What the New 'Annie' Means for Standards of Beauty

by Justin Robert Thomas Smith

Listen, Tomorrow... You know I love ya, Tomorrow; you know I do. But I think we need to talk. It's just that... I've been thinking about us a lot, Tomorrow, and trying to clear away the cob webs and the sorrow, but I can't. There's just too much. Lately I've been feeling so gray and lonely, and it always feels like you're a day away or something. And I'm trying to hang on. But I mean, it seems like we've been going in separate directions for a while now — like you're going right when I'm going left, or like I'm trying to move forward, and you really want to go backwards. You used to be so ambitious, and I loved that about you... always looking towards the future and giving me hope, come what may. But things are different now. We had ourselves a good run, but I'm just — I'm sorry, but this just isn't going to work out. And I don't think the sun is gonna come out, Tomorrow. At least not with this new Annie remake already out on the horizon.

This weekend, theaters were jam-packed with modern American families of all shades, sizes and differing constellations, looking for a new light in these dark times filled with [the acute awareness of] social injustice. And if you haven't already seen it (or benefited from the hack attack on Sony a few weeks ago), some of you will also be spending your hard-earned dough on a large soda, medium-sized popcorn, and some microwaved pretzel bites that come with a side of Velveeta almost less cheesy than the movie you'll be paying for.

In this most recent perspective on Harold Gray's 1924 comic strip Little Orphan Annie , young actress Quvenzhané Wallis, the pleasantly surprising 2013 Oscar nominee for her leading role as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, will give a new, beautiful face to the cute ol' curly-qued orphan we know and (for the most part) love. And though she has already more than proven herself as a worthy enough candidate for the part, there are still those who would beg to differ, and I am disappointed to say that a large portion of the opposing arguments bear the uncomfortably classist sentiments we (for the most part) know and do not love, tinged with all of the racialized undertones our society has come to accept as "self-evident truths." The negative comments on Twitter in response to this "new-age black Annie" are sadly just what I've come to expect in situations like this.

As some of you may or may not remember, a quite similar reaction was caused by the [almost] diverse [enough] casting of The Hunger Games. One character in particular, Rue of District 11, was called out by the racist masses for not being cast as a little white girl "like she's supposed to be." Strangely enough, even when the Twitter prosecutors were given evidence to the contrary (and actually shown the part of the novel in which Rue is distinctly depicted with having darker skin), the outrage was only shortly hindered. It seems that in the wake of this Annie adaptation, the whitewashing ideology — the one we've all grown up weaving into our personal perspectives — is rearing its ugly head again, telling us all that it's alive and well, and that its influence is strong enough to warp perceptions in a way that's so incredibly subtle that even reading becomes an act of concentrated oppression.

Whitewashing has a long and tiresome history behind it, rooted foremost in colonialist Europe as the cultural appropriation of foreign beauty, artifacts and persons alike — referred to derogatorily as "exoticism" in common speech. And this idea has embedded itself into all areas of American culture: in today's music industry (I mean, if you're not up-to-date with Azealia and Iggy's most recent feud in their never-ending battle of cultural reappropriation, then get on it); in the dance world, as writer/choreographer Sydney Skybetter expertly explains in his critical essay "Misty Copeland in a Michael Brown World;" and, despite its relatively young age, in popular film.

In Hollywood alone, there is already a long list of film characters that have been whitewashed to blend in with mainstream media, a method of casting for roles that has only served to sustain the perpetuation of subversive beauty ideals in our nation (and by default — due to the overarching nature of our [albeit rather hollow] culture — many others). Even our beloved Jennifer Lawrence — may the odds be ever in her favor — was cast as a character who was written in the books as having darker, olive-toned skin; yet here we are, giving JLaw the [much-deserved] praise for a role she wasn't meant to have, searching for a beacon of hope that wasn't hers to shine — as a girl on fire she wasn't necessarily supposed to be.

To this day, the history of whitewashing in American film is still being written, adamantly; you still have casting directors hiring actors for roles that don't make any sense within the historical contexts of their movies' plots, simply because a white lead is for some reason more aesthetically appealing to the masses, some more current examples [of utter confusion] being The Prince of Persia (2010), which starred Jake Gyllenhaal as the Persian prince; the up-and-coming Cleopatra flick, which looks like it will be led by the gorgeous Angelina Jolie (who is indeed a queen, but just still isn't the right queen for this role); or — a personal not favorite of mine — the live-action film adaptation of my favorite animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender.

In this pitiful interpretation of the hit cartoon television show, all of the main characters don't only lose their wonderfully clever humor. They are also stripped of their non-white features (being as their creators have drawn them to resemble those of Native American or Asian descent), the three main protagonists whitewashed on their way to big screen. In an LA Times cover story written by Chris Lee back in 2010 regarding the whitewashing of heroes in film, Guy Aoki — head and co-founder of MANAA, a group dedicated to the positive portrayal of Asian-Americans in media — had some food for thought: "Hollywood can make anybody into a hero. And yet these people continue to use a conservative attitude. When are they ever going to put an Asian-American as a star to disprove that thinking? For Paramount to assume people wouldn't pay to see Asians as leads is presumptuous and insulting."

