The Sexualization of Shirley Temple

Oh, Holy God. Look at this section of the NYT’s obituary of Shirley Temple Black:

"In 1932, Shirley was spotted by an agent from Educational Pictures and chosen to appear in “Baby Burlesks,” a series of sexually suggestive one-reel shorts in which children played all the roles. The 4- and 5-year-old children wore fancy adult costumes that ended at the waist. Below the waist, they wore diapers with oversize safety pins. In these heavy-handed parodies of well-known films like “The Front Page” (“The Runt Page”) and “What Price Glory” (“War Babies”), Shirley imitated Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and — wearing an off-the-shoulder blouse and satin garter as a hard-boiled French bar girl in “War Babies” — Dolores del Río. When any of the two dozen children in “Baby Burlesks” misbehaved, they were locked in a windowless sound box with only a block of ice on which to sit. “So far as I can tell, the black box did no lasting damage to my psyche,” Mrs. Black wrote in “Child Star.” “Its lesson of life, however, was profound and unforgettable. Time is money. Wasted time means wasted money means trouble.”

This is the pre-feminist movement patriarchy, y’all. Children weren’t just worth-less, there was nothing to stop their parents or industries from using them as fokking commodities. Moreover, even as a toddler Shirley Temple was being overtly sexualized because it was “funny”. You know, the same way rape jokes are “funny”. They are both forms of humor meant to normalize and minimize egregious cultural phenomena.

If you have the stomach for it, you can see “War Babies” on YouTube. Hold a pail in your lap because watching children that young acting in mimicry of a “femme fatal” and the men who wanted to fuck her, especially while knowing that their punishment for NOT doing it was emotional and physical isolation and pain, will make you puke.

One of the first people to pull back the curtain and notice the ugly truth behind the Great & Powerful Wizard of Id was novelist Graham Greene. However, did he blame the studio for sexualizing a little girl? Hell, no. He blamed “that little bitch Shirley Temple” for her own exploitation:

The owners of a child star are like leaseholders—their property diminishes in value every year. … Miss Shirley Temple’s case, though, has peculiar interest: Infancy is her disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece (real childhood, I think, went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is completely totsy. Watch her swaggering stride across the Indian barrack-square: hear the gasp of excited expectation from her antique audience when the sergeant’s palm is raised: watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin-deep.

It is clever, but it cannot last. Her admirers—middle-aged men and clergymen—respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire. …

Clearly what Greene wrote is a heinous example of victim blaming and slut shaming, tactics frequently used against victims of sexual violence no matter how young they are. Nevertheless, it is spot on with the way Shirley Temple was being used by the studio – she was a piece of ass in an exceptionally powerless (and thus more patriarchally desirable) package. They made her act in ways that implied little women were sex on legs right from the cradle, and it was okay to think of them as such. As academic Ara Osterweil pointed out:

This displacement of adult sexuality onto the body of a child involved an industry wide fetishization in which Temple's infantile sexuality was both deliberately manufactured and scrupulously preserved. As Twentieth Century Fox executive Darryl Zanuck commanded, “Keep her skirts high. Have co-stars lift her up whenever possible to create the illusion now selling so well. Preserve babyhood.” It is clear that Temple’s innocence —and those signature shots of her underpants — were crucial to her erotic appeal.

If nothing else, everyone should thank feminist activists for making such a ruckus about this kind of bullshit that the blatant exploitation of sexualized children is no longer so tolerated.

No wonder Woody Allen, who was recently called out by another adult witness to his predation on Dylan, thinks of himself as hard done by when his victims won’t stay victimized. He’s grown up in an era that’s told him it is his right as a white, straight man to take “advantage” of the innate erotic potential of little girls. These kinds of cultural messages matter. They cause lasting harm to women and children and perpetuate the abuses against them.


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