The Teflon Kid: How Annie Enables Apathy About Inequality

What’s not to like about seeing an adorable black child nestled up with a baby animal on the cover of the New York Times Style Magazine? The composition of this shot links child actor Quvenzhané ...

What’s not to like about seeing an adorable black child nestled up with a baby animal on the cover of the New York Times Style Magazine? The composition of this shot links child actor Quvenzhané Wallis—currently starring in a cinematic reboot of Annie—to a long tradition of romantic figurations of childhood as a time of primal purity and authenticity.

Sir Henry Raeburn, <i>Boy and Rabbit</i> (1786)

Sir Henry Raeburn, Boy and Rabbit (1786)

That an African American child can now be presented to the public as an all-American icon of innocence feels like a victory. After all, children growing up during the Great Depression—when Annie achieved her mythic status—inhabited a society in which purity and beauty were both coded white, as Toni Morrison makes clear in her insightful novel The Bluest Eye (1970). Morrison’s African American child protagonists struggle to maintain a sense of self-worth at a time when magazines, movies, children’s books, dolls, and even candy wrappers proclaimed that white children had cornered the market on cuteness. In this context, Wallis’s donning of Annie’s famous red dress constitutes a hopeful sign that our culture is growing less wedded to whiteness as an aesthetic ideal.

For many reasons, the fact that a black Annie has arrived on the scene at this particular cultural moment seems to me cruelly ironic. Even as an African American girl embodies innocence on the silver screen, all of our other screens are alerting us to how often African Americans are presumed guilty, often with fatal consequences. Moreover, the history of “Little Orphan Annie” reveals that this seemingly innocuous character played a key role in enabling the widespread apathy about social inequality that brought us to this painful cultural moment.

From her first appearance in Harold Gray’s comic strip in 1924 to her triumphant reemergence as a tap-dancing belter in the last quarter of the 20th century, Annie made innocence seem invulnerable and helped to convince Americans that all poor children need to thrive is a little love in their personal lives—not a society-wide push to reduce poverty and prejudice. Now, at the very moment when income inequality and residual racism finally stand a chance of being recognized as urgent problems, here comes America’s most indestructible orphan yet again to sing the praises of laissez-faire capitalism and the privatized family.

When it comes to persuading Americans about the virtue of selfishness, Ayn Rand has nothing on Annie. As Bruce Smith notes in his invaluable History of Little Orphan Annie (1982), Harold Gray openly admitted that his comic strip represented a valentine to Big Business. Writing at a time when the growing gap between haves and have-nots was prompting his fellow newspapermen to emphasize the rapaciousness of J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and other captains of industry, Gray took the least sympathetic sort of rich guy he could think of—a munitions manufacturer who made a killing during World War I—and turned him into a hero. Daddy Warbucks serves as a mouthpiece for Gray’s fervent belief that unrestrained free enterprise will solve all of America’s problems. For example, when Warbucks and his fellow bigwigs make a fortune manufacturing a magical new substance called “Eonite,” their reaction to this windfall is meant to prove that no economic regulations are necessary to ensure a fair distribution of the profits:

Harold Gray, <i>Little Orphan Annie</i>, July 10, 1935

Harold Gray, Little Orphan Annie, July 10, 1935

Ignoring his contemporaries’ complaints about “Hooverism in the Funnies,” Gray used his strip as a soapbox to criticize virtually every tenet of the “New Deal” proposed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s. Government-run welfare programs such as Social Security would undermine the work ethic of the American people. Compulsory education and child labor laws constituted an outrageous impingement on American liberty. To underline these points, Gray represented New Deal administrators, social workers, and anyone else who worked in the public sector as intrusive, incompetent, or corrupt. In this 1935 strip, for example, Annie hides from one such nosy parker and gives voice to Gray’s right-wing views:

Harold Gray, <i>Little Orphan Annie</i>, November 8, 1935

Harold Gray, Little Orphan Annie, November 8, 1935

In Gray’s eyes, every American—even a parentless 11-year-old—ought to be “free” to fend for herself. Gray’s depiction of Annie helped to naturalize what is actually a highly paradoxical picture of childhood innocence. On the one hand, Annie is a sweet naïf who still believes in God and Santa Claus; she dotes on dogs and dollies, longs for parents who will love her, and revitalizes the spirits of jaded adults like Warbucks with her optimism and generosity. On the other hand, she is also—in Gray’s own words—“tougher than hell,” a savvy survivor who is famous for her “fast left” and “who can take care of herself because she has to.” In the strip, Warbucks is constantly disappearing so that Annie can exhibit her impressive money-making skills. In fact, both of these characters repeatedly fight their way up from rags to riches in order to promote Gray’s notion that anyone can succeed in America if they just work hard and keep their nose clean.

