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The Little Women Televisual Analog Test

You’ve thought about how Girls responds to Sex and the City, and you may have thought about how both shows are a response to Golden Girls, but you might not have seriously considered how all three shows are on a televisual spirit quest aimed at recapturing the ur-text of lady friendship: Little Women. Little Women is apparently the creative font from which all shows about lady friendship spring.

We all have Little Women stories; here is mine. Little Women was on my qualifying exams list in grad school so I was rereading it on a plane and sobbing, of course. I was sobbing enough that I alarmed a passing stewardess, who wanted to know if I was okay. “I’m fine!” I wept. “But Jo just cut her hair!” The stewardess said, “OH!!!” and we exchanged a long wide-eyed stare. “It was her one beauty,” I whispered.  The stewardess nodded, got a little wet around the eyes, and patted me on the shoulder.  Oh: Jo.

What does this have to do with televison? All television about lady friendship is aimed at capturing the same thing that bound me together with that stewardess. Think about it. Both Girls and SATC both draw you in through a Jo-like writer (In the case of Golden Girls, it’s a Jo-like wit, Dorothy) and rely on a central dynamic of four ladies negotiating their lady-dom in competing, differently-powerful ways.

Louisa May Alcott’s genius was to realize that four ladies is the minimum you need to have two simultaneous lady pairings. She also codified the central archetypes which stand in for the pressures that ladies feel on their lives: a writer or wit lady (who draws the reader in); a domestic lady; a socially ambitious lady; and a moral-center lady.

little womenWait, you may say! What about Broad City? Broad City  is not self-evidently like Little Women: nor is Orphan Black. That is true, I would respond. But that is because Broad City, like Doll and Em and probably Grace and Frankie which I have not yet seen, is not about “lady friendship” in general, it is about one lady friendship in particular. Orphan Black is about reproduction and heroic narrative with a dash of lady friendship on the side. Let me speak sweepingly beyond my own expertise and say: there are no other model for shows that are fundamentally about female friendship with the possible exception of Kimmie Schmidt, which is different.* Let’s also note that of the a small number of women of color who have fought their way onto television screens, an even smaller number of them have been given lady friends: ugh.

Now, you may realize that Little Women was published in 1868, which is a long time ago. But we have not moved past these competing pressures on lady interior life, and that, in addition to its general excellence, is why we are still telling Little Women‘s story.

Nevertheless, it is the future and some things have changed, and comparing these contemporary iterations of female friendship to their source text — running a Little Woman analog test — is a revealing sort of critical enterprise. How has friendship progressed? How has it evolved? Which shows are best able to envision how the new freedoms available to women might actually make women’s lives better?

I love many things about all three contemporary Little Women lady-vision shows and I’m not really interested in the business of prioritizing one lady-show over another; I’m happy to embrace them all.  But I will say that running the shows through the Little Women analogy test basically reveals that Golden Girls — we knew this, but it’s worth reminding ourselves — is a fucking genius example of lady-centric television. It’s the show that really shows we’re getting somewhere. Let’s consider why.

I loved Carrie Bradshaw, but nothing makes Carrie Bradshaw seem more inadequate than comparing her to Jo. Jo would never make a career out of “wondering,” because she didn’t wonder: she opined. However, it is very interesting to think about Mr. Big as a kind of Laurie, and looking at it that way makes me newly glad that Jo and Laurie never got together. Like: how much better would Carrie be if she was just all “you know what, I’m just going to be awkward and care maybe 2% less about my shoes.” Anyway, Carrie’s flaws are a strength of her character and the show but seriously lady get a fucking moral center. Get a Beth.

But who would that center be? Spooling out the rest of the foursome, I’d put Charlotte as Meg (“I choose my choice!” the sort of desperate modern day equivalent of “The Jelly won’t Jell!”); Samantha as a particularly appealing Amy (here imagine “pickled limes” being some sort of excellent sex metaphor to which Samantha might introduce us): the sexual revolution helps Amys the most of all. Miranda is Beth, maybe. She serves the role of kind of being Carrie’s go-to person for real talk, but she hasn’t got enough figured out to be someone who could actually bring the best out in Carrie.  SATC cares a little about ethics, but it doesn’t really make much room for…kindness, would be the word, I think.

Neither does Girls. Hannah has Jo’s painful awkwardness but she doesn’t have anyone to care about except herself. Marnie is absolutely Meg; Jessa a passable Amy; but Girls can only make Beth into a caricature, through Shoshana: it has no idea how to make sincerity into something appealing or moral, so sincerity becomes shrill and anxious instead.

And this, Dear Reader, is why we should all go immediately to binge watch some Golden Girls because ROSE IS THE PERFECT BETH. Golden Girls has managed to bring Little Women’s moral anchor into the contemporary: even though it plays her naivité for laughs it also leans on it narratively; it doesn’t consider innocence to be antithetical to sexuality or moral depth. She’s believably contemporary — I love how the show uses her midwesternness as a justification for her old-timey optimism — and yet she maintains the narrative force Beth had in Little Women, which is someone who manages to be a real person while also bringing out the best in everyone else.

The rest of Golden Girls is wonderful too. Dorothy is a wonderful Jo, appealingly mulish and insightful.  Blanche is the best Amy there ever was (at first I thought Blanche was Meg, but then Kyla pointed out the error of my ways) — her aesthetic sexuality not gross and manuscript-stealing like actual Amy, though still rivalrous with Dorothy/Jo.  And — get this! — Sophia is Meg! The maternal one made actually into the mother, judgy and loving all at once.

But it’s really in its portrait of Rose, of Beth, that Golden Girls truly shines as the only show really offering great evidence for us, as ladies, that we have really gotten somewhere we want to be. The compromises of art (Jo), marriage (Meg), and ambition (Amy): these, for women, have not seemed to really change. But we do live in a world where Beth no longer has to die for her goodness, where the quality of being kind to other women is not killed off by cynicism or tuberculosis. And that is truly a world that shows some progress; where we can be, as it were, thankful for being a friend.

The Golden Girls are older ladies, and they may not have the veneer of radicality that shows featuring younger and more naked ladies do.  Let me clear: I am NOT OPPOSED to either young or naked ladies! I love Girls! I love it all! I love ladies who don’t have it figured out! But I do think it’s worth really emphasizing what the Little Women televisual analog test teaches us: that we should be grateful for, and fight for, and embrace, our new lady access to sex and to social and economic power, but that these qualities mean most when we remember the Beths. We should take seriously a still vital freedom, one Golden Girls knew much about: the freedom to care for each other.

Sarah Mesle: A little judgy.

*Updated to add: The Facts of Life! Also Little Women based, featuring Mrs. Garrett as Marmie.

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