Thursday, May 24, 2012

Willow Smith Is Going to be Annie and Why It's Important

'Annie The Musical,' photo (c) 2012, Eva Rinaldi - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

There is no doubt that the Smiths are a performing family.  Willow is moving beyond her musical aspirations to the big screen, to star in a remake of the musical Annie.
Will Smith confirmed that the youngest of the Smith clan, Willow, 11, would be following in her parents and older brother Jayden’s (The Karate Kid) footsteps, with a starring role in the modernized film version of the 1982 musical Annie.

Will Smith, who is slated to produce the Sony Pictures project, also confirmed to Good Morning America that his Men In Black 3 co-star, Oscar winner Emma Thompson, wrote the script for the contemporary Annie film.

The film will be set in modern-day New York and will feature a host of new updated songs. Hip-hop, mogul, and hit maker Jay-Z is in charge of the music and is expected to write new musical tracks for the soundtrack.  Jay-z is not new to re-imagining Annie tracks.  His 1998 hit single “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” featured samples from the Broadway musical version.  [source]
Little Orphan Annie began as a comic strip, and made its debut on August 5, 1924 in the New York Daily News. "The original Broadway production opened in 1977 and ran for nearly six years, setting a record for the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre)."  As a little girl, I was given an Annie watch (yes, I know I am dating myself, now hush) At the time, I was polite and said thank you, but truth be told, Annie didn't hold any magic for me.  All I saw was a pale red headed little girl that for some reason so many thought was cute and I most certainly did not agree.


As a little girl, everywhere I looked there were White girls who were being told they were cute and getting a ton of attention.  They were in magazines and on television.  When I became a teenager, I saw the same trend with the teen magazines that White girls collected.  Every damn where that I looked, Whiteness was, and still is for that matter all consuming.  I struggled with my self esteem for years.  My parents went out of their way to make me feel special, but they simply could not compete with the media images that I saw everyday.  To be a woman, or even understood to be female for that matter, one had to be White and that was something I would never be.

Even now media that is supposedly aimed at girls and women is largely filled with erasure.   Consider for a moment HBO's new show Girls, which despite being set in New York, a vastly multicultural city, is all about White women.  When POC complained, we were told the homogeneity of the cast was an accident.  Uh huh. If that were not enough, we are in the middle of a  deluge of fairy tales leaving the page and appearing either on television or the big screen. Once again, though these movie and televisions shows are supposedly marketed to all women, the protagonists are all White women. In Once Upon A Time, we get the special treat of a Latina woman as the evil queen, but even her character is written in such a way to avoid specifying race. Do we really need more glorification of White womanhood?  It only makes matters worse that movies like Snow White and the Huntsman are presented as revolutionary because Snow White is active rather than passive.  So yeah, White women get to be empowered, even as we are erased.  Snow White in particular irks me simply because there is no possibility that this role could be played by a woman of colour.

Willow playing Annie is important.  It will send the message to Black girls that they are valued and have the right to occupy space.  This version of Annie will show young Black women that they can be the star in their own stories, rather than the sidekick, bff, or servant to a spunky White protagonist. Unfortunately, it will be one movie, against so many others, which will of course send the opposite message.  As soon as young Black girls and women leave the theater, they will once again be inundated by White supremacy.  There are more babies of colour being born than White children in the U.S., and you would think that from a pure marketing and economic standpoint that this would encourage the media to be more inclusive, but that is not the case.  I guess when it comes to reducing systemic isms, the invisible hand of the market isn't worth shit.

I worry that this version will be yet another example for Whiteness to say how far we have come, even as the institution of Whiteness and the media remains unchanged.  I can see liberals patting themselves on the back even as I write this.  One movie is an exception to the rule and not the trend.  I am happy that Willow Smith is going to play this iconic role, but until women of colour can regularly be seen in a variety of roles and in a variety of settings, the over visibility of Whiteness is going to continue to be harmful.  It really is a hard enough life.