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Not “Blannie,” Just Annie: Remakes, Reimaginings and Representation

At one of our Christmas dinners this year, I mentioned that I was planning to take Husband to go see the new Annie remake. Hearing that, a relative smiled and said innocuously, “Don’t you mean Blannie?” Which, of course, is a hashtag that’s been appearing on Twitter in discussions of the new movie, a compression of “black Annie.”

“No,” I said. “I mean the remake of Annie.”

As a kid, I was a big fan of movie musicals. I watched and rewatched The Wizard of Oz. I remember sitting transfixed on the living room floor by West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and on the edge of the couch a few years later with Little Shop of Horrors and Jesus Christ Superstar. And as was the case for most kids who grew up in the ’80s, the story of the spunky orphan and her bald benefactor took its turn on-stage in my house, too. One of my never-quite-realized childhood ambitions was to cast and recreate these shows using my friends and family, and I have a very clear memory of discussing with my mother whether my best-playmate uncle might be willing to take on the role of Rooster, orphanage mistress Miss Hannigan’s no-good brother.

I don’t remember where Husband and I saw our first trailer for the 2014 Annie,¬†and I don’t remember if I’d heard anything about the movie before seeing it. But I do remember how excited I got, just hearing snippets of the familiar songs. This was a story that had a special place in my heart as a kid; I was thrilled to hear it’d be coming back to the big screen. And when I saw Quvenzhan√© Wallis’s grinning face, I thought: “Oh, wow, the new Annie’s black? That’s amazing!”

I’ll freely admit that I might have had a different reaction before I started graduate school, before I took courses on the sociology of race that were the first place I read about how few characters of color (or diverse characters of any kind) have historically appeared in children’s books. Even a few years ago, I might still have balked at the idea that a classic, much-loved story could be reimagined with a protagonist of a different race and keep the spirit of the original story. But now, after a year of thinking about how to increase the representation in my own work, after reading¬†Writing the Other and looking at the numbers on protagonists of color and following the efforts of the team at We Need Diverse Books to increase all kinds of diversity in children’s stories, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are more important things than respecting the canon.

It seems like the Marvel and DC universes provide a pretty good model for exactly this sort of thing. In 2011, the Ultimate Marvel universe killed off Peter Parker and replaced him with Miles Morales, the first black (and second Hispanic) Spiderman; there was some backlash, but the loudest voices, including that of Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee, supported the impulse to make Spiderman a character who demonstrated that you didn’t have to be white to save the world. Both the Marvel and DC movie franchises are taking steps in the same direction, greenlighting films for, among others, an Aquaman played by Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa, and Marvel’s first black superhero, the Black Panther.

These stories don’t take away from the ones that came before them. Having a new Wonder Woman movie that’ll bring a female superhero into the imaginations of 21st-century little girls doesn’t undo the fact that The Dark Knight was a good movie, or that Bruce Wayne’s Batman is a fun character. Having a black Spiderman doesn’t erase the white Spiderman: it just gives more kids the opportunity to pretend to be a superhero who looks like them. And kids do notice that stuff. This Washington Post article, by writer Amina Luqman, about how her son didn’t want to dress as Harry Potter for Halloween because “I’m not tan, I’m brown” just about broke my heart.

One response to the unveiling of Miles Morales (archived here), by opinion writer Alexandra Petri, repeats a commonly-used phrase from those who object to what they see as the “forced” diversification of contemporary characters: “It doesn’t matter what the character looks like so long as he tells a compelling story!” As Petri suggests, the people who say this are absolutely right; we should all be able to enjoy a compelling story. And sure, part of pretending is imagining yourself to be somebody else. But increasingly, research and popular opinion seem to be assembling around the notion that it shouldn’t always be kids from underrepresented groups who have to stretch their imaginations the furthest to see themselves in the heroes of their favorite stories.

Husband had never seen the 1982 Annie, and so we watched it together last week so he’d be properly contextualized for the new movie. Seeing it for the first time in 20+ years, I was struck by its cheesiness (the adults all look a little too happy to be real) and its increasingly improbable plot (Miss Hannigan doesn’t recognize her brother with a fake mustache? Annie gets adopted by Daddy Warbucks only because she happens to be the one who overhears when his assistant first comes to the orphanage? There’s a mansion and substantial grounds somewhere on Manhattan’s 5th Avenue?). I was also struck by the movie’s casual racism: Daddy Warbucks’ two bodyguards are “Punjab” and “the Asp”; respectively, a tall, dark-skinned, turbaned man who can “put a spell on [the dog]” and make toy airplanes fly with a wave of his hand, and a smaller East Asian gent whose main jobs seem to be driving Daddy Warbucks around and teaching Annie how to do karate chops. I still hold some affection for the movie, and I might even show it to my own kids someday, but I wouldn’t do so without unpacking those stereotypes a little. And I suspect I would feel differently if I looked less like Aileen Quinn, who played Annie, and more like Geoffrey Holder and Roger Minami, who played the bodyguards.

The writers of the 1982 Annie, and its Broadway predecessor, took their own liberties with the original story. The comic strip Little Orphan Annie, which debuted in 1924, expressed its creator’s strong objections to (among other things) unions, the New Deal, and communism. If creator Harold Gray had known that his spunky red-head would someday be portrayed meeting with FDR to help set up the New Deal, he might’ve come back from the dead to protest. Stories change to fit the times they’re told in.

It’s true that when I saw the new Annie this weekend, I didn’t see a little girl with red hair. But I saw girls somersaulting around their group home singing “A Hard Knock Life”; I saw adults hamming it up in ridiculous dance numbers; I saw the message that a good-hearted youngster can have a positive impact on the world; and I saw a spunky kid with a sparkling smile who sang “Tomorrow.”

So no, I didn’t go see “Blannie” this weekend; just a new version of Annie, written to introduce the story to 21st-century kids of all backgrounds. And this movie musical nerd was glad to add it to all the others in her library.