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Hyperion February 18, 2001

#25 Valentine's Day Massacre Part 2

Neither Calliope nor Apollo sung these things into my ear, my genius is no more than a girl.

-Ezra Pound

There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good she was very, very good, But when she was bad she was horrid.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

When last we met, I was talking (ok, writing) about Valentine’s Day, and the life lessons learned from television. I wrote about the horror of finding Barbra Streisand, and learning from a Tom and Jerry cartoon that if we want to make the world a better place, we need to take a look at ourselves and make a change (sha na na, na na na, na na na na). I learned more that night, but I decided to split my commentary into two parts, because some of my, ahem, mature readers seem to have limited attention spans.

In the first half of the evening I was looking at violence in the media (and I take back what I said about T.V. not causing violence. After the Streisand thing, I wanted to hurt somebody). In the second half, I was looking at the sexualization of our culture.

First, I turned to Nick-at-Nite and an old “I Love Lucy” episode. Not much sex appeal here, but I must admit that I do not care for Lucy. I suppose feminist ideology would say that I am threatened by the presence of a strong female, and cannot cope with her success in the male-dominated world of the 50s. Maybe. I just find her annoying.

Next, I turned to MTV. For the uninitiated, MTV stands for Music Television, although you would not be able to tell from their recent programming, which consists of people making jackasses of themselves, for fame, I guess. This particular time there is a video on; four young girls gyrating around, talking about their boyfriends, who will apparently stay with them forever. These girls are clearly under-age, by several years at least. They are very attractive and glamoured up to seem much older. The problem here is that these girls are too young to see them as women, and to think of them that way. Adults who are dressed provocatively I can handle, because I expect it and am prepared. Some would say that this is my problem, and that these girls can dress any way they want. Maybe, but I don’t think I am alone here. The Media, Hollywood; someone, is dressing up young girls to be older, knowing the effect that it will have on consumers. For young girls, they will more often than not want to look like the performers. The target audience here is girls under the age of twelve. I do not think girls that age should be overtly sexual, for two reasons. First, they are not mature enough yet to handle the sexual pressure of looking and acting what way. Secondly, society is not prepared to handle the girls that way; or shouldn’t be, at any rate. I do not like feeling guilty while watching television, and I am uncomfortable with the level of sexuality that I am seeing in young girls. And if I am uncomfortable, I cannot imagine what the poor Baptists are going through. I think I will try to find something more wholesome.

I keep flipping until I come to a Shirley Temple movie, “Just Around the Corner”. Finally, here is something wholesome, and all American. Only, it is not wholesome at all. In many ways, it is worse than MTV. Let me explain.

I did a little research on this movie. It was released in 1938, as propaganda for the government. Here is the premise: Shirley, whose name is Penny, is the daughter of a wonderful architect, who happens to be out of work because of the Great Depression. Penny’s father tries to explain the economy to Penny is simple terms, which is that too many people are depending too much on “Uncle Sam”, which is what Penny’s father calls the government. Well, this would all be well and good, except there is this rich old guy named…Uncle Sam, who has come on hard times. Well, you guessed it; Penny confuses the analogy and thinks that the economy is bad because everyone is being mean to this old rich guy. So, she proceeds to befriend the guy, solve his problems, and get everyone in the city back to work, all while singing and dancing every few minutes.

On the surface, this seems fine. Hollywood put out a lot of propaganda during WWII, one that is my favorite movie, “Casablanca”. Below the surface of this Shirley Temple film, though, lays a dark under-belly. I watch with rapt attention at how subtle the brainwashing is. Some examples: Uncle Sam has a grandson who is a bit of a sissy. In short order, Shirley has cut off his curls, and gotten the kid boys’ pants, which the poor boy gets a black eye over. While the socialite mom is horrified at the new appearance, the grandpa (Uncle Sam) is so pleased that his grandson is acting “male”, that he gives the lad a silver dollar, and tells him there is a silver dollar for every black eye he gets.

Now, to sophisticated audiences today, this might seem laughable, but in the Thirties films were still relatively new, and audiences were not all that hip to how they were being manipulated. That whole scene sends an unmistakable message that fighting is manly and good. Maybe the media really does cause violence.

There is a whole racial aspect to this film that is really too disturbing to go into with much detail. I realize that America was a different place in the Thirties, but the next time I hear some old person complain about how wholesome things used to be, I am going to laugh in their face, and then tell them Matlock was cancelled. Back to Shirley though, in “Just Around the Corner”, the only black guy that has any part other than singing and dancing is Bill Robinson. To those who have never heard of Bill, he is otherwise known as Bojangles, and was widely considered the greatest entertainer of the day. He surely holds his own with Shirley, in their big number. I don’t have a problem with him singing and dancing. Heck, that is why he and Shirley are in the movie, just like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It's just that his dialogue is so insufferable. At one point, Penny’s father is being sent to Africa, and Bill Robinson is explaining Africa to Penny. I vacillate between being horrified and laughing my head off as I listen to the overtly racist language that Robinson uses to describe the “Dark Continent”. Again, audiences then were not what we would call media savvy, and often bought this garbage hook, line, and sinker.

Although the appeal to violence and the blatant racial stereotypes are bothersome, it is the sexualization of Shirley and some of the other kids that is the most disturbing. All of the children are presented doing adult things. In one scene, Shirley is led into the playroom of these rich kids. Instead of jump rope and jacks, though, they are playing Bridge and sipping coffee around the piano. Another kid is seen constantly chewing on a cigar. Mind you, these kids cannot even be teenagers yet, and I am only giving you a few examples.

Penny does not have a mother in this movie, which, not coincidentally, is the norm for Shirley Temple films. Instead, Penny “takes care” of her father. In this way, she acts remarkably like a wife. There is also the language that is used referring to her, by the other characters. It is not as explicit as language used today, but if you listen closely, it is every bit as sexual. At first I was not really paying attention to the movie, until I heard a few of the comments made by one of the adults who has to deal with Penny. I thought I was hearing things, but as I watched further, I was astounded to hear suggestive comments again and again. Here I had been putting the Thirties down as not too subtle, but they were working double entendres into the dialogue with amazing skill and subtlety. A further inquiry of Shirley Temple movies shows me that this too is the norm.

Once I noticed this, other parts of the movie started to fall into place. Most glaringly is the way Shirley dresses, which is in dresses that would be illegal by any girl over ten. I realize that this was the style for little girls in that era, but you see what I am getting at. They put this adorable little girl, who talks and sounds just like a grown woman, and is treated like a sexual being, at least latently, with the language. To top it all off, they dress her like a little girl with her short little dress. Subconsciously this can present quite the lascivious image.

Now, at this point, I am sure some of you are questioning my sanity. Heck, that’s nothing new; I question it all the time. However, that does not change what was going on in this movie. The proof is in the pudding. If you don’t believe me, watch it yourself.

What is clear to me is that sexualization of young girls may be an American problem, but it is certainly not a new one. Today's media may be more overt and blatant, but I am not sure that makes them worse. When you see Britney Spears half naked singing “ I’m not that innocent”, you know pretty much what she means. But when Shirley Temple, in her short little dress that does not quite hide her underwear sings “The Good Ship Lollypop” it is a little bit murkier, if you know what I mean. If you do, let me know.

Until then,

February 17, 2001


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