Part 1. Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (and the boy next door)
I finally finished my long Laurie meta. Both the video and the article are pretty long (I lost count on how many adaptations I mentioned) so take some time to read/watch it. The article is a bit more detailed.
Cinematic and cultural evolution of Theodore Laurie Lawrence through gender studies.
There is no hate for any of the characters, please do not leave that to the comments either. If you'd like to participate in constructive online conversations about this essay, please do leave comments and share it in your social media networks.
FAIR USE All multimedia clips included in this video constitute a 'fair use' of any copyrighted material as provided for in Section 107 of U.S. Copyright law, which allows for criticism, comment and scholarship. Here in Finland similar purpose is driven by the quotation law https://fi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sitaattioikeus
Original Description of Laurie
As a big little women fan I am always a bit worried when a new adaptation comes out and is it going to be loyal to the books and does it get the characters right. Theodore Laurie Lawrence is one of the most complicated characters in Little Women and his cultural and cinematic history is also complicated. More than often the Hollywood adaptations of the book changes our perspective of the characters. In the original book that was published in 1868 Laurie is both foreign and androgynous.
Laurie has brown skin, curly black hair, long nose, nice teeth, little hands and feet. He is the same size as Jo making him equal to her. When he asks Jo to dance he makes a little French bow.
For the 1880 edition of Little Women Louisa´s publisher demanded her to make changes for the books. Little Women was a huge hit and publishers want to make money. Now all Laurie´s foreign features were removed because they were not suitable for a romantic suitor. He became more handsome, no mention of the colour of his skin and he is taller than Jo, making him superior to her.
The problem with these changes was that LMA herself never meant Laurie to be a romantic suitor for Jo. Quoting her own words when she created Laurie she gave her alter-ego a brother that she never had. It is the 1880 version with more "masculine Laurie" that is familiar to most people. This description of him remained in the books nearly 100 years. When I read Little Women as a child my Finnish version did not have any mention of Laurie being androgynous neither there was any mentions about his skin colour. The translation I read had been made in 1920´s. Last Finnish translation of Little Women appeared in 2012 so that is when the Finnish readers got to read the original description of Laurie for the first time. Little Women has been translated into more than 50 languages. Many translations especially the older ones are abridged and entire chapters are missing.
Another very important part of Laurie is that he has androgynous looks. In the famous and beloved 1933 film version of Little Women Douglas Montgomery plays Laurie and he has very androgynous looks. He has quite feminine and soft features. Katherine Hepburn´s Jo is close to the book Jo. She is tall, with androgynous looks and sharp features and a strong way to carry herself. Little Women is a semi-biographical novel and Jo´s character is loosely based on Louisa herself and Louisa was a tomboy and not traditionally feminine.
Hollywood and Adaptive Attractiveness
What it comes to Little Women adaptations they are model examples of adaptive attractiveness. Adaptive attractiveness refers to the way Hollywood changes the appearance of a book character. Who in the story is described from anything from old to ugly from androgynous to plain looking is played by an attractive actor in a film version. As we learned the adaptive attractiveness of Laurie already started in the 19th century. In films/tv adaptations Jo, Laurie and Friedrich all go through adaptive attractiveness. This does not mean that beautiful actors can not play these characters or that we should stop watching these movies. Some of them are the best adaptations of Little Women. The reason for this is the same as Louisa´s publisher changing Laurie´s looks, to make money. Studios invest great deal of money to the films and the best way to make profit and get viewers is to hire attractive actors.
Problems With Adaptive Attractiveness and Little Women
Louisa´s original description of the three characters is a big part of the narrative. Adaptive attractiveness is deeply rooted idea in our culture. Starting from fairy-tales which follow the Hollywood narrative that love only belongs to the young and attractive. When Little Women appeared it became a massive hit and it made Louisa May Alcott a billionaire. When young girls came to visit Louisa they often left disappointed because they were expecting to see young and pretty Jo March. Instead they saw Louisa who was rather plain looking. Sometimes she even opened the door dressed up as a maid and she said to the young fans of Jo March that Miss Alcott was not at home. An effective way to get rid of fans.
