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.