A few months ago, I read a profile of Greta Gerwig in The New York Times that triggered me so deeply, I wrote a thousand page journal entry about it — which I won’t share here because, like most emotionally fraught journal entries, it’s got some valid points, but would also be very embarrassing.
However, Gerwig’s film, “Little Women,” is in theaters now and I can’t turn on my laptop without seeing yet another article about how Gerwig has restructured Louisa May Alcott’s masterpiece to brilliantly comment on the experience of women in the arts. Which she probably has; I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I agree that Greta Gerwig is brilliant, so I’m not surprised.
What I am surprised about — though I probably shouldn’t be — is that the writing about the film’s whiteness has been limited to Natalie de Vera Obedos in Teen Vogue magazine. To which I say ”Yay! Teen Vogue!” And “Come on, already!” to everyone else.
I’m not going to unpack all that is inherent in a white woman adapting a 19th century novel – written by a white woman about white people – for today’s increasingly diverse audiences. But I am going to say that, while I read “Little Women” (many times) while growing up, and I mostly loved it, I also never read it without thinking: “Where am I in this book? A slave on a Puerto Rican sugar plantation? A Jew in an Eastern European or Lower East Side ghetto? One of the poor kids dying from Scarlet Fever?”
And it wasn’t just “Little Women.” Every other work of classic American literature also left me thinking: what would my life have been like in this setting? Would I even have been here? And I never came up with an answer that satisfied me enough to completely embrace Louisa May Alcott, or any other white American writer, the way I was told I should.
“Little Women” is a timeless story – in that it’s about family, and class, and dreams fulfilled and dashed. But it’s also a story that would have been different if written by, or about, an 18th century black woman in Boston, a Caribbean woman on a colonized island, or a Cherokee woman displaced on the Trail of Tears. Those women had stories to tell too, and as hard as the white woman writer Louisa May Alcott had it, those women — whose stories we never heard, and who died unknown, with the novels and plays and songs inside them — had it harder.
Which isn’t to say that Alcott’s, or Gerwig’s, voice is not important. They are; they just don’t speak for all women. And to presume that they have the authority to do so is to ignore both the distinct privileges and experiences they’ve had as white women in America, and the undeniable truth that not every “woman” has the same challenges, or some version of the same story, that they do.
Which is a big reason I do what I do. Because it’s not an accident when a white woman is hired to adapt a “universal” story that’s really about white people, and it’s not an accident when no one notices. It’s the way things work and have worked for centuries. The only way we will continue increasing the representation of traditionally unrepresented human beings in literature, media, and the arts is by nurturing those human beings as creators, amplifying their voices in the world, and by saying “This! This is important – this is universal – this is a woman, or a man, or a non-binary person, too. And you should pay attention.”