Love and hope in Little Women

Niina Pekantytär

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Discussion between Little Women researchers Christina Scott and Niina Niskanen.

Christina: Hi. I finally get to talk to you, not person to person, but still back and forth.

Niina: Great to talk to you too! Would you like to start by introducing yourself and what is your relationship with Little Women?

Christina: Hello. My name is Christina and if you are on Tumblr you probably know my blog, JoandFriedrich. It was started because I just love them so much and though they did not get the recognition they deserved. I have been a fan of little women for the longest time. First time I read it was when I was between the ages of 10 to 12. That was some around the ages I started to read it. Been a fan ever since.

Niina: That´s amazing.

Christina: It was the great illustrated copy of it. It was the abridged version and then over the years I finally get to hold the copy that wasn't an unabridged version. It was a journey to get into where I am right now. Almost full-blown obsession.

Niina: I think one of the reasons why I actually started my podcast was because of your blog. When I was younger I was obsessed with Little Women. I was in LiveJournal and there was an Amy and Laurie group and Jo and Friedrich group and I was lurking there. They slowly vanished and I think your blog was the only place where I could find other people that were interested from the canon. Everywhere else it was just about the films or very strange views about Little Women that I did not agree with. I am very grateful for your blog and I think many others are too.

Christina: That is so great to hear. I mean, I felt just like you. Either most of the people that were around me didn´t know or care about Little Women and those who did only knew the movie versions. Many of them are great. I have many thoughts about the most recent one. Most of the time most film versions seem to put more focus on Jo and Laurie and I was like. No! I remember when reading the book, it almost felt incestuous to me because I always identified with Jo and I have a brother and so much of Jo´s and Laurie´s relationship while they were growing up felt very much like how I and my brother would interact. These very goofy, ridiculous antics to the point where I would probably do some of the more "boy-stuff". So when people were like "oh Jo and Laurie" I was like "eew" That´s No. I can´t, like not at all. That for me was just too weird. I can´t even fathom the thought of Jo and Laurie at all.

Niina: That is very true and then there is a quote from Louisa May Alcott where she writes that she wrote Laurie to be the brother that she never had.

Christina: Yeah. It is very shocking that most people don´t pick up on that. Really how incredibly brother and sister their relationship is like and I know that some people are like "Oh I love the idea of childhood friends to lovers but I´m like not them. Not them at all.

Niina: I think with Laurie there are lots of things that people just ignore about his character and we've talked about this before, like the cat-fishing and the proposal and him threatening to hurt himself if she says no and all these very disturbing red flags are there, but they are not in the films and most people don´t know about them.

Christina: It´s amazing just how the media will change your perception of what a story is because I remember, I don´t know if you have seen it, I don´t remember if it was their own post or someone replying to a post they were like "after watching the 2019 film movie maybe I will go and read the book" and they were not just surprised but whole-blown shocked to see that there was no, not even a hint of Jo and Laurie in it and they were like in away disappointed and kind of upset that Gerwig would do that when the book never did. It is amazing how media/movies and whatnot will change how we perceive how the story should be because that is not how it went at all.

Niina: Somebody commented quite recently that Gerwig cared more about the actors than the book itself and I think that might be true. I think it´s also a problem in the 1994 film and maybe in the 1949 film. She is just continuing this long tradition of romanticizing Laurie. There are no excuses for that.

Christina: No, not at all. I think in general Laurie is a good character but it takes him a while to get to be a great character. They all got flaws. He seems to be the one that really stands out to the point of "okay that´s a very problematic dude". During this day and age if you did at least one of those things that Laurie did a girl would be like "just dump him, girl, don´t even bother" you know, but like you said they don´t put focus on that and I think it is a shame because when he does propose to Jo, when they portray his heartbreak it is like "oh poor Laurie" but it´s not really "poor Laurie" because you've had so many signs leading up to Jo being like I can´t or I won't because you clearly didn't catch the hint before. I've seen some people who have said "Jo was so mean to him during the proposal" not for nothing but wouldn't you be too after all those years him trying to flirt with you and trying to kiss you and whatever else and you try to say in the nicest way "no" and you just get so fed up with it. I don´t blame her at all.

Niina: In the book, the reason why Jo goes to New York is that Laurie is harassing her.

Christina: Yes and that is what I was going to say that I hate when the movies do the proposal before New York because it seems like she is just trying to walk away from heartbreak "Oh I can´t watch poor Laurie be sad" no she left before the proposal happened because she wants to get away from him, so that way he can be like, just take time, maybe after some time away you can figure that you don´t really care for me as much as you think you do and that´s why when she comes back she is like "you know what, I´m done".

I don´t like it when the movies switch it because I feel like it does it almost way to be more sympathetic to Laurie than to be sympathetic to Jo?

Niina: Was it the same in the 2017 series?

