Monday, May 15, 2017

Jo March Isn't a Failed Feminist

As American feminism has leaned ever harder into the idea that emancipated women are successful in their careers, Louisa May Alcott's Jo March has become a more tendentious figure. While in all of the movie adaptations, the climax of the story comes with Jo's publication of her book about her and her sisters' childhood, sometimes called My Beth if not the more obviously metafictional Little Women and her engagement to Professor Bhaer is inextricably tied to her success as a published author, in the novel, Jo follows a much less cinematic, and much less straightforward, path to success as a writer. In fact, her authorial successes are insignificant in Little Women; it is not until she is well into middle age, in Jo's Boys, that her books bring her fame and fortune (and irritating fans showing up on her doorstep looking for souvenirs). Since most readers don't continue the March trilogy past Little Women, twenty-first century feminists often express disappointment that Alcott's novel isn't 'feminist enough,' a coded way of complaining that Jo doesn't achieve enough.

There's a pernicious assumption in this interpretation of Jo's trajectory as a feminist character. It's true: at the end of Little Women, she has put aside serious literary aspiration to focus on the school she co-founds with her husband and the task of raising her two children. That is, she ends up adapting to the exigencies of surviving as a woman of her time. But, if Jo's feminism depends on her success, then feminism becomes the exclusive ground of the exceptional, the select few who succeed against all odds. The reader is asking to have her cake and eat it too: Jo must be a relatable, flawed character, but her life must be tied up into a bow of perfection. Many academic feminists lament that Jo marries, accepting the dichotomy of career vs. marriage that Alcott herself deconstructs for her character. Never mind that Jo's marriage is a happy partnership in which they share parenting, teaching, and nursing duties. Never mind that most people, feminist or not, hope to have families of one sort or another. But, even beyond these points, Jo does succeed: it just takes her a while.

In other words, Jo doesn't have the flashy, simplistic, up-and-away success narrative that Hollywood has trained us to expect. Instead, she has minor successes and failures, publishes a few things, including books, here and there, tries many different genres and styles, tosses out old work and struggles with new ideas, and allows her understanding of her craft to evolve through hard work, reflection, and a refusal to give up. When Jo says, "I haven't given up the hope that I may write a good book yet, but I can wait, and I'm sure it will be all the better for such experiences and illustrations as these," she's hardly given up all possibility of a career for a life of housewifery and motherhood. Rather, she's accepted that writing a good book is damned difficult, and very few people are going to make it on a first try. She's still writing.

She's also still working. Jo's interest in teaching and caring for a houseful of boys doesn't spring out of nowhere. She takes great pleasure in 'bringing up' Laurie and takes credit for his turning out so well. More importantly, she expresses her intent to found a school with as much enthusiasm and determination as she did with her literary ambitions. "I used to think how, when I'd made my fortune, and no one needed me at home, I'd hire a big house, and pick up some poor, forlorn little lads, who hadn't any mothers, and take care of them, and make life jolly for them before it was too late... I love so to do anything for them," Jo gushes, as she acquaints her family with her plan.

We risk entrenching ourselves in a calcified and rigid structure of feminism in which success and happiness are given exacting definitions and become standards. Jo's 'feminist credentials' haven't been violated because her writing career is realistically portrayed as difficult and roundabout, or because she marries a man, or because she becomes a mother. Jo makes choices in an effort to be a useful, contented, and fulfilled person. The vocabulary may have changed - today feminists might prefer healthy, happy, and self-actualized - but it hardly seems feminist to criticize the self-empowered choices of any woman, fictional or not. The issue at the heart of critiques of Jo's feminism lies in a denied wish fulfillment. Readers want Jo to 'have it all' because they want to 'have it all.' The sooner that we recognize that 'having it all' isn't actually on the table for anyone, even the Sheryl Sandbergs of this world, the sooner modern feminism can start shedding the patriarchally infused imperative to succeed, or be stripped of one's 'feminist credentials.' If success is the metric against which a person's feminism is measured, then feminism is nothing more than another way of policing who women are, what they do, what they choose, and how they live. Jo would still be a feminist even if she failed spectacularly because feminism expresses a belief in a basic equality between men and women, not the achievement of that equality.

Life is hard and requires an endless series of compromises, false steps, mistakes, and failures. If we can't let our fictional characters be less than paragons, what are we letting ourselves in for?

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