Flipping Gender Stereotypes
Laurie in the books is a complex character with both good and bad qualities. He is an orphan living together with his distant grandfather. Laurie was an aspiring pianist. He had no problems becoming best friends with four girls next door. He put snow to Meg´s ankle, saved Amy from drowning and was Jo´s bff. That is what we usually see in the movies but in the books Laurie is much more complicated character. Louisa was ahead of her time. She refused to impose any gender stereotypes to any of her characters. In 19th century context Laurie and his love for music can be seen as a more effeminate trait. Even the way he is lonely in the big old mansion follows the narrative of the 19th century where young women were domesticated and shut down from the social life. In one of my favourite chapters in Little Women camp Lawrence Laurie is compared to a colt, a gun that can go off at any given minute. In the beginning of Little Women Jo is also referred to a colt.
No Temper For Laurie (Or For Jo)
In many ways the 1933 film is loyal to the books but (naturally) it shows the characters through 1930´s lens. Both Jo and Laurie lack their aggressive outbursts they have in the books. It was not until the 90´s we got a movie Jo who for the first time struggled with her temper. 90% off all Little Women adaptations have toned down Laurie´s temper. In the 1949 version Laurie played by Peter Lawford is one of the most idealized Laurie´s. He has run away from the school. Lied his age to get into army were he got wounded (we can´t see any wounds). He is also extremely kind and charming. Film does not either show Laurie´s and Amy´s time in Europe together.
Why Jo and Laurie don´t end up together
(Or why our expectations of tropes set us up for disappointment)
Quote from @thatvermillionflycatcher
We are used to seeing literature for women as romances or epic fantasy. Not that there is anything wrong with any of those genres. But this perspective sets us up expect and assume some things. For example we expect the main couple in the novel to be introduced to us in the first few chapters. Usually via some kind of meet-cute or meet-ugly.
But Little Women isn´t a romance novel. It features love and marriage but the romance is not the core of the story. We read chapter three where Jo and Laurie meet and we read it as meet-cute. It never crosses our mind to expect a meet-ugly between Laurie and Meg. For example because Meg is not the protagonist and Jo thinks of an arrangement between Meg and Laurie.
Little Women is a strange story if you think it as a romance. Because the protagonist marries a character that appears well into book two but this is not a problem because it is not a romance. Alternative reading is the adventure quest. The heroine is different. Has a new world view and engages in a quest to change her world but Jo isn´t a heroine in this way. If there are two defining characteristics of Jo´s character those are her anger and her fear of change. She doesn´t want Meg to marry Mr. Brooke not because she thinks that marriage is a constricting future for Meg because it would mean change in her family. Meg would no longer live with them. The family dynamics would be totally different and the mere idea terrifies Jo.
Jo´s quest doesn´t fail because there was no quest. Little Women isn´t an adventure novel either. It is as many people like to point out but frequently seem to overlook consequences of a semi-biographical novel. It is the life story of four sisters. A slice of life with everything it brings. Love and romance and some adventures. Yes but the simplicity of every day life. Pain, lost, friendship, family, work, talent and virtues.
Let´s talk about gender
In this essay I will be writing a great deal about men and women, masculine and feminine, male and female. So much that some of you might wonder what are my thoughts about gender in general. Gender is a spectrum and fluid spectrum for that. Some people fit to one point at the scale and that is fine. Some people are more fluid and that is fine as well. When I use the word "men" that refers to one particular demographic and they are not people with male parts, beards or beer bellies but simply people who identify as men. Same with women. Not just people with breasts and ability to give birth but people who identify as women. Femininity on the other hand is a set of attributes, behaviours and roles generally associated with girls and women. Femininity is made up of both socially defined and biologically created factors. Definition of masculinity is similar. Set of attributes, behaviours and roles generally associated with boys and men. Masculinity as well is made up of both socially defined and biologically created factors. Both males and females can exhibit both masculine and feminine traits. In Little Women especially Louisa May Alcott explored masculinity and femininity through social and cultural factors of her time and it is a very common theme in all of her works.
When Jo does find out that Meg does have romantic feelings towards Mr. Brooke Jo becomes angry and upset. She literally runs to her room and cries. She says Marmee that she would rather marry Meg herself than have her family torn apart. This has made many to believe that Jo is a lesbian. I personally believe it´s more about gender fluidly. Susan Bailey has an insightful article in her blog about 19th century female relationships reflected in Little Women.
Louisa May Alcott was born in 29th of November 1831. Her mother Abigail was one of the first social workers in US. Her father Bronson was a religious reformer, educator and one of the leading figures in New England´s transcendentalist movement. Louisa had three sisters; Anna, Lizzie and May. From a very young age Louisa was introduced to the intellectual circles of the time. Likes of Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreu, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emmerson. Many Louisa´s family members and friends were abolitionists, suffragettes and women´s rights activists.
