Why Shirley Temple? Because she was highly gifted, with a reported IQ of 155, and because she is the poster child of constructed childhood.

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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One Response to The Childhood Culture Wars: Shirley Temple

  1. Pip Starr says:

    First off, hello and my compliments once again to you on your wonderful site. I think you are correct that Shirley was a construct of the adults around her, but then so were all the actors and actresses of Hollywood up until the late 60s. Marilyn Monroe, for example, was quite a different person from Norma Jeane Baker, and so on. So it wasn’t limited to just children. Shirley was an icon, certainly, and set a standard that few children could achieve. There is always a sense of ambivalence that comes in our relationship with stars–they are stars because they seem to embody those qualities we find ideal, even if they are in some sense a construct. But we also measure ourselves against them; it’s only human to do so.

    So Shirley was a product of her time, an era when stars really were larger than life, and no one but a talent of Shirley’s caliber could’ve achieved what she did in those days. Children these days are more apt to measure themselves against someone like Miley Cyrus, people who don’t have half of Shirley’s talent. I’m not sure I completely agree with the idea that Shirley got out of acting because it was no longer challenging. She continued to work into adulthood, but that fact was that once she grew up she lost a good deal of her appeal. Hollywood did such an exemplary job of branding her as the curly-headed moppet that it was hard for her audience to see her as an adult; the branding served her well when she was a child, but it worked against her when she grew up.

    That said, I agree with you that there was a sexualized aspect to Shirley, in the same sense that the Victorian concept of the child as spiritually pure was a kind of fetishism that proved irresistible to some men (child prostitution was at its highest in the West during the Victorian era.) Thus, it was not surprising that studio exec Arthur Freed exposed himself to her when she was 12. But Shirley, true to her intellect and maturity, simply laughed it off. That she was able to do that she demonstrates a quality that transcended the naive little girl she was painted as.

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