Christina: I think that is the only version that I can think of that actually did it the right way.

Niina: Yes, he proposed to her after she came back from New York. I still think he was very romanticized in that version as well.

Christina: It is so important that it happens after New York because again it is one of those moments you sort of have inclined that she has a lot more feelings for him than you think she does but another version that actually does it correctly is the BBC version 1971 because in both of those versions they both say like "Oh don´t tell me, you fell for that old man" and that is such an important moment because it is Jo standing up for Friedrich and says "don´t talk about him like that" we are getting that first incline that maybe she has a lot more feelings for Friedrich than she even thinks she does and standing up to Laurie who has been her friend for many years. She is pretty much saying "shut up! you don´t know what you are talking about. He is as a dear a friend to me as you are". I think it´s very important showing the development of Jo´s and Friedrich´s relationship. That one little moment when she is ready to tear Laurie apart because how dare he say something horrible about her Friedrich".

Niina: If he is her friend, he should respect her and there are lots of indications that he doesn´t. Before Jo goes to New York there is that time when he is low-key trying to flirt with her and she clearly says no and then a couple of years before that when Beth gets sick for the first time, he is trying to kiss her and she says no and she is 16 and when she goes to New York she starts to develop these feelings for Friedrich. It is a natural way of things that she would reject Laurie. I think one of the things that most people miss in Little Women, even some people who read the novel too, is that it also happens to Laurie when he is with Amy. He starts to become more independent, which is not the way his and Jo´s relationship works because he was kinda looking for her to be his nanny or somebody who tells him what to do. With Amy, he becomes more independent and he wants to do something else in his life than just writing these operas for Jo. He wants to be productive. It is all thanks to Amy. She pushes him to find a purpose that he was lacking.

Christina: I think that too, he sort of saw Jo almost a safety net. That no matter what could happen. Good or bad. He could go to Jo and she would be like. "It´s alright Laurie, it´s fine. Everything is going to be okay" but Amy she says like "You got to learn how to stand on your own two feet. Not that I can´t be there to comfort you and to be "that´s alright Laurie" but I am not going to be your safety net. If you are going to fall try to help yourself up". I think that was what it was. He just got so used to Jo that he doesn´t realize that he could do stuff on his own and Amy allows him to do that.

Niina: It´s really a boys proposal because. He says he gave up billiard and smoking.

(laughter)

and what else. That´s not a really good reason to marry.

Christina: Right. That and "oh let´s do it because everyone expects it". Okay, you have pretty much listed every reason except the fact that we love each other and I am clearly saying and telling you that I don´t love you that way. He is trying to pressure her "Don´t disappoint us, Jo". "Grandfather wants it, your family wants it" and it´s like em...what about what I want Laurie. I don´t want this. That moment is his most selfish moment because it´s "I want what I want and how dare you not want the same".

Niina: I was so disturbed when I read Gerwig´s interview and she said "how could Jo reject handsome young Laurie".

Christina: I could go on forever. I bother my friends sometimes when Little Women comes up and I´m like "The Gerwig version" because there are so many things that I have no idea what her goal was with that because it felt very much all over the place. Like you said earlier it felt more catered to the actors and it is such a shame because before I had seen Little Women I watched "Ladybird" and I thought that "Ladybird" was great and when I heard that Saoirse Ronan is going to be Jo and Timothee Chalamet would be Laurie I was like "oh that´s great because I feel like they have a good chemistry and I feel that they could work it out" and when watching I was like that´s no...that´s not... you have totally missed the point. The point is here and you went....way over Gerwig and I am very disappointed with you. I was expecting better from you.

Niina: One of my friends read the "Jo and Laurie" book. You´ve heard of it?

Christina: Oh yeah I have heard of it.

Niina: She said that it was like Gerwig´s version in that sense, it felt very disrespectful for the original material and for the author. I am not going to read it because it makes me angry.

Christina: I couldn´t stand it. I don´t know if I could even do it as a "tell us what you think" I can already tell you what I think. I am just not going to bother because it would have been a very... I almost want to say an abusive relationship, because they both are such hot-headed people and Jo at that point when the proposal happens has learned to manage it, I feel that if she was married to Laurie he would bring that old habit back and it would have been incredibly destructive and not in any way good at all. Back then they couldn´t divorce as easy as they could today but I think it would have been miserable by their first anniversary.

Niina: You know about Louisa and Laddie Wisniewski the real-life Laurie. They had a short time together and Louisa liked his sense of humour and his company and then they continued writing letters when she returned to the US but then, later on, she wrote to her journal that he was boring and then one of my followers on Instagram wrote that... well if Jo and Laurie would have married, Jo would have thought that he was boring.

