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Sunday, Jan 16, 2022

Shirley Temple and the Optimistic Orphan Trope

If I were to survey fellow members of our Middlebury community about the origins of the optimistic orphan trope in American popular culture, those adept in literary illusions would likely point to Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist while those versed in American film would likely point  to the musical Annie. The latter 1982 American classic film and its 2014 remake tell the story of little girl named Annie whose parents abandoned her at a New York orphanage during the Great Depression leaving only a locket and a letter articulating their intention to return for their darling girl in better times. Annie’s life trajectory is permanently altered when a wealthy Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks (a not-so-subtle aside to the reality that capitalists accumulate wealth from the wartime bloodshed of labor) offers her salvation from poverty and orphanhood, agreeing to adopt Annie as his daughter. The film’s conflict is established when Mr. Warbucks attempts to search for the orphan’s parents and fraudulent couples, in desperation, attempt to fabricate their relation to the abandoned orphan child. Conflict is resolved when Annie’s parents are pronounced dead and she is adopted into a new family. This is the trope of the orphan girl using her optimism to overcome obstacles.  

Yet anyone who traces the origins of the optimistic orphan to Annie is a man with a muckrake whose preoccupation with the manure of contemporary media culture distracts him from the shining child star overhead who redefined the meaning of celebrity and stardom in American popular culture history: Shirley Temple.  

[pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]If you have strength of character, optimism and self-reliance, you too can be as happy as Shirley.[/pullquote]

At the height of her fame, 19 men were employed full-time to write movie scripts to help America’s princess lift the spirit of the country out of the mire of the Depression. The basic plot for a Shirley Temple film was to present Shirley’s character to the audience, kill off her parents, attach the orphan to a middle-aged man, establish conflict through a custody battle, and allow Shirley’s delightful dancing, charming singing, and infectious optimism to resolve the conflict, ending the story on a high note. At least 15 Shirley Temple films, including Bright Eyes (’34), Curly Top (’35), Dimples (’36), Heidi (’37), and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms (’38), follow this plot. The theme was always the same: if you have strength of character, optimism and self-reliance, you too can be as happy as Shirley.  

Deeply entangled in the trope of the optimistic orphan is the myth of the normal child; the notion that all children are resilient and easily recover from hardship. With her darling dimples, porcelain skin and golden curls, America’s princess gave the myth of the normal child a charming face. Telling the story that all children could be as happy as Shirley if they just kept believing in capitalism and the American dream functioned as “a real tonic” in 1930s America. Modern critics lavish her as an American cultural icon, saying, “[she was] what we wanted to believe America represented, what we wanted to believe the United States represented.” Yet others critique these simplified narratives of using one’s optimism to overcome obstacles, suggesting that this storytelling fulfilled America’s hunger for escapist entertainment by enabling them to “actively distract themselves in lavish fantasy worlds.” Mostly notably, FDR has reportedly said of Temple, “as long as we have Shirley Temple, we will be alright.” From the poor house to the White House, Shirley was truly America’s little girl.  

As we celebrate Women’s History Month this March, I would like to take the time to consider how Shirley Temple Black’s lifetime achievement in acting and performance redefined the role of women on the silver screen. Scholars often trace the origin of the girl hero to Shirley. Yet the reality that Shirley’s stardom was used to sell products, politics, and ideologies is extremely complicated. Thus, I invite you to join me as we consider how Shirley Temple Black’s childhood acting career and adult career in politics has shaped the American popular imagination about what it means to be a girl.