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What Does "Little Women" Mean To The Black Woman Artist?

Simply inserting people of color into the world of Little Women would have been a cheap victory for representation, which of course, is no victory at all. 

By Nylah Burton

Director Greta Gerwig’s long-awaited film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 book, Little Women, received excellent reviews. And rightfully so. It was a beautiful movie, visually stunning and imbued with warmth. Deftly exploring universal themes like creativity, writing, art, and family, Gerwig’s iteration of the March family felt like a work of art on its own merit, not merely an echo of a classic novel. 

But despite the quality of the film, as a Black woman writer, I felt almost nothing while watching it. I wasn’t very inspired or moved. I didn’t feel represented, or seen. And I wasn’t alone. Many other women of color took to social media and op-eds to express the same emotional disconnect. Little Women may deal with universal themes, but the story itself doesn’t have universal appeal. 

Part of that is because the movie is steeped in whiteness. In Teen Vogue, op-ed writer Natalie De Vera Obedos argues that Little Women shouldn’t have had a completely white cast. Obedos points out that Laurie — a character who is canonically part-Italian — could have been played by an actor of color. 

I understand the instinct behind this critique, but ultimately, it’s shallow. 

Although Little Women does deal with relatively universal themes, it presents those themes entirely through a lily-white perspective. Despite taking place in Civil War-era America, the concerns and struggles of Black people barely pierce through the veil that separates the March sisters from the horrors of slavery and racial terror. 

At that time, it would be almost impossible for any Black artist to see much of themselves in the March sisters. Circumstances have changed, obviously, but that distance still makes it difficult for Black viewers today to emotionally connect with the characters. 

The sisters — who are all artists, although each has their own medium — fret about whether to choose marriage or independence, dedication to a family or dedication to their craft. 

But at this time, Black artists lost their lives in a bloody war, lived under the heel of the terroristic Confederacy, or risked everything to help bring more of the enslaved to freedom. Because it was illegal for the enslaved to read or write, Black women writers often didn’t have the tools to create, or they had to do so in secret. Otherwise, they’d likely be assaulted, sold, or even killed as a punishment. They couldn’t simply move to New York to become a writer, like Jo March. Life was infinitely more difficult for them. 

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The March sisters also bemoan their “poverty” because they must decide between making a new gown or buying a new coat. They struggle to buy last-minute train tickets, and they feel uncomfortable asking their wealthy aunt for financial support. Those are valid struggles. But from long-standing free Black families in the North to Black refugees from the South, to the enslaved, Black people faced a more crushing and permanent poverty than anything the March sisters could imagine. 

No matter how inspiring Little Women is, no matter how universal its themes are, the March sisters’ story can’t be divorced from the time period in which it takes place, a time period where most Black people didn’t have the luxury of ruminating on the problems the March sisters have. 

Simply inserting people of color into the world of Little Women would have been a cheap victory for representation, which of course, is no victory at all. 

If Gerwig had succeeded in incorporating Black main characters respectfully, the film would have likely been unrecognizable from the original story. 

And honestly, why do that? Why slough off pieces of a work that isn’t meant for us, when there are so many rich stories by Black artists that have been told and/or are waiting to be told? We don’t need to beg for scraps when our own literary canon is so rich and beautiful. 

But I understand the urge to remake Little Women in our image; the desire to see ourselves reflected in these “universal stories.” 

Because of their whiteness, those stories have been deemed important, immortal even, while so many of our stories have been deemed “niche,” unimportant, or unworthy. 

In one scene, Jo tells her sisters that she doesn’t think anyone will be interested in reading her novel. Because the book is about women’s “domestic joys and struggles,” Jo feels it may not be worthy of the public’s attention. 

“Writing doesn’t confer importance,” Jo says. “It reflects it.”

Her sister Amy disagrees. “Writing things is what makes them important,” she says.

Amy’s sentiment is correct; almost everyone’s story is worthy of being told. But Jo’s point alludes to why many Black women and other women of color don’t see themselves in this story, and also why some may want to. When it’s difficult to get our own stories told, we may look for validation in the stories of others.

Art itself doesn’t reflect importance, but how that art is presented to us reflects how the dominant society views the work or the artist who created it. 

Through assigned readings at educational institutions, we learn which books are “classics,” meaning that if we don’t read them, our literary knowledge is deficient somehow. These classics get reprinted and adapted into plays and films, keeping them at the forefront of our cultural consciousness decades or centuries after they were first published. 

These books and their adaptations — Gerwig’s film is the eighth adaptation of Little Women — are explored by some of the country’s most respected cultural critics. The books win awards, the movies win awards, and the cycle goes on and on. These goalposts do confer importance, as they have with Little Women. 

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But the literary works that Black women artists hold dear are rarely given the same opportunities. Our treasured books — like Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Alice Walker’s The Color Purple — are adapted into film, yes. But not as often. And when they are, they’re not seen as “universal stories.” They’re seen as movies by Black people, for Black people. Which, to the dominant society, usually means they’re auxiliary additions to the Western literary canon, even though our oppression has laid the groundwork for everything that “The West” has become. 

That’s painful to realize, and so it may make some women of color want to see themselves in these narratives that have been conferred importance and immortality. Such inclusion may feel like validation or progress.

But Little Women does not feed the Black woman artist. It does not reflect the Black woman artist. It does not speak to the Black woman artist. And it’s okay for us to see merely a shadow of ourselves in the March sisters, not a clear reflection. 

Nylah Burton is Denver-based writer with bylines in New York Magazine, ESSENCE, Bustle, and The Nation. You can follow her on Twitter, at @yumcoconutmilk

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