Christina: I think she would have quickly realized how childish he is because at that point she has already understood, she has grown up. Not in the sense that she had forgotten who she was in the past but grown into the person that she should be and understanding herself better but I almost feel like Laurie almost sees it as a betrayal. "How dare you grow up. I want to be Peter Pan forever and let nothing happen". Jo did have that earlier when Meg got married but she was able to take it gracefully and realize that things change but it´s okay and here is the best way to go about it to stay true to me but also be more accepting to other changes whereas Laurie I think saw Jo as his last hold-on-to-the-past and nothing moved forward as Amy is more of that symbol of "here is what the future can be like". Let´s not think about who I was as a child, but who I can become tomorrow. If Jo would have married Laurie he would have been stuck in that sort of perpetual childish stage and she would have been the one to grow up and like you said to be a mother to him and it would have been totally unbalanced relationship whereas with Amy he would learn to grow and they could grow physically and mentally together old. I don´t think that they don´t really show that as well as I think that they should have done in adaptations.

Niina: I agree and Louisa May Alcott has this quote about character development that the character grows when she moves on from one character interest to another. What happens to Jo with Friedrich and that happens to Laurie with Amy. It´s really interesting. I think Laurie ideas of romance are very unrealistic.

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Christina: Nobody is the same person as they were five years ago. In some form or another, you change. Who I was in high school is not the same person I am now and I sit back and think I don´t think I was the greatest person then but it doesn´t mean that I was a horrible person and that I can´t learn and grow from it. When you think about Laurie, he did many not so great things but he learned and grew from it. When people say that Alcott ruined Jo´s character and made her into something different. Didn´t you pay attention? Jo is still Jo, she just learned to understand herself better and this is what I think people don´t get is that Jo wasn´t trying to be a boy into being a boy or that she repelled a lot of the social norms because she hated all of them it was because she felt constrained by it or that she was always told things like "marriage is only for the benefit of getting money or property". It is either do that or be a spinster and then she is like "we´ll I guess I´ll be a spinster for I would not be that person" rather than being told that "you could marry for love" and no doubt for someone like her if we all think also how Alcott herself was. I was bullied a lot when I was in Middle School which are probably my most formative years from transitioning from childhood to teenage years. I had always had that feeling that nobody is ever going to look at me and love me and I think that in a way Jo must have felt the same because throughout the novel at some point or another whether it´s the nicest way possible if you could say or very harshly, Jo has been told that nobody is going to want you if you don´t behave or "you are too tall and you are too kingly for this and "Jo if you don´t curl your language you are never going to find a husband.

So no doubt that all of those times that she has ever been made feel that who she was as a person is totally unworthy to be married and she was like you know what, then I guess I just won´t get married because it´s better to accept that than to hope for it and nothing happens and that´s kinda what pushes a little bit more why I love Jo and Friedrich so much is because he never made her feel bad for who she was. Never. Regardless of what some of the versions will try to tell you him being like "oh dare you to write for the weekly volcano" which never happened in the book.

Niina: Never

Christina: He never made her feel inferior, which is something that Laurie had done, whether he meant to or not, had done to Jo, because no doubt somewhere in the back of her mind she was like "I know people are expecting us to marry because he is wealthy and we need money or he would throw his privilege around and she would think back in her head "yeah I don´t have that privilege as both a woman and someone with no money" but Friedrich always encouraged her. He listened to her and she listened to him and they grew from it and I think that was the time she felt for the first time that maybe there isn´t something totally unlovable in me if someone can look at me and go "you are fine as you are". There may still be hope and the fact that these two so-called "odd-balls" of their society can find love and happiness is not only so sweet but it´s inspiring. It almost makes you feel like you know maybe someone could love me for all of my oddities and imperfections.

Niina: I think that´s very true and a lot of people don´t get that because Jo and Friedrich tend to be very romanticized in the films as well. I told you about this recently. My sister watched the 1978 version and she liked it because Jo and Friedrich seemed so normal. They were not overly romanticized. They were hard-working and you can see that they have these similar interests throughout the series and my sister hasn´t read Little Women. She has seen the 1994 film and this 1978 series.

Christina: You can also see the respect between the two of them. That is the biggest thing I feel about Jo and Friedrich is that even if it is not this poetic romanticized version you can immediately tell that there is an enormous amount of respect for each other and that is I think the biggest thing for a relationship. Respecting one another and knowing that you are both on an equal playing field.

Niina: Somebody commented on my Instagram that there are a lot of people who say that they are like Jo, but then they are actually not at all like the book Jo, because the book Jo, there are some boyish things that she likes but then she also likes to be a mother and she loves all boys, she wants to start a school for boys and then she also likes to knit and make clothes and she likes to read romance novels and she cries when she reads them. She adores her niece and her nephew and she loves Friedrich´s nephews. She has some very feminine qualities.

