“Little Women”: Archetypes for every story

I sometimes think back to the
summer before my freshman year of high school. My very Catholic
school gave us a booklist to read, and as a result of the imposed summer
homework (Oh, no! Would all of high school be like this?), I was
introduced to the four sisters March. Yes, the booklist included
Louisa May Alcott
‘s Little Women.

Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy found their
way into my heart that summer of ’65. As I sat out on Mastic
Beach in Long Island at the home of one of my cousins, I was transported
back to the Civil War and the lives of those four girls. Balmy
winds and beach sand under my feet were no match for Southern hospitality,
adventurous escapades, plays, balls and the tears shed at the many sad
moments in the book. I immediately fell in love with Jo
and wished she could hold me in her arms as she did her dear sister
Beth. Little did I know that was a portent of my future!

As I grew up and enjoyed different
shows on TV, I came to recognize a pattern. Certain shows resonated
with me in a way that was so familiar. You know these shows:
The Facts of Life
, Golden Girls, Designing Women.
What was it, I asked myself, that connects all of these shows?
And then one day, it came to me. The characters on these shows
reflect the attributes of the characters in Little Women.

Jo, the strong woman character
of the novel, finds kindred spirits in Jo Polniaczek, Dorothy Zbornak
and Julia Sugarbaker. The no-nonsense, take-charge style of these
ladies is reminiscent of the young girl who sold her hair to take care
of her sisters. Their intensity of purpose might make them seem
one-dimensional in a sense. But in the moments that reveal their
own personal needs, we see their humanity and appreciate their strength
even more. It’s been said that strength without bending in a
storm can break an oak, while a willow survives with a few ruffled leaves.
These women are no different and survive their trials admirably.

Meg, the motherly eldest, handled
the task when Marmee was called to nurse her husband back to health.
What better mother was there than Sophia of Golden Girls?
Wisecracking and independent, she was irresistible when she imparted
her wisdom with a story: “Picture it: Sicily, 1927.”
Similarly, Natalie was always mothering her friends at Eastland, despite
her comic exterior. And I’d put Mary Jo in that role amongst
those Georgia Peaches. She was the practical and most balanced
one of the bunch.

Amy, the vain, artistic one,
could only be linked to Blair, Blanche and Suzanne. So often we
were shocked by their commentary, startled by their in-your-face sexuality,
yet sympathetic during their few secret moments of reticence and vulnerability.

Beth, the sweet sister, somewhat
fragile and innocent, is bonded in character to the youngest of
the Eastland girls, Tootie. And dear Rose Nylund’s Minnesota charm and
naivete made us laugh and endeared her to everyone she met. Charlene,
the lovable and more timid of the Designing Women, had a love for everyone
and everything. When it came down to it, emotional strength skyrocketed
in these women, who had a way of handling the things their stronger
counterparts could not.

In contemplating these ideas
for this blog post, I realized that a quartet like this is very common
in other female-centric shows. More recently, Sex and the City,
Desperate Housewives
and even the new Cashmere Mafia and
Women’s Murder Club
would fit into the mold with careful examination.
Going back further in time, even Petticoat Junction’s group
of four women leads would lend itself to this pattern. Why is
the foursome duplicated unknowingly time and time again? Even
in the mythology of many civilizations, heavenly goddesses display such
attributes. Perhaps this repetition of these archetypical women,
generation after generation, is a hard-wired part of the feminine.
Recognizing these singularities in such characters helps us visualize
and clarify those attributes in us all.

So, next time you watch a show
or a movie with four very individual female characters, reflect back
on these comparisons and see if you can identify it for yourself.