Marriage between Abba and Bronson was stormy and argumentative. Often Bronson would refuse to look for work and put his highly spiritual ideas before his own family. Bronson Alcott was a very controversial figure even during his own lifetime. Louisa´s childhood was way less idyllic than Jo´s. From very early on she started to support her family with her writings. In the 19th century context the role of the provider was seen more masculine. There were times when Alcott´s lived in extreme poverty. Louisa´s love and dedication for her mother Abba was fierce and protective. Louisa and her older sister Anna were very close and when Anna got married Louisa grieved it a great deal. In the books Jo is very uncomfortable with change which is something that correlated with Louisa´s own life. Same way as the Marches the Alcott´s went through hard time together and both Jo and Louisa were protective over their family. In the 19th century puberty began much later on than now days. Part of Louisa´s youth was also time spent in Fruitlands, a spiritual community based on transcendentalist ideas started by Alcott and John Slayne. Some of the rules in Fruitlands was to follow a strict vegetarian diet. Also coffee, tea, milk, alcoholic drinks and warm bath water were banned. Many Alcott scholars believe that the low nutrition might have also effected to Louisa´s hormonal balance.
Three different point of views
As much as we idolize Jo she was drowning into internalized misogyny. Jo and Laurie were brothers. They planned to ran away together, they had good time making pranks and they made fun of the feminine ladies who Laurie used to flirt with in college. One of the best examples of the internalized misogyny is chapter 21. Laurie makes mischief and Jo makes peace. You can read the whole chapter here.
In this chapter Laurie pretends to be his tutor John Brooke and he sends letters to Meg in his name, who he knows Brooke has feelings for.
She was quite right, for the mischief-loving lad no sooner suspected a mystery than he set himself to find it out, and led Jo a trying life of it. He wheedled, bribed, ridiculed, threatened, and scolded; affected indifference, that he might surprise the truth from her; declared her knew, then that he didn't care; and at last, by dint of perseverance, he satisfied himself that it concerned Meg and Mr. Brooke. Feeling indignant that he was not taken into his tutor's confidence, he set his wits to work to devise some proper retaliation for the slight.
Jo´s reactions throughout the chapter however has annoyed plenty of contemporary readers and so have Laurie´s actions.
Jo´s first reaction is to beat up Laurie and to defend Meg´s honor.
"Oh, the little villain! That's the way he meant to pay me for keeping my word to Mother. I'll give him a hearty scolding and bring him over to beg pardon," cried Jo, burning to execute immediate justice. But her mother held her back, saying, with a look she seldom wore...
Seeing Meg's usually gentle temper was roused and her pride hurt by this mischievous joke, Mrs. March soothed her by promises of entire silence and great discretion for the future. The instant Laurie's step was heard in the hall, Meg fled into the study, and Mrs. March received the culprit alone. Jo had not told him why he was wanted, fearing he wouldn't come, but he knew the minute he saw Mrs. March's face, and stood twirling his hat with a guilty air which convicted him at once. Jo was dismissed, but chose to march up and down the hall like a sentinel, having some fear that the prisoner might bolt. The sound of voices in the parlour rose and fell for half an hour, but what happened during that interview the girls never knew.
When they were called in, Laurie was standing by their mother with such a penitent face that Jo forgave him on the spot, but did not think it wise to betray the fact. Meg received his humble apology, and was much comforted by the assurance that Brooke knew nothing of the joke.
Jo stood aloof, meanwhile, trying to harden her heart against him, and succeeding only in priming up her face into an expression of entire disapprobation. Laurie looked at her once or twice, but as she showed no sign of relenting, he felt injured, and turned his back on her till the others were done with him, when he made her a low bow and walked off without a word.
As soon as he had gone, she wished she had been more forgiving, and when Meg and her mother went upstairs, she felt lonely and longed for Teddy. After resisting for some time, she yielded to the impulse, and armed with a book to return, went over to the big house.
When Laurie is scolded by Marmee Jo quickly forgives him and sees the whole thing only as a harmless prank. She has difficulties to understand how much Laurie´s mischief actually hurt her sister.
"If John doesn't know anything about this nonsense, don't tell him, and make Jo and Laurie hold their tongues. I won't be deceived and plagued and made a fool of. It's a shame!"
Meg is in an age that if this prank would have turned into a rumor it would have severely hurt Meg´s reputation and John´s as well. (Quote from @this-thrown-out-gentleman from an in-depth conversation we had about this chapter).
