As far as I know, Beth March never accidentally smoked crack. But perhaps that’s just because crack hadn’t been invented in the 1860s
Last week, I was out to dinner with friends, and, as is wont to happen amongst the twenty-something yupster set, HBO’s Girls came up. Now, let me go ahead and disclaim now: I HATE Girls. My friends all but had to bind and gag me to get me to sit through the first four episodes. I can respect and understand why it’s a good show but personally find it unbearable to watch. Whatever the opposite of schadenfreude is, that’s what I have--I can’t handle seeing horrible people be horrible to each other, even on a fictional level. But anyway, we’re at dinner and we’re talking about Hannah’s sexually harassing boss or whatever, and I repeat my usual opinions about how insufferable all the characters are but yes, I wouldn’t mind a shower cupcake, when a thought hits me! What classic work of literature is also filled with narcissistic assholes who whine about how “poor” they are all the time? Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, of course!
I quickly concluded that I had struck upon genius, despite having limited exposure to Girls and basing all of my recent knowledge of Little Women on the FYA read-along. But I am nothing if not thorough, so in pursuit of Science, I not only forced myself to watch all of Girls, but also reread Little Women. Hating every minute of it, I persevered and surprised even myself with how much the two have in common. Most notably, the four main characters (minor spoilers through the end of Season 1):
Jo March vs. Hannah Horvath
Appearance: takes pride in general unkemptness, lack of hygiene. While Jo is tall and skinny, Hannah is short and dumpy, but both are considered undesirable physiques in their respective cultural and temporal contexts.
Personality: self-absorbed, judgemental
Shared Interests: writing, resenting friends and family, thinking everyone else is inferior, whining, lusting after age-inappropriate professors, imprudent makeovers
Oh Hannah, not your eyebrows! Your one true beauty!
Notable Differences: Hannah is slightly more neurotic, and Jo is clearly a closeted lesbian.
Meg March vs. Marnie Michaels
Appearance: beautiful, impeccably coiffed and dressed
Personality: uptight, bitchy, motherly
Shared Interests: nagging, being self-righteous, thinking significant other is smothering
Notable Differences: Meg’s sole object in life seems to be getting hitched and popping out babies. Marnie may become that person yet, but she’s not there now.
Beth March vs. Shoshanna Shapiro
Appearance: looks younger than actual age, penchant for braided pigtails
Personality: innocent, sweet, naive
Shared Interests: idolizing female friends, being unable to talk to men like a normal human, bringing baskets of snacks to health crises
Notable Differences: Shoshanna is the best character on Girls, whereas my favorite part of Little Women is when
Claire Danes Beth finally dies. Also, at age 18+, Shoshanna doesn’t still play with dolls like a fucking child. Although now that I think about it, I bet she totally has a closet full of creepy Madame Alexander dolls somewhere.
Amy March vs. Jessa Johansson
Appearance: blonde, susceptible to unfortunate and fleeting fashion trends.
Personality: affected, selfish, irresponsible
Shared Interests: social climbing, being sexually harassed, men with regrettable mustaches, relying on others to bankroll jetsetting lifestyle, being a cock-tease, spontaneous and ill-advised weddings
Notable Differences: nope, they’re pretty much the same awful character.
I could try to force the men on the show into prescribed character boxes, but I’m not going to. This is partly because they deviate from their literary counterparts, but mostly because I always found the romances to be the least compelling part of Little Women (when Laurie and Jo end up together, then we can talk). At the end of the day, Little Women is more about four slightly egotistical sisters’ ups and downs with each other than any romances, just as the friendships in Girls are far more important than any men on the show.
Before all you Girls fanatics come after me, I’m not arguing that Lena Dunham is ripping off Louisa May Alcott. (And even if she is, um, hello. I LOVE modern retellings of classics. Clueless? 10 Things I Hate About You?? She’s the Man? ALL FABULOUS). Obviously, not everything translates; as far as I know, Beth March never accidentally smoked crack. But perhaps that’s just because crack hadn’t been invented in the 1860s.
Whether intentionally or not, Lena Dunham has created Little Women for the 21st century. Just strip away Louisa May Alcott’s incessant puritanical moralizing and voila! The March girls become the same whiny, entitled youths of modern-day Brooklyn. Maybe Dunham did this intentionally as she was writing, or maybe, like most writers, she subconsciously drew on the stories she’d grown up with and this was the result. Either way, I think Girls is the direct descendent of Little Women. Hell, they even have the same name.