Shirley Temple Continues to Influence Ethnic Literature
Chih-Ping Chen devoted a portion of her recent Alma College
sabbatical to a seemingly unconventional purpose: She watched more than
a dozen Shirley Temple movies.
There was an academic reason behind Chen’s movie viewing. The movies offered insight into Chen’s research on the impact of the 1930s Academy Award-winning child actress on 20th century culture and literature.
“When I began teaching American ethnic literature, I began to see references to Shirley Temple by some authors,” says Chen, an association professor of English at Alma College. “The more I taught, the more I realized this was not accidental. These references project Shirley Temple as an icon of the ideal child — an angel girl — and as a mirror for ethnic girls to compare themselves negatively. The ethnic characters in these stories want to be like Shirley Temple.”
Chih-Ping Chen says of Shirley Temple: "We haven't had a child star of that magnitude" since the Depression.
For example, in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, the heroine feels judged by her mother because she doesn’t have talent like Shirley Temple. In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the heroine longs to have blue eyes like Shirley Temple’s.
“These girls want different parts of the Shirley Temple image, and those characteristics underlie their struggle for identity,” she says.
Writers continue to evoke Shirley Temple more than a half century after her movies were made. Temple’s child star career came to an end, but writers, who grew up under her cultural influence, continue to be inspired — or perhaps haunted — by her cultural influence.
“Her movies were in a different time, during the Great Depression,” says Chen. “Even President Roosevelt told Americans to spend a few pennies and go see the little child because it will ‘make you happy.’ We haven’t had a child star of that magnitude since then.”
Chen is studying how Shirley Temple “embodies America’s industry of the perpetually beloved child” in the first half of the 20th century, and the African-American and Asian American “collective anxiety not only over the racial marginalization” but also over her influence on the development of ethnic girls’ character and personality.
She received a Discovering Vocation grant in fall 2006 to develop a course on “Ethnic Self and American Cultural Ideals.” She also presented a research paper on Shirley Temple in ethnic novels at the joint conference of the National Association of African American Studies, National Association of Hispanic and Latino Studies, National Association of Native American Studies, and International Association of Asian Studies in 2006.
Chen used her Winter 2008 sabbatical to write and research further, including watching Shirley Temple films to take notes on the characterization of minorities and foreigners and the depiction of racial relations. She plans to continue her research this fall at special collection libraries such as the UCLA Film & Television Archives.
She also wants to expand her project to study the influence of Shirley Temple in countries outside the United States, particularly in Taiwan, India, Europe and China.
The Shirley Temple phenomenon lends itself to the recent Summer Olympics when China wanted to project “the perfect child” during the opening ceremonies by substituting a girl with a perfect voice with a girl perceived to be prettier.
“The politics of the image of the child was connected to national pride and identity,” she says.
Chen, originally from Taiwan, came to America in 1990. She earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Posted: Tue, October 7th, 2008 at 3:24PM