Friday, March 8, 2024

Rough and Dirty Girlhood in ANNIE (1982)

In his original review of the 1982 film musical, Roger Ebert offers qualified - and often rather faint - praise for Annie but says he doesn't know if kids will actually like the movie. Ebert doesn't find the story's heroine very compelling or believable, but it's noteworthy that all of the other child characters and performers he mentions in comparison are boys: Oliver Twist in Oliver! (1968), Henry Thomas in E.T. (1982), and Ricky Shroder in general. I recently rewatched Annie, and I have a very different perspective on the picture from the late, great reviewer, having actually been a ten year old girl (the same age as Annie herself) when I first saw the movie in theaters in 1982. While certain elements have aged poorly or lack the same appeal they had when I was a child, I can still see why my younger sister and I were so thoroughly charmed by the spunky heroine and her fellow orphans that we belted out "Tomorrow" incessantly and even got dolls of some of the characters. Yes, we were kids who liked Annie, and although we enjoyed the music and the adult characters very much, what really appealed to us was the depiction of girlhood as we experienced it, a rough and dirty childhood full of fights, conflict, and unbrushed hair.

Our culture as a whole has long imagined girls as more or less the opposite of boys. Girls are dear little things who play with dolls while waiting to grow up into loving wives and mothers. Even when they're protagonists and not merely supporting characters, most of them have to be pretty, kind, and generally well-behaved as models of permissible girl behavior. Shirley Temple, the quintessential "little girl" of Hollywood, wins everyone over with her dimpled sweetness, and even Alice and Dorothy are depicted as very "proper" girls in most of their film and TV adaptations (when their girlhood is not erased entirely by making them teenagers or even adults). There are exceptions, of course, like the Little House on the Prairie books and TV series, but celebrated girl-centered stories are harder to come by than stories about boys, and stories about groups of young girls (not marriageable young women) are even rarer.

Annie dispenses with all of those well-worn stereotypes about who and what girls are, replacing the usual sugar and spice with Depression era spunk. It's both a girl's version of Oliver Twist and a prepubescent take on Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), with a scrappy crew of orphan girls trying to survive by their wits, camaraderie, and sheer stubbornness. Imagine the delight my little sister and I experienced seeing these dirty, grumpy, combative girls playing tricks on Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett) and fighting amongst themselves just like we often did, much to our mother's dismay. We were girls who played outside, got dirty, tore our clothes, and only brushed our hair under duress. Annie and her friends provided a rare chance to see girls who looked and acted like us on the big screen, and we loved them for it. It helped that they weren't preternaturally cute or beautiful, like so many of the little and big girls Hollywood showcases. Mop wig aside, Aileen Quinn's Annie seemed like a kid we'd like to know, even if we felt disappointed that she had to be rescued by adults in the final act. We were hoping she'd kick Tim Curry's Rooster right off the top of the train bridge and send him screaming to his death, but at least she tore up the ill-gotten check and made her initial escape all by herself, while her friends persevered in their race to uncover the villains' deception.

In the decades since Annie, Hollywood movies have made some progress in telling stories about girls, especially in films like Matilda (1996), but Japan's Hiyao Miyazaki has done far better with My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), Spirited Away (2001), and Howl's Moving Castle (2004), just to name a few of the Studio Ghibli movies to center the experiences of young girls as interesting and not idealized characters. Women film reviewers, however, are still well aware of the dearth of great movies about young girls, as Anya Jaremko-Greenwold opines in the 2016 Atlantic essay, "Why Hollywood Doesn't Tell More Stories for - and About - Girls." Given that Hollywood still doesn't make many movies like Annie, I'm glad that today's little girls can see the 1982 version in spite of its dated elements. Maybe, at this very moment, some stubborn little girl with tangled pigtails and a dirty face is watching the movie on Netflix as the orphans sing "It's the Hard Knock Life" and delighting in the vision of girls who look and act like her.

Related Posts:

"My Life at the Movies" (2011)

"High School Movies, Then and Now" (2018)