What is not so well known about Shirley is that her first films were the Baby Burlesks: sexualised parodies of adults in which she mimicked famous women like Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, with one character called Madame Cradlebait.
As a result of the Hays Code Shirley’s image was cleaned up and she became the child star everyone loves.
But this image was every bit an adult construction as her early work. All sweetness, cuteness and sugar and spice. The thing is that this constructed image has become the template of the perfect nice conservative, bourgeois girl. It is a powerful cultural meme and many a girl has been pressured to conform (often unconsciously).
Of course it is all an act and as I have said elsewhere, most successful child actors have to have an above average IQ to be able to create the illusion. The light in their eyes, the way they interact with adult actors, memorising lines and the way they interpret the character, are not skills available to a child with average to below average intelligence.
As she reports in her autobiography, she loved working as an actress, especially when she was treated as an actress and not a child. It was the perfect world for a child of her IQ, a world that would have tested her abilities. It was also a world completely unlike that of the characters she played.
And, like so many gifted child actors, it all ended when she hit puberty. Why? Simple. The roles were no longer challenging. Social expectations demanded that pubertal girls in particular conform to strict standards. In short, they are infantalised, expected to maintain the illusion of innocence. A child is allowed a degree of precociousness that an adolescent is not. Even though she may not have had the words to express what she felt (it was also a very conservative time, well before feminism), Shirley would have felt intellectually suffocated.
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