“As long as our country has Shirley Temple,
we will be all right.”
—Franklin D. Roosevelt
Have you been to a toy store lately? Barbie’s got some heavy competition these days. The Bratz collection, for instance: Yasmin, Sasha, Cloe, Jade—all household names for several years now. Check out that hot little number Sasha in her “Glittering Glam Doll” ensemble. Sasha “loves to get totally . . . dolled up when she’s ready for a big night out.” To judge by the yellow stiletto heels, the ultraskimpy minidress, the puckered lips, and the come-hither makeup, Sasha’s idea of a big night out is parading down the Big Apple’s Lexington Avenue like something out of a sleazy Kojak rerun. Yet Sasha is recommended for girls six and above. Six? Or consider the Bratz Rock Angelz video game for girls between the ages of three and six. The Rock Angelz are feisty entrepreneurs; they run their own fashionista magazine and roam the globe in search of the latest trends. Your own little girl can also acquire the Rock Angelz “Tour Bus,” complete with “a working hot tub.”
Of course, after tween girls acquire their Bratz dolls or their Lollipop Girls (“long, lean and sassy”), they naturally aspire to doll themselves up in similar fashion. Nor is there any shortage of fashion lines targeting them. Indeed, the 20 million tweens in America have plenty of disposable cash—a fact not lost on all the big female pop stars, most of whom have their own lines targeting tweens or the more ambiguous “juniors.” There’s the Material Girl, of course, and her daughter, Lourdes, whose 80’s-inspired, retro-glam line was a hit last year when it debuted in Los Angeles. LAWeekly.com notes that the spokesgirl for the new line is “Gossip Girl actress/rocker Taylor Momsen, who’s known for wearing garters and Lucite stripper heels on stage with her band The Pretty Reckless.” The Miley “Vanity Fair” Cyrus line is also popular, but for sheer sluttish bravura you can’t beat Beyoncé, whose Deréon line is raising eyebrows even in Hollywood. Visit the website and you will find, among other items, a weird fusion of ghetto/biker/futuristic chic—the dominant motif being skin tight, black latex, and lots of tatted flesh (“Bedtime Tattoo” kits retailing at $16.00).
OK, the early sexualization of children in American popular culture is hardly news, unless you’ve been living in an hermetically sealed room without television or internet access. At least since the sordid murder of child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey in 1996, the handwringing has been ubiquitous: Dozens of articles and several books have covered the subject at length. It is widely assumed (especially in conservative circles) that this trend grew out of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960’s, but in fact it dates from a much earlier period. Long before Barbie and Britney and Paris and Jodie and Katy “I Kissed a Girl” Perry began to strut their stuff, there was America’s Sweetheart, Shirley Temple, the canny orphan with a heart of gold, Hollywood’s answer to the Great Depression, tap-dancing her way across the silver screen in those adorable little frocks.
Yes, yes, I can hear the chorus of protest rising already. Surely not Shirley, that polka-dotted paragon of girlish American innocence? That is invariably the response I receive whenever I raise the topic with students or acquaintances. Recently, I shared with a group of students (ages 17-45) a clip from one of Shirley’s best-known performances, the scene in Bright Eyes (1934) where she lisps her way adorably through “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” Their initial response was “Why are there only old men on that airplane?” and “They’ve got their hands all over her!” and “She kissed that man on the lips!” But on second thought, they added, “Of course, we’re all so jaded now. No one saw it that way then.” Well, not quite, but it is true that millions of Americans embraced Shirley without so much as a murmur of disapproval. Could so many folks across the Heartland have been wrong?
Whatever we may say about Shirley or her adoring fans, the Hollywood culture that invented her was hardly innocent. Already in the 1920’s the film studios had made a bundle off of teen flapper-girl stars like Clara Bow, whose appeal, by the way, had a lot to do with her flat-chested, prepubescent look. Indeed, the Hays Code was enacted in the early 1930’s precisely in response to the widespread perception that movies had become too lewd for popular consumption. Shirley herself got her start at the age of three in the Baby Burlesks, single-reel parodies featuring toddlers mimicking well-known stars. In one of these, “War Babies” (1932), she plays a miniature Dolores del Río, Mexican sex siren of the silent-film era. In her autobiography, Child Star, Temple laments that the Baby Burlesks were “a cynical exploitation of our childish innocence,” but seems to regard her later work as free of such exploitation.
