Tag: Shirley Temple

Plus ca change

I may never forgive Wayne Marshall for sharing this with me (via). Forgive me for sharing it with you, but don’t say you weren’t warned:

My first thought was, wow, Shirley Temple lives. The part where she wags at her finger (at about 1:03) nearly made me lose my lunch, and watching her prance around Jamaica (I guess) with her little minstrel band of happy darkies has thoroughly destroyed my hope for humanity.

It got me thinking, though; the things that struck me when I was watching Judge Priest (blogged here) and The Little Colonel (blogged here) was how weird it was that movies like these are actually meant to be fables of reconciliation. And this is what makes them surprisingly live wires today, I suspect. One branch of Hollywood’s race thinking has often been about portraying black people as rapists, of course; draw a line between Birth of a Nation and Stepin Fetchit’s most unwatchable moments and you get a narrative of black masculinity first as a threat to true womanhood and then as a threat blotted out by a fantasy of black impotence, a threat registered by its hysterical denial. The first narrative is pretty much dead; not completely, but on life support. But the second narrative is alive and well.

The character Bojangles played so many times, for example, a descendant of Uncle Tom and a predecessor for what Spike Lee called the “super-duper magical negro” is still practically required. Instead of fearing and denying the problem of black masculinity, Temple’s various pairings with Bojangles were about finding a way to imagine a black presence without having to worry about a thing: old enough to be a wise uncle but not young enough to be a sexual partner, Bojangles fixes the white protagonist’s problems without ever having problems or desires of his own, becoming a simple adjunt to her desires, and her plot. I think that sort of narrative is still really attractive for people who want to be liberals but who are still basically uncomfortable with difference, and with black difference in particular.

That obscenity above isn’t really about black masculinity of course — though the black dad does make a threatening appearance in the classic “saving brown women from brown men” way — yet it is about making black stuff safe for white people, and it does this precisely by ostensibly being about something else, by working through framing. This is the other link to Temple: by displacing the black performer with a white one, placing her in a position of authority and power over the people from whom she’s appropriated, and then making clear that the black people in the scene are subject to her in some sense, it makes blackness legible only as a marginal presence. It isn’t enough, then, to say that this video isn’t about blackness; it’s about not being about blackness, about taking blackness and transforming it into not black anymore, while retaining that blackness in the frame as a kind of shell emptied out of its content.

Of this, there’s a long tradition. For example, you have the great Marlene Dietrich singing “Hot Voodoo” from Blonde Venus, in which she emerges from a gorilla suit to demonstrate how extremely white she is:

A recent find for me is Fred Astaire’s “Slap that Bass” from Shall We Dance, in which he seems to get some soul from hanging out with the black crew members in the belly of a cruise ship, yet (as the scene goes on) comes first to take center stage and then simply replace them, dancing up and away until they’re forgotten and he gets to commune with modernity without their help:

There’s also “Like a Prayer” by Madonna, which is in some ways even more gross; it starts with racist violence against the idea of interracial sex, but goes on to co-opt the religious moral authority of the civil rights movement in service of white sexuality, transforming the lynched black man into a de-sexed jesus icon and making the female gospel choir into a backdrop for Madonna’s writhings:

Each of these are different, and one could spend a long time thinking about the particularities of each enunciation. But there’s also something to be gained by placing them in a continuum, looking at the ways they do analogous work differently.

Shirley Temple: No One Gets Out Clean

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.

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