Harold Gray, <i>Little Orphan Annie</i>, August 5, 1924, and January 9, 1925

Harold Gray, Little Orphan Annie, August 5, 1924, and January 9, 1925

That Annie should magically combine meekness and moxie is so important that when Martin Charnin, Charles Strouse, and Thomas Meehan based a stage musical on Gray’s strip in 1977, they unceremoniously sacked the first little girl hired to play Annie for erring too far on the sweet side. (That’s show biz, kid.) Her replacement and many of the other stage children who have appeared in Annie over the years were phenomenally gifted belters. Their big, brassy voices instantly endow Annie, Pepper, and the rest of the little orphans with the strange duality Gray built into the original Annie: they seem at once fragile and indomitable, vulnerable and invulnerable.

What’s useful about revisiting the comic strip is that Annie’s ability to remain unscathed no matter how badly she is treated is so extreme that it’s easy to see just how odd this conception of childhood innocence is. Physical abuse, emotional deprivation, hunger, homelessness: these and many other miserable experiences simply bounce off Gray’s little girl, leaving no mark on her body, mind, or character. Teflon—a substance almost as magical as Eonite—was invented in 1938, at the very moment when Annie’s reassuring inertness was persuading Americans that we could embrace a romantic vision of childhood as vulnerable and precious while simultaneously refusing any civic, economic, or ethical responsibilities that might ordinarily be expected to go with it.

By making innocence seem invulnerable, Annie and other Teflon kids in fiction and film have helped to enable the widespread apathy about social inequalities that allows Americans to claim that our society is child-centered even though the percentage of children living in poverty in this country continues to grow. Even as federally funded programs to benefit America’s elderly—a valued voting block—greatly reduced the percentage of aged poor over the course of the 20th century, the child poverty rate soared: today, more than one in five US children is living below the federal poverty line, defined as $23,550 a year to support a family of four. Moreover, as the National Center for Children in Poverty points out, research shows that families today actually need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 45% of American children live in low-income families. At the same time, American parental leave policies rank among the worst in the world, and our the public school system—originally intended to be “the great equalizer”—subjects black and white children to “savage inequalities” that have grown worse instead of better since Jonathan Kozol first began documenting them in 1967.

How is it that these terrible trends have not yet inspired widespread outrage and a corresponding push for a more equitable and humane society? People can (and have) pointed to a variety of explanatory factors: human greed; the power big corporations now exert over our political process; our distinctly American investment in the idea that anyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

By making innocence seem invulnerable, Annie and other Teflon kids have helped to enable widespread apathy about social inequalities.

Rarely do we consider that our conception of childhood itself might also be to blame. It’s no wonder that well-intentioned people can remain unmoved by what sociologists refer to as the “juvenilization of poverty” when Annie and her ilk have been silently reassuring us for decades that disadvantaged children are essentially indestructible. Teflon kids help us turn a blind eye toward social science research indicating that poor youth are more likely to get ill and die, to experience violent crime, to drop out of school, and to become poor (and sick) adults. Once again, Gray’s designs are usefully transparent. In keeping with her creator’s reactionary views, Annie’s famously empty peepers signal that she lacks a vulnerable inner self who could be harmed by harsh circumstances, even as they anticipate how her antics have prompted Americans to disregard the long-term negative effects of growing up poor.

To be sure, when Charnin, Strouse, and Meehan based Annie the musical on Gray’s strip, they purposefully reversed its political valence: in their version, Hoover’s a loser, Roosevelt’s a hero, and Annie manages to sweet-talk Daddy Warbucks into helping FDR administrate the New Deal. I like to imagine Harold Gray rolling over in his grave every time I watch this scene. And yet, the underlying message of the musical—and the 1982 film version of it—is still deeply conservative, in the sense that it reassures us that unrestrained capitalism represents no threat to democracy or the well-being of the working class.

Who could forget, for example, the scene in the 1982 film in which a crazy Russian lobs a bomb into Warbucks’s study because—as one of Daddy’s many happy minions explains—“He’s living proof that the American system really works and the Bolsheviks don’t want anyone to know about that.” The fact that this system produces men so rich they sport diamond stickpins the size of walnuts is proof of its greatness, as are the singing, dancing servants who clearly love doing Daddy’s dusting and mopping, even though Annie and the other orphans—just a few scenes earlier—have represented housework as the bane of their “hard-knock life.”

Given the musical’s cheerful acceptance of the socioeconomic status quo, it’s no surprise that Annie’s most memorable anthem glorifies inaction. If things are hard, “Tomorrow” tells us, don’t do anything to the world around you. Just adjust your attitude by saying to yourself,

 

The sun’ll come out tomorrow

So you got to hang on till tomorrow,

Come what may!

Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow

You’re always a day away.

 

Ah yes, the inspirational message that you should passively wait for things to improve, which will happen not because you (or anyone else) takes positive action, but just because things tend to improve as naturally as the sun rises in the east. Charnin’s lyrics reassure us that the future will be better than the present while simultaneously hinting that this brighter future will never actually arrive, since it’s “always a day away.” Surely Stephen Colbert was thinking of this song when he named his amusingly inactive Political Action Committee “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.”

