Little Women and Brown Laurie

Niina Pekantytär
Afra Ramió/Unsplash

Original Description of Laurie

Theodore Laurie Lawrence is one of the most complicated characters in Little Women and his cultural and cinematic history is also complicated. More than often the Hollywood adaptations of the book changes our perspective of the characters. In the original book that was published in 1868, Laurie is both foreign and androgynous.

Laurie has brown skin, curly black hair, a long nose, nice teeth, little hands and feet. He is the same size as Jo making him equal to her. When he asks Jo to dance he makes a little French bow.

For the 1880 edition of Little Women Louisa´s publisher demanded her to make changes for the books. Little Women was a huge hit and publishers want to make money. Now all Laurie´s foreign features were removed because they were not suitable for a romantic suitor. He became more handsome, with no mention of the colour of his skin and he is taller than Jo, making him superior to her.

The problem with these changes was that LMA herself never meant Laurie to be a romantic suitor for Jo. Quoting her own words when she created Laurie she gave her alter-ego a brother that she never had. It is the 1880 version with more "masculine Laurie" that is familiar to most people. This description of him remained in the books for nearly 100 years. When I read Little Women as a child my Finnish version did not have any mention of Laurie being androgynous neither there was any mention of his skin colour. The translation I read had been made in the 1920s. The last Finnish translation of Little Women appeared in 2012 so that is when the Finnish readers got to read the original description of Laurie for the first time. Little Women has been translated into more than 50 languages. Many translations especially the older ones are abridged and entire chapters are missing.

Another very important part of Laurie is that he has androgynous looks. In the famous and beloved 1933, the film version of Little Women Douglas Montgomery plays Laurie and he has very androgynous looks. He has quite feminine and soft features. Katherine Hepburn´s Jo is close to the book Jo. She is tall, with androgynous looks and sharp features and a strong way to carry herself. Little Women, is a semi-biographical novel and Jo´s character is loosely based on Louisa herself and Louisa was a tomboy and not traditionally feminine.

Hollywood and Adaptive Attractiveness

What it comes to Little Women adaptations they are model examples of adaptive attractiveness. Adaptive attractiveness refers to the way Hollywood changes the appearance of a book character. Who in the story is described from anything from old to ugly from androgynous to plain looking is played by an attractive actor in a film version. As we learned the adaptive attractiveness of Laurie already started in the 19th century. In films/tv adaptations Jo, Laurie and Friedrich all go through adaptive attractiveness. This does not mean that beautiful actors can not play these characters or that we should stop watching these movies. Some of them are the best adaptations of Little Women. The reason for this is the same as Louisa´s publisher changing Laurie´s looks, to make money. Studios invest a great deal of money in films and the best way to make a profit and get viewers is to hire attractive actors. ​

​Problems With Adaptive Attractiveness and Little Women

However there are lots of problems with adaptive attractiveness in Little Women Louisa´s original description of the three characters: Jo, Laurie and Friedrich, is a big part of the narrative. Adaptive attractiveness is a deeply rooted idea in our culture. Starting from fairy-tales which follow the Hollywood narrative that love only belongs to the young and attractive. When Little Women appeared it became a massive hit and it made Louisa May Alcott a billionaire. When young girls came to visit Louisa they often left disappointed because they were expecting to see young and beautiful Jo March. Instead, they saw Louisa who was rather plain-looking. Sometimes she even opened the door dressed up as a maid and she said to the young fans of Jo March that Miss Alcott was not at home. An effective way to get rid of fans. Jo is not written to be beautiful so why did these readers think that Louisa or Jo was beautiful? I have no idea.
public domain

Brown Skinned Laurie

Quote from Jimena Escoto:

Louisa May Alcott describes Laurie as

‘Curly black hair, brown skin, big black eyes, handsome nose, fine teeth, small hands and feet, taller than I[Jo] am…’
Yet in all adaptations, except the 80s anime, Laurie has been represented as a white character. It doesn’t surprise me that up until the 70s that was the case. However, the 2017 miniseries, the 2018 modern adaptation and the 2019 movie make the same mistake: they whitewashed Laurie!

(I’m conflicted in using the word “mistake” cause that implies that they honestly didn’t know. But since they swear they love the book, then it seems more of a conscious decision.)

To me, it’s very worrying that almost no one discusses this in the media during the 2019 press tour.
But a brown-skinned Laurie is not just about sticking to Louisa’s description of the character, it goes much deeper. It’s a matter of representation.

One problem that period drama set in Europe or the United States has is that there is little diversity, which makes sense cause they were slaving black people and discriminating against everyone who wasn’t white and Christian. If today a show wants to add more variety into their cast, they normally have to race-bend characters or create a fantasy world, like Bridgerton. That or people of colour get to play the servants or the poor people or the foreigners who appear in the background.

Yet, here we have an 1868 book, set the Civil War, that features a brown-skinned character. And it’s not just a side character, he’s prominent, he’s part of the main characters. He has an arc as important as the main white family.
The fact that Laurie is brown-skinned plays into his identity issues.

Just because the North was against slavery, doesn’t mean they weren’t deeply racist. As a matter of fact, Bronson Alcott got into a lot of trouble for offering education to white and black children in the same classroom.
For all the praise that Greta Gerwig’s movie got, I’m surprised very few people called her for including only a couple of black characters. There was one lady who barely had a line and another one at Meg’s wedding who is there just for background. That’s tokenism!

Even the modern adaptation which should have had no problem getting a diverse cast chooses to cast Lucas Grabeel.

Then there’s the matter of his Italian heritage.

A couple of times, Laurie think about his Italian heritage and not in a good light. Actually, his mother must have been the one who passes him his skin colour. When he is in Valrosa with Amy, he thinks his Italian side brings out the superstition aspect in him. Italians have always had a negative stereotype in Western Europe and the United States. I don’t know how difficult must have been for Laurie to hear all these negative comments that attack his mother. This will also serve the discussion of immigrants in the XIX century America, alongside Friedrich’s case.

Moreover, Italy is also a prominent Catholic country. A few articles I’ve read say that protestant America rejected Catholicism, even to the point of forbidding it. Let’s remember Aunt March’s French catholic maid who change her name from Estelle to Esther so that it would sound more American. This is under the condition that the old lady wouldn’t ask her to change religions.

Even with all of these issues, he is in a position of power. He is the heir to one of Concord’s biggest fortunes. He gets to go to college. He is destined to run one of the greatest companies in Massachusetts. Amy even teased him because Fred was richer than him like it was something that didn’t happen often. So his wealth must have been pretty big.

Returning to the March family, it will also serve to prove with their actions how anti-racism they were, not just anti-slavery. They included this boy as part of their family almost instantly. He becomes Jo’s best friend and Amy’s husband. It is in the book that a lot of mothers look at him as an attractive suitor for their daughters, but I’m sure some other inhabitants looked down on him for being Italian and brown-skinned.

So, my point is representation matters.

Imagine how much this would mean for brown-skinned boys, mixed-race boys and parents of those kids to see this character properly cast.

(I’m curious, how many people knew that Laurie is supposed to be brown-skinned?)

Attributions: Jimena Escoto and Niina Niskanen "Where is the brown-skinned Laurie"

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Folklorist and historian. Alcott essayist. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

Finland, MN

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