The musical version of little orphan Annie – as distinct from her original, cartoon incarnation – was born a fully formed ten-year-old in 1977, and she quickly became an icon of girlhood. Since then, thousands of girls have performed songs like “Maybe” and “Tomorrow,” sometimes in service to a production of the musical, but more often in talent shows, music festivals, or pedagogical settings. The plucky orphan girl seems to combine just the right amount of softness and sass, and her musical language is beautifully suited to the female prepubescent voice. So what can Annie teach us about what girls are?
As with any role, the parts available to child performers are shaped by clichés and stereotypes, and these govern our thinking about what real children are like. For girls, the two most prominent archetypes have been the angelic, delicate, and wan girl who arouses our impulse to console and protect, and the feisty, spunky girl of the street who teaches us to know ourselves. These archetypes are often assigned to singing girls as “the little girl with the voice of an angel” and “the little girl with the great big voice.” A crucial aspect of Annie’s appeal is her blurring of this distinction through combining vulnerability with toughness.
These complementary characterizations of girls are invariably shaped by hegemonic understandings of race and class; and here, the figures of Topsy and Eva, from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, serve as paradigms. In the novel, Eva St. Clare is presented as an ethereal golden child, deeply religious and kind, and her angelic virtue is contrasted with the wilful slave girl Topsy, whose wicked ways and rough language are eventually tamed at the deathbed of her young mistress Eva. In her life beyond the book, however, Topsy reverts to her impish and disruptive nature.
The character of Annie seems to combine the sweetness of Eva and the sass of Topsy in ways that evidently continue to appeal in 2014, and the new film version opening this weekend contributes a new aspirational model of girlhood to young fans.
It is thus of enormous significance that the film, produced by Jay Z and Will Smith, casts an African American girl in what is, arguably, the single most-coveted musical theatre role for girls. A 2008 study concludes that girls of colour are the children least likely to see themselves reflected in children’s media because 85.5% of characters in children’s films are white, and three out of four characters are male. The symbolic impact of Quvenzhané Wallis’s visibility and audibility in this role is potentially tremendous.
Unlike most of the young actresses who have played Annie, Wallis had no prior training as a singer. The film’s producers specifically said they did not want “Broadway kids” in the cast, preferring instead untutored singing that would give Annie greater sincerity and naturalness. This ideal of naturalness attaches itself to almost all child performers; we prefer to think of children’s performance as artless and uncalculated. As Carolyn Steedman observes in her book Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, “the child’s apparent spontaneity is part of what is purchased with the ticket.”
So it’s no coincidence that many child stars find it difficult to outgrow their most famous roles. Co-star Jamie Foxx gushes that Quvenzhané Wallis was “made to play the role,” an odd form of praise when we reflect that she is playing the part of a neglected, unloved child abandoned to a wretched foster home. In his book Inventing the Child: Culture, Ideology, and the Story of Childhood, Joseph Zornado has observed that
“Annie’s story is a particularly pronounced version of how contemporary culture tells itself a story about the child in order to defend its treatment of the child. Annie’s emotional state — her unflagging high spirits, angelic voice, and distinctly American optimism — grows out of the adult-inspired ideology of the child’s ‘resiliency.’”
Of course, Annie is not Wallis’s first role, and much of our sense of her has already been shaped by her extraordinary, Oscar-nominated performance in 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. If child stars are often believed to be just like the characters they play by fans who resist the idea that children can be artful performers, this seems particularly true in the case of African American girls, because they are so seldom depicted in media that they are invariably reduced to clichés. Wallis’s role in Beasts was a semi-feral child of nature, an old soul raising herself in a dystopic world; yet she is repeatedly asked in interviews if she is like Hushpuppy. How, then, will the iconic role of Annie change our understanding of Quvenzhané Wallis as an actor? Perhaps more importantly, how will her performance shape future possibilities for black girls on the stage and screen?
I suspect that the crucial song in this new film production of Annie is not one of Strouse’s original pieces, but rather “Opportunity,” in which Annie reflects on her luck in being temporarily rescued from neglect. Within the context of the film’s story, she makes up the song on the spot, pulling pitches out of the air in a rhythmically-fluid phrase with an improvisatory style. Musicians on the stage join in, but her melody eludes a clear sense of key almost until the start of the chorus:
And now look at me, and this opportunity
It’s standing right in front of me
But one thing I know
It’s only part luck and so
I’m putting on my best show
Under the spotlight
I’m starting my life
Big dreams becoming real tonight
So look at me and this opportunity
You’re witnessing my moment, you see?
This gorgeous song has also been recorded by its composer Sia, who imbues it with a more adult, contemplative character, in keeping with her singer/songwriter aesthetic. Even in this recording, though, the final verse is given over to Wallis and her closely-mic’ed, child-like (albeit auto-tuned) voice. The song is Wallis’s as much as it is Annie’s. It remains to be seen just how her opportunity will be extended to other girls.
Headline image credit: 8 mm Kodak film reel. Photo by Coyau. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.