Little Orphant Annie was a poem written in 1885 by James Whitcomb Riley. The original film version adapted from the poem cast silent actor Colleen Moore as Annie in 1918. The poem became the inspiration for the Tribune syndicated comic Little Orphan Annie that ran from 1924–2010. The comic strip inspired two additional adaptions to film. One was produced in 1930 and another in 1938. (Both of those films were panned after negative reviews from critics). A radio show adapted from the comic strip was debuted in 1930. And it was in 1977, yet another adaptation made its way to Broadway. The musical inspired additional adaptations including a motion picture in 1982, a television short series in 1995 and a made for television movie in 1999. In 2014, 129 years since the original prose was penned, the sassy, spirited little orphan girl was introduced yet again, portrayed by Quvenzhané Wallis, making the tales of Little Orphant Annie span three generations.
Quvenzhané Wallis is a Golden Globe nominated black child actress.
While a few folks have been brazen enough to complain that the recent adaptation stars a black child as Annie, most probably wouldn't go as far as to say it bothers them. It's in rather poor taste to come right out and say you'd rather a white child be chosen than a black child for anything. Even if that's what you're thinking.
But we don't really need the public comments to gauge how well an audience approves the decision. Numbers can do that for us. Taking a look at the Box Office numbers show us that both films have done about the same in ticket sales.*
And if ticket sales were all we needed to show that we are ready to embrace a black child playing a lead role targeted to children, then these words would end here.
But apparently, that's not where the story ends.
As with any movie release, there's merchandising attached to cross promote. An entire clothing line was developed for Target with the assist of the costume designer Renée Ehrlich Kalfus. This product line launched to coincide with the release of the 2014 film. And yet, when marketing the product line, the character of Annie was actually adapted again.
According to Target, Annie is "any little girl". Represented in posters, online ads and television campaigns with models coming from a "variety of backgrounds". So what's the big deal with Target choosing a variety of models and even a white model to brand a clothing line to coincide with the 2014 theatrical release of Annie?
Because right now, Annie isn't any little girl. Right now, Annie is a black child. And yeah, that matters.
It matters so much that when a Change.org petition started getting signed asking Target to reconsider their branding, instead of considering the validity of the request, Target defended their decision and reminded everyone the product run was about to end. Backlash was brushed off as misinterpretation of their intent.
Media stories about the petition let all those who were previously apprehensive about bringing up a "white Annie" finally say what they'd been thinking. And it's not pretty. Here's just a sampling:
- "If they had used another young, black girl, that could have been misconstrued as target thinking they all look the same."
- "So, Annie merchandise is only allowed to be geared towards black kids now?"
- "There wouldn't be a black Annie if it wasn't for whites!"
- "That's right the real Annie was white get over the color thing."
No. Annie is not white. Annie is a fictional character. A fictional black character.
Historically she might not have been. Originally she might not have been. So what? Originally her name was Allie and she was orphaned during the Civil War*. Do we really have to wonder why a black child might not have been a muse for Riley's poem? Originally is irrelevant in an adaptation. Currently, Annie is portrayed as a black child in modern day New York City.
Is it noble to want all children to see themselves as Annie? Of course. And I suppose if back in 1982 that was the brand strategy used, those companies might have been pinned as progressive. But since that isn't the world we live in, we'll never know what could have been.
One commenter had this to say about complaints: "There is a hundred years of history of this character as a red haired white girl and one movie with a black girl. The vast majority of people will continue to think of Annie as she is traditionally represented."
That's exactly the point.
The vast majority will continue to see this character as white because a new generation being introduced to the character is being shown an image of a white child.*
So yes, while the intent of "any child can be Annie" sounds like we ought to be holding hands and signing "Kumbaya", that intent ignores the experiences of the black child.
We don't have to look beyond those words of a little girl to know that Target failed. They alienated their own target demographic. Their brand strategy didn't account for the perception they were sending. That's bad marketing. Worse, it's evidence of inherent bias that is perpetuated all across this nation.
Yes Target, it is kind of a big deal when children are presented with a black child in a leading role that tells a tale of authenticity in dreaming big dreams and yet a company doing cross promotion can't even figure out how to brand market a clothing line that tells that same story.
And it wouldn't matter but for the fact that black children in our society have historically and are consistency being sent this message. That somehow they are less.
In the books they read.
In the characters they see.
In the dolls they collect.
So the decision that equal representation is now somehow relevant when a black character is portrayed as the lead is concerning to say the least.
Maybe the reason enough people aren't concerned is because we're so used to seeing white actors and models saturate "our" space that as soon as a black character is introduced all of a sudden diversity matters because we're the ones getting short changed.
Welcome to privilege.
Where white children are given suspensions and black children risk being put in the system.
Where white children are celebrated for handling real guns and black children are killed for playing with toy ones.
The fact is we view black children with a different lens. We strip them of their innocence. Both boys and girls face inherent bias that grows up with them. We segregate and separate and cast shadows upon them. We hijack their history and we dismiss their legacy as their own problem. We can't even give them a movie lead without adjusting the merchandise to diminish what that representation means.
And this is why it matters. It matters that when a young black girl wants to emulate the character she saw in a movie, she is presented with an image of a girl that doesn't look anything like what she's seen.
It matters that a critique of this decision by Target is dismissed as playing a "race card". It matters that discussion of it becomes another forum for bigoted remarks. It matters that instead of addressing the notion of this being a symptom that structural bias is intact, someone denies this example of privilege and claims people just over react.
It matters that the reality of this campaign and our reaction to it shows we expect black children to not care about the models instead of just saying a little white girl wouldn't be phased if the dress is on a child of color.
After all, it is just a dress. Annie's dress.
And Annie is black.
*The muse was based on a child orphaned during the civil war who lived with Riley at the time. Her name was Mary Alice (Allie) Smith.
*The previous feature film adapted from Broadway has a Box Office TDG of $57,059,003. It ranked #5 in it's wide release. The most recent release has a Box Office TDG of $72,600,000 since it's opening December 19, 2014. It ranked #3 at wide release. Average admission price in 1982 was $2.94. Today, that ticket will cost $8.12.
*Quvenzhané Wallis was unable to be secured for spokes-model, although she was a part of the Target campaign launch.
*Target has since stated they appreciate feedback and will consider concerns in the future. Which reads like any cut and paste customer service reply you'd get even if you asked for neon zippers.
*While the entire clothing line features young girls from a variety of races, the iconic red dress appears to only be modeled on white children in store and online.
This piece published on Medium.