Christina: When you say that it reminded me. I made it a while ago but it sticks with me. I said something like If Jo was present in the modern-day and this is again because I was..very cringe-worthy but I was also this girl too. Like 2006-2008-2012 time when the girls were just like "I am not like other girls" and they made it seem like, if you like the colour pink or if you are like this, if you like make-up, you like wearing dresses, was almost like a negative quality and I think Jo would have been that type of girl at the beginning of the novel. She would have been that "I am not like the other girls-girl" and what makes her relatable at least to me is that throughout the book she realizes there is nothing really wrong with liking those things, that is why I say she learned to understand herself better. I can have some of the more stereotypical boyish qualities and still like the girly things but someone ...it sticks with me forever, they replied saying "You are an idiot" and then they per-ceded to block me. They didn´t want me just long enough for me to see it and I was like "let me check that again" they blocked me and I wasn´t like saying that "oh Jo was a terrible person. No, I am saying that she is a flawed person and that is how her character grows. She grows from being "I don´t care" "girls are stupid" "boys don´t have any drama" to being like there are nice things about being a girl and there is nothing wrong with that.

It is amazing how some people just say that love Jo or know Jo and then say stuff like that I believe, maybe you have seen it someone had like favourite literally character Jo March - and then said something like "oh then they gave up their independence to marry that old professor" and I´m like first of all, you don´t know the book, if you´d knew the book you would have seen how that went down and I don´t think you really care about the character as much to say or to make a claim that Jo gave up her independence. She is not that great of a character because she did that in marrying a man that loved and supported her and honestly I think as "unromantic" as they are they probably have one of the most romantic proposal scenes I have ever seen in a book or a movie.

Niina: That´s true!

Christina: It is amazing how some people just think they have an idea of a character and I almost sometimes think "that´s so Laurie of you". You have this perceived image of what Jo is and what you want Jo to be when the truth is Jo is not like that. You just want her to be that way and it happens to be most of the time the Jo and Laurie shippers that have that sort of delusional idea of who Jo is supposed to be.

Niina: I think the whole idea of "not being like the other girls" comes from very deep misogyny. This idea is that you are better than fellow women. It is a form of misogyny and it was a trend some time ago. Hopefully not so much these days. I think one of the problems with Jo especially when she was younger was that she identified so much with the masculine that she became very misogynistic and you can see that when she makes fun of Meg wanting to go to a ball or Amy trying to impress her female friends but then she grows out of that and I think a lot of that has to do with her and Laurie´s friendship. Not fading but she is growing out of it. Laurie has some great qualities but he sort of embodies that 19th-century typical young man, the way they behaved. Jo got some really bad influences from him and he from her and I think she kind of tries to block her emotions sometimes because she feels that if people see her showing emotions, then people are going to see her weaker and when people see her weaker, she is more feminine to them. She also grows out of that as well.

Christina: That is why I think it is, even more, moving to see her character development because she goes from someone who is being so closed off "No this is not tears -I just got something in my eyes" type of person to be open to take advice from people or open to criticism or open to wanting to grow because I think it is very much cycling thing when you are told just hold it in because it is going to be seen as weak and in some way I was a very sensitive person but I was always told that in a very negative light so I was like alright you know what I am just trying to hold it in and that was not healthy at all and it was almost seen in away kind of very feminine thing "oh you know she is just an emotional little thing, poor thing". In some cases I was right, what they said was very rude or mean but boys will be boys and you are just being too emotional over it. Having Jo learn how to be more open and accepting and to have a positive influence like her mom and Friedrich, just to name a few, that just. It´s okay, there is nothing wrong with being vulnerable. It doesn´t mean that you are weak, it just means that you are open to having other people help you and sometimes that´s the hardest thing is to admit to saying that I need help or this is bothering me or I don´t know what to do because if you are that person who is like "yeah sure I know what you´re doing, yeah I totally know that and you don´t" that can cause a lot more problems. For me, I had to sort of unlearn that behaviour because it didn´t help me in the slightest. Now I live by the motto "If I don´t know it, I´ll ask for help"I admit that I am being "an idiot" rather than making myself look even more of an idiot than pretending that I know what I am doing.

Niina: Yeah and I think it is a very long process for Jo to unlearn those habits. In Little Men, there is Nat´s character. She calls him "girly" and she sees him weaker than the other boys because he is so sensitive, and he has similarities with Laurie. It is not that Friedrich is not sensitive. He is not as sensitive as Laurie is.. how would I put it..he is a lot more grounded, when Laurie is very idealistic, head in the clouds.

Christina: I guess if I had to think of it, Laurie is who I was when I was in school. Where I just took everything and made it full-blown as now I am more like Friedrich, where it´s like "that hurts but let´s try to see what is the best way to respond to that very sensitive moment".

Niina: It is a much more mature response. You try not to take everything too emotionally or too personally. Laurie was like that and I think to some extend Jo was like that when she was younger.

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Folklorist and historian. Alcott essayist. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

Finland, MN
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