Shirley Temple and the Performance of Girlhood

Shirley Temple and the Performance of Girlhood

Shirley Temple and the Performance of Girlhood

Shirley Temple and the Performance of Girlhood

Synopsis

In the 1930s, Shirley Temple was heralded as "America's sweetheart," and she remains the icon of wholesome American girlhood, but Temple's films strike many modern viewers as perverse. Shirley Temple and the Performance of Girlhood examines her early career in the context of the history of girlhood and considers how Temple's star image emerged out of the Victorian cult of the child.
Beginning her career in "Baby Burlesks," short films where she played vamps and harlots, her biggest hits were marketed as romances between Temple and her adult male costars. Kristen Hatch helps modern audiences make sense of the erotic undercurrents that seem to run through these movies. Placing Temple's films in their historical context and reading them alongside earlier representations of girlhood in Victorian theater and silent film, Hatch shows how Shirley Temple emerged at the very moment that long standing beliefs about childhood innocence and sexuality were starting to change. Where we might now see a wholesome child in danger of adult corruption, earlier audiences saw Temple's films as demonstrations of the purifying power of childhood innocence.
Hatch examines the cultural history of the time to view Temple's performances in terms of sexuality, but in relation to changing views about gender, class, and race. Filled with new archival research, Shirley Temple and the Performance of Girlhood enables us to appreciate the "simpler times" of Temple's stardom in all its thorny complexity.

Excerpt

For four years during the Depression, from 1935 through 1938, Shirley Temple was celebrated as Hollywood’s most profitable star. According to Time magazine, at the height of her fame she sold more sheet music than Bing Crosby and was more photographed than President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Congress reportedly declared her “the most beloved individual in the world,” and Roosevelt is said to have celebrated her as a universal antidote to the nation’s malaise: “When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” Her popularity wasn’t limited to the United States. When Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev made his historic visit to the United States in 1960, he revealed that he, too, had been a fan of the young star during his childhood. She was a mascot to the Chilean Navy; she was interviewed by Thomas Mann and H. G. Wells; and she received fan mail from every continent. In the 1930s, during a period of national and international crisis, when capitalism was on the brink of failure, the entire world seemed to take comfort in the mass-produced image of a little girl.

On the face of it, Temple appears to have been an anomaly. She is the only child to reach the No. 1 spot on Quigley’s list of top box-office stars since the poll began in 1932, and the only female star other than Doris Day to reach that position with such frequency. Certainly she remains one of the most recognizable child stars in the history of Hollywood, and one of the best remembered stars of the 1930s. However, when we take a broader view, considering Temple in relation to silent-era film and even late nineteenth-century theater, it becomes clear that her stardom came at the end of a long period in which little girls held a central place in both theater and film. Prior to Temple, Hollywood’s most popular female star had been a child impersonator, Mary Pickford, and one of the . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.