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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Shirley Temple’s The Littlest Rebel: No One Gets Out Clean

Posted by Aaron Bady on 10/23/08 at 10:58 AM

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. and if you watch the film, you get drawn into it.

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.


Haven’t seen The Littlest Rebel.  But it’s odd that you subtitle your post “No One Gets Out Clean”.  Is that even possible, to get out clean?  If not possible, isn’t this desire for subverted cleanliness itself a sort of guilty fetish?  What you call interpellation seems to translate into a feeling that the movie forced you to enjoy it in a way that you don’t like.

I’m not trying to criticize this post in a negative sense; I think it’s a very good post.  But there seems to be a feeling among academics in particular that by identifying something like sexism they can therefore make themselves immune to it.  I vaguely remember a thread somewhere in which a number of academics were asked what their guilty pleasure was.  None of them said porn, of course.  That was undoubtedly a good move, career-wise, but it didn’t seem very likely to me to be actually true.

There’s some interesting writing by BDSM feminists that I’ve read in which they go on about how they agonized and agonized over whether the source of their desires was intrinsic (and therefore not their fault) or extrinsic (sourced in patriarchy, basically).  They mostly seem to decide that it doesn’t matter, that they have those desires whatever the cause, and that now they have to deal with them—and that what matters most is consent within actual relationships, not the content of desire.  If you think that sexual fantasy is innately harmless, it’s even possible to agree with Dworkin that pornography is mostly reduceable to rape fantasy, disagree about its effects, and still experience porn if it’s been produced in conditions that you approve of.

I’m not sure what I think about all of this, but I’ve also seen some feminists go on and on about how they are trying to eradicate those socially imposed but unacceptable desires from themselves.  That solution seems to me to be a bit narcissistic.  Is endless internal work on the perfectable, scrubbably clean self really helping anybody?

So I’d say that it’s good critical work to identify what this movie is doing.  But at the end, if you find that after you’re done analyzing it, you “find yourself enjoying it”—is that something that you have to do something about?

By on 10/23/08 at 12:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s well put. I do have “a feeling that the movie forced you to enjoy it in a way that you don’t like” and I’m sure my own personal neuroses play into the ways I framed the post. I definitely feel the urge to “become immune” to the thing and I don’t know any way to do it besides the “endless internal work on the perfectable, scrubbably clean self,” even while I’m aware of the problems with that narrative (which even The Littlest Rebel tropes on at points). Which is another way of saying: I recognize things in myself I don’t like, and would like to change, even as I lack the means to do it. I think you’re right to flag this as a particular kind of problem in certain critical circles, especially when such people are prone to the delusion that they’ve succeeded, but for me the problem remains even without the delusion: one can recognize the problem with being “dirty” (racist/sexist) even if you also see the problems in the various ways we theorize being “clean.” That’s why I like the phrasing “no one gets out clean” better than “everyone gets dirty”: the former doesn’t pretend to know the meaning of the word “dirty.” And I ended the post on a question mark because I don’t either.

The especially tricky thing about this kind of discourse—the tradition I’d want to make out of sentimental literature as it translates into the long string of Shirley Temple/Bill Robinson movies—is that it is so firmly premised on affect and so very good at doing it. You cannot not react to Shirley Temple in blackface, but while ignoring it (or forgetting the tradition of minstrelsy in Hollywood) is clearly problematic, there also doesn’t seem to me to be a clear way one should react to it, and if you watch the movie, you’re actually forced to react. I was affected, but I think most people would be, and part of that is due to the movie. So even behind whatever personal dilemma I might have imbued the post with, what I find so interesting about these kinds of movies is that while we’ve definitely outgrown the strategies of the old sentimental novel (who cries reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin the way Stow tries to choreograph it?), Shirley Temple has a kind of affect that we haven’t outgrown. And our responses to blackface are different, but we still are affected by it, in ways I genuinely don’t know how to address; after all, what are we to make of Bill Robinson’s artistry when he dances with Shirley Temple? I want to answer that question, but I don’t like the answers I come up with. But maybe my refrain of “I don’t know” is a different kind of defense mechanism? I don’t know…

