The Glaring Problem of "Annie Get Your Gun"
Updated: Jun 10
Over the last week, I have been helping backstage with costume in my local school’s production of “Annie Get Your Gun”. A lot of hard work and enthusiasm has been put into this show by students (both on and off stage), staff, and out of school volunteers, and speaking as someone who is under no obligation to praise the work of my former school, I must say that the performance is really impressive. The performances are strong, the production holds together, it’s wonderfully entertaining even if you’re not there just to watch your little angel dance in a cowboy hat. However, having spent a few days and evenings watching the show progress, there remains a large question mark hovering over the play itself.
For those unfamiliar with the Wild West musical, it tells the story of Annie Oakley, a young game hunter with some impressive shooting skills, who joins a traveling circus, falls in love, is welcomed into a family of Native Americans, and learns to fit into the world of show business. So far, so musical theatre. The songs themselves are very fun as well, featuring such famous numbers as “They Say It’s Wonderful”, “Anything You Can Do” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”. A particular highlight of working backstage was the nightly ritual when “I’m An Indian, Too” was being performed, and so many of the young cast would stand up to copy the moves of those on stage.
It is with that song that the problem start, however fun the choreography was. The lyrics, movements, and outfits are all very stereotypical of Native Americans, condensing a culture to its most basic and simplified. However, this is the North East of Scotland. I’m willing to bet a lot of money there are no people in the Ellon area that identify as Native American. While a minority not being present is by no means an adequate excuse to discriminate against them, it is not my position to take umbrage to the musical. I can, however, take umbrage with the larger issue of the rather outdated tale. If you will allow me to put on my feminist hat for just a moment, I have a fair amount to say on the school-friendly musical’s attitude towards women.
Oddly, the issue here is not the representation of women. The smitten women surrounding the handsome cowboy Frank Butler in “Bad, Bad Man” are outdated but rather amusing in a time-capsulized sort of way, and there is even a strong female character in our eponymous heroine, proving herself a stronger shooter than her male rival, the great Butler himself, and resisting the obedience that Butler seems to expect of her. The show reaches its climax with a shooting match to determine who the better shooter out of Annie and Frank is. To my genuine surprise, rather than win the contest, she chooses to miss all her shots and intentionally lose, in order to entice Frank to marry her. Really. That’s the final and lasting message of the play; “your role is to marry, if you’re not what he wants, change yourself.”
The more romantic among my (admittedly scarce) readership may imagine a different explanation: that she gave up her triumph for love. But do not forget that moment before she was fiercely competitive with the very man she is sacrificing herself for, and if this were “love” being shown to us than it should not be so easily altered by the apparently frail male ego (the representation of which is questionable in itself). From a narrative point of view, this is confusing, but from a feminist point of view it’s downright offensive and quite shocking that a play perpetuating these archaic and damaging principles is being put on in a school full of impressionable young women.
I can understand the difficulty of trying to find a musical that’s appropriate for school production. There needs to be the right balance of female parts to male (with an emphasis on the former, as drama is generally a female-dominated subject), appropriate language and content, sufficient balance of lines among characters, not too much expense needed with design, the list of conditions goes on and on. But my understanding only goes so far. From what knowledge I can scrape from the internet, there are a few versions of the musical, most notably being the 1999 version put on in Broadway. This version omitted the racist “Indian” scene, the dodgy “Bad, Bad Man” and, crucially, changed the ending so that Frank intentionally lost as well. It removed the element of Annie catering to Frank’s ego and instead showed them both as love-struck and selfless. It doesn’t totally fix the problems of the musical, Annie still chooses to put the expectation to marry above her own success, but it does not glorify the male-ego-before-women’s-success of the original. That took me around 12 minutes to find out. Tops. The option was there, to use that version or try to get close to it, but it wasn’t taken.
The final performance is tonight and it is nearly sold out. I can’t endorse the musical but I can say that the production is a lot of fun, and in all honesty, my criticism won’t matter a jot anyway as the success of the show is guaranteed. So I hope everyone watching and performing tonight have a good time because that’s what it’s all about really. My only wish is that everyone involved takes the show with a hefty pinch of salt, and that perhaps next year we may be treated to a musical choice that instills a little more ambition than marriage.