If you were to create a list of literature’s most hated sisters, it would contain Pride and Prejudice’s selfish Lydia Bennet; King Lear’s scheming eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan; Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters… and the youngest sister from Little Women: Amy March.
But from the first time I read Little Women back in second grade to Oscar night 2020, I’ve always been Team Amy. Of course I’m crossing my fingers for Saoirse Ronan, who’s nominated for Best Actress for playing Jo March, but it’s the Best Actress in a Supporting Role category that’s going to have me holding my breath as I root for Florence Pugh’s powerful depiction of my favorite sister.
By all standards I should be an ardent Jo supporter. Like Jo, I’m the second of four children. I have an older sister who is Meg-ish in all the best ways. I have a horrible habit of ruining clothing, and I’m a writer.
But it’s never made sense to me that Jo could be so beloved and Amy so… not. The sisters are so similar! Both have aspirations that outstrip their resources, both defy the expectations of their society, both are artistic, both struggle with the boxes they’ve been put in.
In 1994’s movie adaptation, Kirsten Dunst played young Amy with the most delightfully spoiled glee. She stole scenes and left adult Amy (Samantha Mathis) looking boring and anemic in comparison. In Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation, Florence Pugh navigates the qualities that make Amy authentic. She’s the youngest of four sisters — of course she’s spoiled and naughty and immature — but Pugh imbues Amy’s character with impulsive charm and humor.
At the start of Louise May Alcott’s 1868 novel, the March sisters are 16 (Meg), 15 (Jo), 14 (Beth), and 12 (Amy) — but the age gap between eldest Meg and baby Amy is treated like significantly more than four years. When all four March sisters are home, Amy is petted and praised for putting on airs and acting older than she is. (In psychology they call that “positive reinforcement.” In little sister speak, we call that “This got me attention, I’ll do it MORE.”) But Amy, like so many younger sisters, quickly learns that attention is conditional. She’s an okay choice for a playmate… until there are better options.
Whenever my own sister hosted a friend for a playdate it became an exercise in escaping me. No matter how my mom tried to keep me occupied or where they hid in our house or yard, I had a tendency to pop up — usually in some extravagant costume with a list of suggestions for what we should play next. My memories of her playdates involve sitting outside her bedroom or below the tree fort crying bitterly while my sister and her friends played games we had invented together without a role for me.
So the scene in Little Women where Jo refuses to allow Amy to come to the theater with her, Meg, and Laurie cuts a little too close to home. It’s a little sister’s nightmare — not only is Amy excluded, but Jo actively prevents Meg from including her, calling her a baby, telling her not to whine, refusing to go if Amy does. Why doesn’t anyone remember this part? Or the death-by-a thousand-cuts exclusions Amy constantly endures? No, in typical oldest gets to control the narrative style, they only recall Amy’s response: the burning of Jo’s manuscript.
I’d never say Amy’s arson-tantrum was okay — as a writer, I have have felt the cruel sting of lost manuscripts — but it’s the understandable reaction of an emotional 12-year-old, who was never going to be Jo’s first choice, or her second.
But Amy’s most egregious sin, and the thing Jo fans will never forgive her for, is ending up with Laurie. Theodore “Laurie” Laurence is played by Christian Bale in the version I grew up crushing on, and Timothée Chalamet nails his floppy-haired loneliness in Gerwig’s latest. He’s the perfect boy next door, the perfect first crush — and, spoiler: while he first proposes to Jo, it’s Amy he ultimately marries. Jo and Laurie are meant to remain platonic friends; it’s Amy he’s willing to grow up for.
She may not have been his first choice, but she is the better one. I feel so strongly about this that my most recent novel, The Boy Next Story, is based on Little Women, but centered on Amy and Laurie’s relationship.
Amy’s arc can be harder for readers to embrace, but her early immaturity and poor choices provide the groundwork for her to evolve. Ultimately, she’s the character who shows the most growth in the story. And as a little sister who’s constantly striving to outgrow all the “Oh, Tiffany” antics of my youth and pursue growth and evolution in my own life, it’s Amy’s journey I relate to. Her story reminds me that great things can lay ahead. This is especially important every time I’m despairing over a “hopeless” first draft or feeling invisible amongst storms of breakout novels or movie adaptations. Just like Amy, I might not be the fan-favorite on the New York Times bestseller list — but that doesn’t mean I’m not living my dream every single time I sit down at a keyboard or hold a finished copy of one of my novels.
If I ever get a tattoo, it will be this quote from Little Women: “I’m not afraid of storms for I’m learning to sail my ship.” You can find this quote all over Pinterest boards and in beautiful hand-lettered prints on Etsy, but I wonder how many people who have it pinned remember it’s not said by fan-favorite Jo, but by the youngest sister people love to loathe.
Tiffany Schmidt is the author of the Bookish Boyfriends series: The Boy Next Story (2019); A Date With Darcy (2018); Talk Nerdy To Me (May 19, 2020), and Get a Clue (January 2021).