Despite my misgivings about how Annie enables apathy, I was excited when I heard that Jay-Z was among the producers of a new film version. In 1998, his Grammy-nominated “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” made brilliant use of Annie’s baby belters to draw attention to the risks and ravages of growing up poor. So it seemed possible that although the original creators of Annie didn’t manage to renounce Gray’s right-wing politics, Jay-Z and director-screenwriter Will Gluck just might. And indeed, the new film opens promisingly, with an amusing scene set in Annie’s public school that suggests that this Annie will be different. The kids are doing presentations on US presidents, and the first thing we see is a milk-faced, red-haired, tap-dancing moppet named Annie ceding the stage to another, cooler Annie: Wallis, who gets the class rapping along with her paean to FDR’s poverty-reducing policies.

Buoyed by snappy dialogue and Jamie Foxx’s charismatic impersonation of a cleverly renovated Daddy Warbucks, the first third of this new Annie skips along enjoyably enough. Rechristened Will Stacks, Foxx’s Daddy is a Bloomberg-esque cell phone mogul who first latches onto Annie as a publicity stunt to promote his campaign for mayor of New York City. Foxx and Wallis are funny and natural together, and the screenwriters’ bright idea to replace Daddy’s overexcited servants with ingenious electronic gizmos is inspired.

Sadly, though, the rest of the movie fails to live up to this punchy opening. Musically speaking, things degenerate fast. Songs from Charnin’s original score, performed in a breathy, low-key style that drains them of energy, are interspersed with new numbers that sound more like Elton John than Jay-Z. For example, when Daddy Stacks takes Annie out to see the wonders of Manhattan, he croons a cheesy tune called “The City’s Yours”:

 

So take it all, the city’s yours, it’s worth fighting for, it’s all yours

So take it all, the city’s yours, it’s worth fighting for, it’s all mine, it’s all yours

 

Co-written by Sia and Stargate, this vacuous song makes the original Broadway score for Annie seem tart and edgy by comparison. If the producers of the new Annie wanted a song about Manhattan, why on earth didn’t they use Strouse and Charnin’s “NYC,” which is not only more melodically interesting, but also captures far more successfully the paradoxical appeal of a city that overwhelms and insults its inhabitants yet somehow manages to make all other cities pale in comparison:

 

Oh, NYC

You make ’em all postcards

You crowd

You cramp

You’re still the champ

Amen for NYC

The shimmer of Times Square

The pulse

The beat

The drive!

 

Whereas “NYC” apostrophizes the city as an unmanageable yet exhilarating challenge, “The City’s Yours”—addressed to Annie—treats the urban landscape as something an individual can own, a billionaire’s playground. That sentiment is perfectly in line with the politics of the new film, since the opening celebration of FDR’s policies is immediately undercut by a series of denigrating references to the social safety net he fought to establish. No wonder Gluck cast a white actress, Cameron Diaz, as Miss Hannigan: had she been black, there would have been an instant outcry regarding her portrayal as a greedy “welfare queen” who takes in foster children solely in order to guzzle money from the state. The government employee who processes Annie’s adoption papers proves easily bribable, and the public school she attends is a failure, since—as Daddy is shocked (shocked!) to discover—she is illiterate. The filmmakers even get in a dig at Social Security when one of Annie’s fellow foster kids mishears the name of the number Annie needs in order to extract information about her background from the incompetent nanny state: “What’s a social security murder?”

Following in the footsteps of Harold Gray, the creators of this new Annie do not propose that Americans should try to fix such faltering state-run systems. Rather, they suggest that those who have the means should retreat into the shelter of the privatized family. How acceptable is it nowadays to admit that you don’t care about what happens to other people’s children? So acceptable that the happy ending of this movie involves Daddy Stacks choosing to give up the idea of public service completely. He withdraws from the mayoral race, explaining, “I want to take time out to concentrate on things that really matter to me … And that’s this amazing little girl, Annie … That’s my family.” No need to fix the public schools that are so conspicuously failing to educate poor children. Better to focus your resources on private philanthropy that privileges a lucky few. We are expected to admire Stacks for lifting one foster child out of poverty and erecting a cute little literacy center so that a couple of others can learn to read, too.

When Stacks describes New York City as “worth fighting for” in “The City’s Yours,” he clearly doesn’t mean that citizens should strive to make their city a better, fairer place. He’s just saying that its richest inhabitants have the right to squeeze the Big Apple like an orange and hoard the juice. It’s no accident that Foxx and Wallis sing this song not on the streets of NYC, but floating high above the city in a helicopter: this version of Annie is deeply phobic about urban life as it is experienced by the 99%. The two most conspicuous running jokes in the film both attest to this unease: one has Daddy Stacks constantly applying Purell after coming into contact with the dirty masses, and the other revolves around characters spitting out food or drink, including an early scene in which Stacks expels a mouthful of mashed potatoes at a soup kitchen. Yes, Virginia, this is a film in which a billionaire can forcibly realize that the food being ladled out to poor people is inedible without feeling even a smidge of responsibility to make it better. Merry Christmas, America. icon

Featured image: Cover of the December 7, 2014, issue of T: The New York Times Style Magazine