you through. I’m glad I’m no longer Amy, especially because of the embarrassing memories that will haunt me, but her determination and self-belief are qualities I hope I will hold onto.
When I was fifteen, I was Meg, and all I wanted was to wear the right clothes. Every non-uniform day, instead of celebrating freedom from the horrendous bottle-green hell I wore every day, I was overcome with confusion and anxiety. I never managed to wear what my friends were wearing. If I wore a cute 90s dress with converse, they were in jeans. The next time, when I wore jeans, they were all in perfect summer dresses. I don’t know if they had a group-chat to decide how to make me feel excluded through the medium of textiles, or if they were just such better friends with each other than they were with me that they could read each others’ minds and psychically coordinate outfits. These girls were cool, quirky, funny, clever, and I wanted to be just like them, not like the awkward person I was. It’s pretty likely it never even occurred to them to exclude me, or that I was wearing such an aesthetically different outfit. But every time it happened, it hit me right in the chest, threw me back to reading Little Women, seeing Meg desperately try to fit in with her rich girl friends, and it never being enough. Meg tries to buy fancy clothes and wear jewels and hats, drinks champagne at a party. I tried to get into the K-Pop bands my friends liked – an equally foolish endeavour, I realised as I watched BTS videos trying to understand how their knees could be so different that my friends could identify them just from those knobbly body parts. Meg didn’t need to change herself to fit in. She needed to find people who were like her, and understood her. My K-Pop loving friends were nice people – we were just never meant to be best friends forever, and that’s okay. I learned to stay true to myself like Meg, and I found the friends I was always meant to have.
I always wanted to be Beth, because I wanted to be nice without having to try so goddamn hard. No one ever tells you that it is really difficult sometimes to hold back your harsh words and strong feelings, or just your annoyance at the day. No one gives you a talk as a child about how the world is mean and scary and makes you angry, and no one tells you how to be good anyway. Beth didn’t need that conversation; she was just an angel. Beth was quiet, sweet, fun but not a risk-taker. She loved kittens, and playing with her dolls. You could see something morbid in how much I wanted to be like the sister who dies, but really, I just wanted to be so self-sacrificing and unerringly good that I could be like Beth.
I never wanted to be Jo. When I first read the book, my mum said I was like her, and I couldn’t imagine anything worse. Jo was loud, opinionated, abrasive. She was too much. She was all the qualities I wished I didn’t have wrapped up in a bow. I wanted to be better than that; I wanted to be kind and strong and wise, not stubborn, wilful, and easily angered by the littlest of things.
Watching Greta Gerwig’s stellar adaptation of Little Women, I realised that Jo is always the main character in film adaptations. She’s the dreamer, the one with ambition, who goes out and achieves something more than her sisters. Jo is the focus every time, often to the detriment of the on-screen development of her sisters. She’s the hero. And she’s the hero because she is too much, because that means she goes out and makes her story happen. Amy and Meg get married, Beth dies, but Jo creates something. Maybe being nice never gets you anywhere except the grave. Maybe there’s a balance between self-sacrifice and stubborn self-belief that can let you occupy the space between Beth and Jo. But really, I will always be more Jo than I am Meg, or Amy, and especially more than I am Beth. The only thing I can do is to take Jo’s stubbornness, the boldness that lives inside me, and turn it into something great.