By the mid-1930’s Temple was the biggest film star in America and had single-handedly rescued Fox studios from bankruptcy. Her films were also popular in Europe (even Princess Elizabeth was a fan), and it was a British reviewer who was the first (and last) to suggest that Fox’s marketing of the Temple prodigy was anything less than wholesome. The reviewer was novelist Graham Greene, who published frequently in The Spectator and Night and Day. In fact, Greene remarked on Temple’s performances in several reviews. He found her Captain January (1936) “a little depraved” and suggested that her popularity was thanks, in part, to “a coquetry [sic] quite as mature as Miss Colbert’s,” adding that “her oddly precocious body [was] as voluptuous in grey flannel trousers as Miss Dietrich’s.” In another instance, Greene called Shirley “a 50-year-old dwarf.” Such comments have been shrugged off as “snide” expressions of the reviewer’s obvious dislike of the little princess of “uplift,” but Greene’s Night and Day review of Wee Willie Winkie (1937) leveled more serious accusations, first of all at Temple’s producers: “The owners of a child star are like leaseholders—their property diminishes in value every year. Time’s chariot is at their back; before them lie acres of anonymity.” In the peculiar case of Miss Temple, whose value was then at its zenith, childhood innocence is “merely her disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult.” Greene comments on the twisting of her “well developed little rump” as she tap dances, and upon the “sidelong searching coquetry [sic]” of her eyes. Observe, he notes,
her swaggering stride [in a revealing kilt] 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 that is only skin deep.
In short, Greene was implicitly accusing Fox of pimping its biggest child star. Not surprisingly, Fox slapped Night and Day with a libel suit that put the journal out of business.
Of course, Greene was not seriously asking his readers to believe that Shirley was fully aware of how her façade of innocence and inimitable cuteness disguised an appeal “more secret and more adult.” But he is suggesting that her producers were aware of the nature of that appeal, and that they exploited it to the hilt. Some have suggested that Greene was reacting defensively, reeling with Catholic guilt from the stirring of pedophile desire that little Shirley aroused in him. But such subjective argument is unanswerable and evades the real question. If the Temple product was so unambiguously wholesome, then why are there so many scenes in the films that involve precisely the sort of coquettish dancing and singing to which Greene objected? Why was she dressed up like a harlot in Polly Tix in Washington (1933)? Why, in Poor Little Rich Girl (1936), was she given these lines, sung to her on-screen father:
I love to hug you and kiss you.
Marry me and let me be your wife!
In every dream I caress you . . .
And how about all those sweet little frocks that just barely cover her derrière, allowing a few discreet flashes of panty from time to time? Weren’t those outfits typical tot couture for the times? As it turns out, throughout the 1920’s (when most girls’ dresses were still made by their mothers), girls’ hemlines fell below the knees and were often worn with bloomers that covered most of the lower legs. According to Miriam Forman-Brunell’s Girlhood in America, the thigh revealing hemlines of the 1930’s were inspired, “in large part, by styles made popular by Shirley Temple.” But it was not only the movies that inspired the sexier look; the mass-produced Shirley dolls were dressed in the same styles. Most memorable was the 1937 “make-up doll,” featuring a more “grown up” Shirley with darkened lips and mascaraed eyes. Interestingly, the dresses worn by these dolls were tagged with the National Recovery Administration eagle logo. The Shirley Temple dolls did their part to stimulate the Great Depression economy, just as, presumably, the Bratz dolls are doing today.
But what, after all, is the problem here? The feminist response, and that of the feminist-inspired APA Report on the Sexualization of Girls (2007), recycle the predictably banal “objectification” thesis, according to which a woman’s body is her property. To objectify her in a purely sexual manner is to rob her of her autonomy. This is nonsense. If a woman chooses to tart herself up like a slut, then surely that is an expression of her autonomy. And if the male “gaze” objectifies her, then is that not an affirmation of her power?
Little girls are another matter, though. Feminists carefully avoid any talk of innocence, except to deny its existence. In our post-Freudian world, it is often assumed that childhood innocence was yet another product of Victorian repression. There is at least a grain of truth in this. British philosopher Roger Scruton has noted that the Victorian idealization of childhood (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, et al.) was in part a barrier erected against the ongoing secularization of Western society. After all, the concept of innocence is inextricably tied to Christian religious aspirations: The quest for sanctity is a quest for the restoration of a lost moral innocence. Did not our Lord Himself say, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven”? No doubt a child’s awareness of herself as a sexual being does begin well before pubescence, but this awareness, under normal circumstances, occurs largely at a subliminal level. What we have witnessed over the course of the 20th century, and accelerating especially in recent years, is an unseemly haste to awaken carnal knowledge at an earlier and earlier age. I suggest that there is more at work here than the profit motive and parental permissiveness. A powerful element of perversity motivates our urge to parade before the public eye little girls in the dishabille of the courtesan. It is as though we are now flaunting our loss of faith in the very possibility of moral innocence, sacrificing our children upon the altar of our defiant cynicism. If we do not come to our senses soon, we will all go down with the Good Ship Lollipop, while The Pretty Reckless ease us into oblivion.