Identifying with one of the four Little Women women is a rite of passage. Everyone wants to be ambitious Jo, but are you secretly more of a domestic Meg? Maybe you’re admittedly an Amy, or perhaps you identified more with Beth’s quiet nature. Whatever the case, as long as these iconic characters have existed, women have self-projected onto them.
Likewise, comic books offer the same self-reflection and identification in the form of iconic heroes. Are you more of an Iron Man or a Captain America? Which of the Batgirls do you feel more like? It’s only a natural extension, then, that we take these two veins of iconic characters and combine the thought exercise.
Behold, there are four central leads in Birds of Prey (five, if we count plucky pickpocket prodigy Cassandra Cain) and there are four central Little Women. Naturally, a hypothetical proposition emerged: Which of the Little Women corresponds to each of the main characters in Birds of Prey?
“Part of me is, like, is Harley Jo? But she’s not,” Birds of Prey director Cathy Yan told Polygon. “Maybe she’s more Amy, actually. The Little Women characters are a bit more responsible, I think, than ours. But that’s a very funny thought experiment.”
There isn’t a strict one-to-one comparison here. The movies do have slightly different tones, plots, and settings — they were written for audiences in completely different time periods, with completely different expectations. But by paying attention to each character’s motivations, personalities, relationships, and even metatextual elements, we’ve come up with a pretty on-point comparison.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for both Birds of Prey and Little Women.]
Harley and Amy are the most obvious comparison, of course, and one that earned Yan’s blessing. Harley likes sparkly, shiny things. Amy likes sparkly, shiny things. They both have a bit of a temper. They’re both more obviously fashionable than their onscreen comrades. (just look at Amy’s periwinkle blue Parisian ensemble and Harley’s caution-tape coat! Legends!) They both have a flair for the dramatic. Both live in other people’s shadows, and are desperately trying to forge their own paths.
Unlike the Jos of the world, who try to make their way in male-dominated fields by besting men at their own game, Harley and Amy both have a more distinctly traditional feminine approach to how they achieve their goals, whether it’s Harley showing up at a police station dressed as a helpless Southern belle to lower the cops’ suspicions before attacking, or Amy aiming to marry a rich man to secure as much financial freedom as societally possible.
On a more metatextual level, Harley and Amy are both characters usually regulated to their simplest forms: Amy as the bratty little sister, and Harley as Joker’s unhinged, devoted love interest. Both the newly renamed Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women serve as triumphant vindications of said characters from the years of out-of-text extrapolation and simplification. Yes, they are demanding women with high standards. Yes, they like traditionally feminine pleasures and invest a lot into their romantic relationships. But they are complex women, struggling to make it in a world that’s against them. One of them just happens to like beating up goons with baseball bats.
Renee is Jo if she became a hardboiled detective instead of an aspiring writer. Renee struggles to prove herself in a male-dominated field, while being told by her male superiors that she’s incapable of doing her job. This mirrors Jo toward the end of Little Women, particularly in the film version, where her publisher Mr. Dashwood doesn’t take her ambitions seriously and her love interest Professor Bhaer doesn’t like the compromises she’s made to get her books published. In a darker version of Little Women, Jo would very likely turn to alcohol, just like Renee. They’re both determined, but short-tempered. While the rest of their on-screen female companions wear glitz and glam, Jo and Renee rock more masculine clothing.
Neither of them really give a shit about the societally “correct” way to do things, and they don’t care about making compromises to reach their ultimate goals. Renee cuts a few corners when she’s trying to get a case looked at, because she knows the odds of solving the case are against her, and she needs to even them. Jo’s end goal is to secure her book contract and the rights to her own work, so she doesn’t care if she needs to pose as the female friend of the actual author of the manuscript she’s selling, or give her story a conventional romantic ending. They have big dreams, and they’ll stick it to any society telling them they can’t achieve them.
Bear with me here. In a dark, gritty alternate Little Women, the entire March family is brutally murdered by a rival family gunning to be the pinnacles of charity and compassion in rural Massachusetts. Much like Helena Bertinelli survives when a rival Mafia gang massacres her family, Beth is the sole survivor in the Little Women mass murder. Because she’s so gentle and pure of heart, one of the hired guns takes pity on her and takes her in, and she swears to avenge her family. Basically, there’s just one mass murder keeping Beth March from being Huntress, and one living family keeping Huntress from being docile Beth March. Crossbow-wielding, piano-playing — it’s all about that dexterity. Publishers of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, feel free to reach out. I’m right here.
Both characters prioritize their families above all else, to the point where their deep devotion to their relatives ends up being about 85% of their personalities. But they share another quirk: Birds of Prey doesn’t initially show much of Helena, and it frames her as a dark, shadowy figure, both visually in her hooded assassin’s garb, and in terms of her character, since no one knows who this assassin is, or what she wants. But when we finally do meet her, we realize that this tall, dark, mysterious figure isn’t just angsty and brooding — she’s really shy and socially awkward. Just like Beth!
Dinah Lance is the mom friend. Meg is the mom sister. They’re the most responsible of the whole bunch: Meg cares for her sisters, while Dinah looks out for Cassandra and saves Harley from thugs. They’d both be the type to carry around hand sanitizer in their purses and help their drunk friends call Ubers.
Unlike the other characters in Birds of Prey, Dinah has ties to a more “traditional” path of heroism, — the Justice League — just as Meg has more ties to “traditional” family values. While they’re the most responsible of their respective casts, they both face temptation to take a darker path. Dinah gets pulled into a criminal underworld when her nightclub boss (and big bad guy) Roman Sionis makes her his driver. It’d be so much easier to just go along with his schemes, but even though Dinah is disillusioned with hero life (her mom, a vigilante, died on the job), she ends up calling Renee Montoya for help. Meg’s potential turn away from her morals is less dire — instead of possibly being complicit in kidnapping, torture, and murder, she simply succumbs to peer pressure and buys some expensive fabric that her family cannot afford. Which, okay, definitely less intense, but she still eventually picks her husband and kids over luxuries, so basically the same thing.
Comparing Cassandra Cain in Birds of Prey to Laurie in Little Women is less about comparing their personalities, and more about comparing their relationships, and the audience’s expectations about them. We may initially think Cass should end up with Renee and Canary, in custody and protected from the bad guys, and maybe even eventually joining their crime-fighting. Likewise, for decades, audiences have clamored that the best romantic pairing out of Little Women is Laurie and Jo.
But as we get to know Cass and the rest of the characters, it becomes obvious that the best fit for the young pickpocket who knows a thing or two about getting out of handcuffs is being Harley’s criminal protege. It’s also the best fit for Harley. Renee and Canary wouldn’t really benefit from having a young charge, whereas Harley finds a purpose in molding Cassandra to be her partner. Similarly, Jo would never gain anything from marrying Laurie (besides not being lonely), whereas Amy and Laurie balance one another out. Cass and Laurie and Harley and Amy get the happy endings that they don’t just want — but the ones they need.