The curious thing about Shirley Temple in The Littlest Rebel is not her highly sexualized performance, nor the extent to which her “Miss Virginia” is used to glorify a particular kind of subjection (the wife figured as slave) by using a child as its principle embodiment; if you’ve read Uncle Tom’s Cabin or especially if you’ve seen the movie, you already know a little bit about how that works, how in the sentimental imagination of that “mob of scribbling women,” as an envious Hawthorne styled them, the infantilized African could be used to figure the childlike state of total subjection to masculine authority to which every Christian wife should aspire.
That’s not the curious thing; that’s the banal thing, and even if Shirley Temple manages the difficult trick of being even more painful to watch than Little Eva, the use of skull grinding racism as metaphor for patriarchy is just something you get used to if you read a lot of 19th century sentimental fiction. This isn’t a new observation, in other words; the entire creepy and weepy genre is filled to the brim with barely veiled sexual fantasies about powerful men forcefully bringing their infantilized brides to heel, and especially of making them like it. In The Wide, Wide World for example (the most popular American novel not named Uncle Tom’s Cabin) there‘s a truly disturbing scene in which the adolescent protagonist is metaphorically threatened with rape when a bad guy tries to take hold of the horse she’s riding, from which she‘s rescued by her foster-father who does exactly the same thing. The point being, you see, it’s better to be raped by your father because he‘ll actually marry you? No wonder they needed a civil war to resolve things.
Sentimental literature has its defenders, of course, but I’m not one of them. Instead, I would suggest that while pornography teaches its viewer a violent mode of desire and blackface teaches its viewer to desire a particular mode of violence, the really creepy thing about both (and about Uncle Tom‘s Cabin) is the way the seepage between the categories is precisely the point. Pornographic sex might not be completely reducible to rape fantasies and blackface may not may not only be about stolen labor masquerading as love, but they are damn close, and a vigilant psychoanalytic reading of The Littlest Rebel in this vein could go on forever. For example, the scene where Shirley Temple puts on blackface to hide in the closet with her slave (amidst all the food they’re trying to prevent the northerners from ravaging) until she’s caught because her dress catches in the door and they break down the door? And then a soldier “smashes his bottle on her table,” demands that she “pull off his boots” and threatens to “tan her hide” until he discovers that she’s actually white, pulls off her kerchief to reveal her hair, and concludes that her daddy told her to do it? And then her tears wash away the blackface? No sir, that’s just a cigar. And by cigar, I mean phallus.
But again, that kind of stuff is just par for the course. What might be different about a movie like this, I think, is the extent to which Temple manages to draw the viewer into its understanding of sex as violence (such that only hierarchal patriarchal love between a strong man and a childish woman is thinkable) while also sexualizing violence itself, employing a similar moral economy as both blackface and pornography to specifically render the rebellion of a child as a cute little indiscretion to be punished. And in that sense, the title does double duty: the “littlest rebel” is both the smallest member of the confederacy and a child who, by virtue of her identification with the cause, transforms the entire civil war into a childish indiscretion, to be spanked and expiated with tears. Of course, Shirley Temple could never be actually spanked, but if you grant the point in a general sense, it‘s kind of startling how many times she is either disciplined or threatened (the blackface ruse seems plotted in, for example, simply to make her subject to a kind of violence her white purity otherwise makes her exempt from).
In such a framework, it becomes possible for the mother’s death to be called “something very beautiful,” as Virginia’s father puts it, a phrase that is, if we de-familiarized it a bit, an absolutely bizarre thing to say. And the only plot purpose of the mother, so far as I can tell, is to be gloriously injured and killed, to have the honor of being cried over, like confederate dead more generally. But in this way it also becomes possible to think of the sins of war as motivated by love, and to excuse and forgive the civil war on exactly the grounds by which your Klan-types and southern democrats ideologically reconstructed it afterwards (the defense of pure womanhood in the face of Yankee aggression and rapine), but also how it was figured by northern liberals trying to bring the south into the union: the trauma due to a child whose rebellion makes her subject to loving violence.
To do this, of course, the categories of love and violence have to be almost completely hollowed out of meaning, but the movie does that too, with its overarching emphasis on turning that frown upside down, not into a smile but into the same rictus Bill Robinson adapts as he tap-dances around the kitchen (and when Temple dances with him, the resemblance is unmistakable). Love is abjection, the movie proclaims; ignore reality, sing polly-wolly-doodle all the day, and sit in the president‘s lap. Above all, make daddy think you’re happy by rebelling in a cute way so he can punish you. Just as blackface turns the violence of a black men taking a pratfall into laughter and pornography turns rape into love, the work of this film is to teach Shirley Temple to give you pleasure from the violence done to her, to turn her tears into your smiles and to transform the spectacle of a great civil rebellion into the jape of a child, to be spanked, on the bottom.
I think, ultimately, that’s what’s most disturbing about all this. In the end, you can’t watch Shirley Temple in blackface (or, frankly, Shirley Temple at all) without, on some level, being interpellated into it. You can be horrified, but even in that horror is the shock of recognition, and that’s an ugly thing, and heaven help you when you find yourself enjoying it, for whatever reason. You can call it sexist, or racist—and ye gods! it is—but after you’ve done so, there it still is, like the little black jockey I used to see on my neighbor’s lawn. And the question remains—and perhaps this is why this post is so fragmentary– what do you do with it? I haven’t a clue; neither remembering nor repressing seems sufficient.