The role that whitewashing has played in the building of American culture is not singular in its subjugation of certain minority groups. Our intricate system of racist oppression also gave birth to a similarly appalling "art form" (for lack of a more accurate term) not long ago: minstrelsy, or more commonly, blackface. White actors before the Civil War began — and astonishingly enough, even some black actors after it ended — would paint their faces entirely in black make-up as a means of facilitating the portrayal of numerous [at the time] humorous black stereotypes. And though comedians continue to use stereotypes as the butt of many a harmful joke, blackface as a practice has become tabooed, too overtly reminiscent of the culture of oppression we think we've overcome.

And that same system that affects the aesthetics of entertainment reacts on an almost identical level with societal standards of beauty. An article by fellow Bustle writer Paige Tutt gives the mic to eight women of color as they discuss relationships with the Barbie growing up, arguably the most famous doll in the world (if not the most fabulous). Each of them speak on their personal experiences and struggles with Barbie and her hegemonic governance of beauty as it is seen in the eyes of those who hold her, how these encounters with her and all of her many editions did or did not affect their perceptions of themselves and the world — and for many of them, it did. A sad truth is that for people of color, playing with Barbie dolls came to mean the eventual grapple with "internalized colorism," a foreshadowing of the realization that racism in the States isn't dead.

These eight women weren't even alive at the time — only forced to wade through the repercussions of older decisions that have been made by specifically significant people of the white majority throughout history — but an important event to note is the advent of the first "black" Barbie. I use the racially-charged color here lightly, since black Francie was in reality just the original Francie Fairchild (and yes, I see the ironic truth there) doll dipped in some brown paint, her Caucasian features still very much intact. And she barely sold. It wasn't until the soulful, sassy Christie doll came out with her coarse hair and modern style that women of color had themselves any semblance of a representative on the Barbie Council. This would be an encouraging start to a slow and unsteady process, as more and more dolls meant to represent the black community and other minorities were manufactured and sold, widening the perspective of possibility for the American youth. But Francie still remained a failure — a lesser form of true beauty. And her death (or less dramatically, her discontinuation) explains why blackwashing just isn't enough.

Like poor black-colored Francie, we will now look at Quvenzhané Wallis through a colored lens, with a very particular idea of beauty, of childlike innocence and "girly" charm, already in mind. We will only allow ourselves to see how this Annie is not like the original — why her features dull in comparison, even when they are visually appealing in their own ways. We lose sight of that beauty within the comparative paradigm: why she's way too this, or too little that... why she's more than or just isn't quite enough. She automatically becomes second-rate, only considered a fraction of the strongly idolized former version. She becomes Francie, the first failed African American barbie doll with black paint and white features. That is what it means to blackwash: The Wizard of Oz becomes a hollowed out, star-studded rework with The Wiz (1978); America's favorite fairy tale Cinderella becomes Brandy and all of the riffs and runs she comes with (though, I can't even lie... I do prefer this black princess remake to Disney's original); and we become no less entangled in the sticky web of racial boundaries than how we started off.

“When I came aboard this, we were just looking for an Annie. It didn’t matter who it was. We cast the best actors we could find for these roles, and they were both cast [regardless of race]. When all [the media coverage] blows over, it’s not going to be a 'black Annie.' It’s just going to be 'Annie.' We’ve reached a moment in time when [a racially-divided mindset] should go away very quickly.” Will Gluck in his interview with Huffington Post, director of Annie (2014)

The thing is, I don't want to wait for you anymore, Tomorrow. I don't want to have to wait for that mindset to go away. I want the sun to come out today. And I definitely don't want any more absentmindedly pursued black remakes of white(washed) stories, always reckless in their endeavor to welcome us into their [not so] post-racial society. Even if the direction of this movie hadn't lent itself completely to be economically representational — through excessive product placement and, well, all too honest interpretations of the relationship between youth and technology in this high-speed era — of our consumerist regime, this "depressing, bling-happy redux of the beloved musical" would still not have been what I wanted. Maybe if American society were already as "post-racial" as it claims to be, then I think we could all easily fall in love with little Miss Wallis, for all her chocolatey curls and sweet sass, and her take on Annie (as I already totally have), but at this moment in civilization, it doesn't do any one of us the justice we deserve.

I think it's safe to say that we don't want "black" to be the new "white." Moreover, we don't need black carbon copies right now; we don't need anymore Francie "Not As" Fairchilds. We couldn't handle them yesterday, and we still can't handle them today, so why would we believe that tomorrow would be any different? We don't need to put ourselves in the position to be immediately compared and valued on a scale of whiteness, ever at the mercy of a racist societal psyche. We need to start defining our own beauty — telling our own stories and making sure we give them just as much (and not any more) worth as any of the others stories, because all of them — all stories, all lives, all people — matter. You know, perhaps there's a reason that there are sides to an equation. We —all of us — just have to reclaim the [originally unjust] intentions of "separate but equal," because difference was never supposed to be a bad thing. All of us have to stop trying to be something that we aren't, to rid ourselves of the negative connotations each of our skin colors have come to engender, and just be happy with what we are and the stories that we can tell. Because we is what we need now. Because we is kind. We is smart. And we is important.

Images: Getty; Twitter; Giphy