In an era of motion picture history that forbade the representation of explicit adult sexuality and interracial romance, the appeal of Shirley Temple's innocent yet erotic persona was instrumentalized by the film industry as an important box office draw and powerful ideological weapon. This article examines Temple's pedophilic persona, concentrating on several plantation films she made with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson between 1935 and 1936, including The Little Colonel, The Littlest Rebel, and Dimples. By analyzing the complex discourses of pedophilia and miscegenation that coalesce in these films, Osterweil reads these texts as attempts to reconcile the trauma of interracial desire as represented in D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915). Yet while these films superimpose their own utopian fantasies of interracial, intergenerational romance over the vision of racial violence “written in lighting” by Griffith, they also systematically engage in, and attempt to disguise, their own insidious racial exploitation, both onscreen and offscreen. Constructed to incite and assuage anxieties about the transgression of boundaries between black and white, male and female, and adult and child, Temple's adorable characters both naturalized and eroticized the racial exploitation these films celebrated. For in her performances of complex racial, sexual, and gendered masquerades, Temple's characters engaged in forms of passing that were crucial to the domestication of blackness during this period.
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Ara Osterweil; Reconstructing Shirley: Pedophilia and Interracial Romance in Hollywood's Age of Innocence. Camera Obscura 1 December 2009; 24 (3 (72)): 1–39. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/02705346-2009-008
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