Meg´s response is very mature. Considering the time there is very little that Meg can do when something like this happens.
Back at the Lawrences Laurie is lectured by his grandfather.
"No, he would have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I'd have told my part of the scrape, if I could without bringing Meg in. As I couldn't, I held my tongue, and bore the scolding till the old gentleman collared me. Then I bolted, for fear I should forget myself."
"It wasn't nice, but he's sorry, I know, so go down and make up. I'll help you."
"Hanged if I do! I'm not going to be lectured and pummelled by everyone, just for a bit of a frolic. I was sorry about Meg, and begged pardon like a man, but I won't do it again, when I wasn't in the wrong."
"He didn't know that."
"He ought to trust me, and not act as if I was a baby! It's no use, Jo, he's got to learn that I'm able to take care of myself, and don't need anyone's apron string to hold on by."
Jo works as a mediator between Laurie and older Mr.Lawrence. After being forced to apologise to Meg Laurie is now expecting his grandfather apologising him for lecturing him without no reason. He refuses to see any faults in his own actions. Next moment he is asking Jo to go to Washington to see Mr. Brooke and Jo is tempted to go but she is mature enough to see that such trip is Laurie only trying to escape facing his grandfather.
There is of course an actual reason why Laurie´s and his grandfather´s relationship is difficult and why he is constantly looking for attention but that does not adjust his actions.
Mr. Laurence's ruddy face changed suddenly, and he sat down, with a troubled glance at the picture of a handsome man, which hung over his table. It was Laurie's father, who had run away in his youth, and married against the imperious old man's will. Jo fancied her remembered and regretted the past, and she wished she had held her tongue.
Why the feminine sister´s feelings are treated less valid?
One thing I have noticed while doing gender studies on Little Women characters and talking to fans across the world is that this chapter is more than often ignored and the focus isn´t on the prank but in Laurie´s and Jo´s conversation.
"Why didn´t Jo just agreed to go with Laurie to Washington and have fun?"
"Nothing bad happened as long as Jo is happy".
One fan I chatted with said "why care since no one as hurt".
What about Meg?
For many Meg seems to be a less valid person in the story than Jo is and Jo forgives Laurie so aren´t we ab-lied to forgive Laurie as well?
In her analysis of this very same chapter in Little Women 150 blog Jan Alberghene brings out many of the similar themes I have presented here.
No matter how much time Laurie spends with Jo, her sisters, or Marmee, Laurie lives in a man’s world. And so do the women, whether grown or “Little.”
Jo´s reaction can feel almost as violating as Laurie´s actions because Jo is the protagonist and even though she is participating to cover up Laurie´s behavior she does not question it (unlike Marmee and Meg do).
The idealization of both Jo and Laurie is so deeply rooted in our culture, this chapter has never been adapted into any of the movies (I have a feeling it is not going to be in Gerwig´s film either, though I would like to see it). It would be important to include it. Chapter captures both Jo´s and Laurie´s fast mood changes and their parallel tempers. We also see that Meg is a very strong person (in this case more feminist than Jo who´s growth process is only beginning).
Only adaptation where Laurie makes mischief has been included is the obscure BBC series from the 1970. One can definitely tell that the series comes from the 70´s. Marmee´s first reaction when she sees the letters is to laugh. Which is very off-character. We don´t see Laurie being scolded neither by Marmee or his grandfather. Like in the book Jo does forgive him when he mopes how difficult life he is living with his grandfather. Meg is portrayed as someone who is overly emotional and over-reacting. In this version John knows what is going on and he sees it as a harmless prank. Once again very off character.
Check more of my Little Women meta:
Quest of Friedrich Bhaer (and why my inner Jo loves him)
Jo, Friedrich and the weekly volcano press aka what it takes to become a great writer
Jo, the adamant
Small umbrella in the rain 2019
Little Women 1970 Amy and Laurie Romance
We Germans Believe in Sentiment
Friedrich Bhaer Aesthetics
Equal Marriage Lost in Translation
Little Women 2019 Trailer (Long Rant)
Little Women 1933
Best Jo and Fritz fanfics you´ve ever read
He was attractive as a genial fire
Little Men and Tender Parenthood
Little Women symbolism of the umbrella
Thoughts on #TeamLaurie and #TeamBhaer
Pronounced as Nee-na.
Artist, illustrator, writer and a folklorist. Gryffinclaw. Comes from Finland. Likes cats, tea and period dramas.
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