Tokenism isn’t representation
Greta Gerwig’s 2019 movie adaptation of “Little Women” is the newest take on the 1868 classic by Louisa May Alcott. The story has been remade and adapted time and time again, but this gem still managed to move audiences with its talented cast, emotional dialogue and relevant themes. This particular telling is also, undeniably, a white woman’s story — and that’s okay.
“Little Women’s” story — both the original and this adaptation — is inherently one of a white woman in the late 19th century, despite its nuanced experience with womanhood and themes of female liberation, an unfair world and growing up remain relevant. It has remained so relevant, in fact, that Teen Vogue even published an op-ed arguing that its characters should have been played by people of color. People of color and queer people can certainly find universality in the March sisters’ struggles with femininity and not being taken seriously because of their identity but at the end of the day, this story wasn’t written about us. The solution isn’t trying to find crumbs of representation in white stories, no matter how liberating, moving or inspiring those stories may be. Why? It’s because the lack of representation in white stories isn’t the problem in the first place — it’s the silencing and overlooking of stories coming from people of color and queer people altogether that is the injustice.
Little Women is feminist and iconic but a race-bent casting of characters in the original setting would be problematic in the same way as “I don’t see color” is. A Hamiltonization of the story wouldn’t contribute to its relevancy, because Hamilton used the cast’s complete diversity to reflect the changing face of America and to draw parallels between the immigrant experience then and now. Being a woman, however, has never stopped being relatable and while the representation of modern-day intersectional feminism in popular media matters, we shouldn’t have to search for it in the newest version of an old story that is rooted in whiteness. Rather than forcing diversity and tokenism into traditionally white stories, we should be giving a voice to writers and directors of color, allowing them to tell their stories through their own lens. With this approach, increased diversity will naturally follow.
Casting Hollywood’s favorite “Asian-American” actress, Scarlett Johannson, as protagonist Jo March wouldn’t solve the problem of representation. Neither would including black actors as extras or servants with two spoken lines. Although the main roles can be relatable to queer and non-white audiences, they clearly weren’t written with the intention to be queer or non-white. If anything, the tokenization of a couple of Little Women characters would be glossing over the realities of people of color at best and would be sacrificing the validity of those experiences for the sake of “wokeness” points at worst.
Media representation that doesn’t solely revolve around stories of trauma not only helps marginalized communities see themselves in meaningful ways, but it also helps close the empathy gap. When we get to hear the voices of people of color or when roles are written by queer people with queer people in mind, that otherness becomes something to be cherished rather than ignored or used as bait.
These stories exist and are being told by beautiful voices, but tragically don’t tend to get the same amount of attention as their straight white counterparts. “Pride,” Ibi Zoboi’s retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” in a modern world, is written by a woman of color about women of color and it proves that it’s possible to make old stories relevant without resorting to tokenization or colorblindness. “salt” by Nayyirah Waheed is a poetry book by a black woman that largely influenced Rupi Kaur’s popular “Milk and Honey” but never gained the same traction despite being uniquely raw and vulnerable. Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s novel “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” is a coming-of-age story that explores different types of love, gender and sexuality and the roles and expectations of Mexican-Americans. These are the reflections that queer communities and communities of color can find themselves in and white audiences can learn from. These are the stories that dare to go further than an ethnic-sounding name drop or a two-second onscreen lesbian kiss (á la Disney’s “family friendly” cut of “The Rise Of Skywalker”) because they have to.
Finding universality in stories like “Little Women” is meaningful and empowers women of all backgrounds by reflecting their dreams and passions on big screens. However, stories from white women inevitably fall short when it comes to representing women of color and queer communities. While unfortunately, stories from queer people and people of color don’t often make it to big-budget silver screens (and when they do, are otherized during awards seasons by the stubborn establishment), independent voices continue to make waves. The burden of taking the extra step just to find media that reflects us shouldn’t fall on marginalized communities — they should already be mainstream — but unfortunately, there are only so many times you can watch “The Farewell” at the movie theater in your city’s cultural center.
While entertainment companies and studios finally come to the realization that mainstream media representation is a necessity, we can instead turn to stories created for us by artists who are us.