By on 10/23/08 at 03:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I hope I’m not commenting too much or with too little consideration, but there still seems to be a contradiction, or something I’m not understanding, about your two paragraphs above.  In the first you write “I’m sure that my own personal neuroses play into the ways I framed the post.” But that seems to be a lead-up to claiming that the movie has a fairly universal effect on most people. I have certain doubts about whether this reaction is actually universal—I think that your studies may have sensitized you to see certain things in the movie that other people wouldn’t react to because they just wouldn’t pay attention—but let’s assume that it’s universal.  So, *no one* gets out clean.  Or, from the second paragraph, “if you watch the movie, you’re actually forced to react.”

But that elides the whole difference between action and fantasy that is the most common answer to Dworkin, doesn’t it?  In short, you seem to be saying that the movie performs a sort of monstrous re-enactment in real life of its central themes: “if you watch the movie, you’re actually forced to react.” In other words, the movie more or less rapes its viewers and makes them like it, therefore embodying the same fantasy that it promulgates.

One obvious way to get out of the endlessly perfectible scrub is to recognize that the communication of ideas, of emotion, is a fundamentally different thing than action.  The movie can’t make your mind clean or dirty, because minds don’t get clean or dirty.  If you want to rephrase “clean” as meaning “not having any desires that I’d rather not have”, then the only way to be clean without endless scrubbing is to close down your perceptions, to not watch these kind of movies, to screen out anything that might encourage some hidden or acculturated unwanted predisposition.  The endless scrub becomes the endless filter.

So, your question is how should you react to it.  As a critic, you certainly should point out that the movie seems to cause this reaction.  But as a person reacting without action—why do you need to police your reactions, in particular?  Let’s say that despite your intellectual understanding of racism and sexism, you found yourself enjoying the racist and sexist fantasy in the movie.  So what?

By on 10/23/08 at 04:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know whether or not you’ve seen the Ken Burns jazz series, Aaron, but I believe that Burns lingered longer on a photo of Louis Armstrong in blackface (as King of the Zulus at Mardi Gras) than on any other photo (I clocked it at 6 seconds). I believe, in fact, that Burns used that photo in a manipulative way, counting on our aversion to that grotesque image from (I believe) 1954 to lull us into believing that we’re beyond all that now. But that’s not quite what I’m getting at.

Looking at, and thinking about, that image, I concluded that Armstrong was from a time and a place that I don’t understand, and the fact that he’s black and I’m white is only part of it. Being chosen King of the Zulus was an honor for him, and he appreciated that honor. At the same time, he too was a bit creeped out about the blackface make-up. There was nothing in Burns’s documentary about that, but I read a letter of Armstrong’s in which he talked about the make-up (I don’t think the letter had been published when Burns did the series).

So, yeah, there’s strange stuff, uncanny stuff, going on here. I don’t think I’ve seen this movie, but I’ve seen one or three Temple-Robinson clips on YouTube and countless clips of black tappers on films prior to WWII. It is easy, I dare say “natural,” to admire Robinson’s style. But how do you distinguish an admiration that frames his dancing as “natural rhythm” from an admiration that frames it as “a human accomplishment achieved through hard work”?

By Bill Benzon on 10/23/08 at 04:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"As a critic, you certainly should point out that the movie seems to cause this reaction.”

Looking back at my own comment, I think that I understated this.  As a moral critic, you can certainly condemn the movie for causing this reaction.  It’s quite possible to watch Triumph of the Will (oh no, Godwin), admire it technically, even be stirred by some of the scenes, and then condemn it for stirring people towards fascism.

And there’s an aesthetic element in this critique, too.  The effects that you’re describing seem to come under the general heading commonly known as “cheap”.  I haven’t seen the tap dancing, so I won’t comment on that, but you describe a novel “in which the adolescent protagonist is metaphorically threatened with rape when a bad guy tries to take hold of the horse she’s riding”.  Well, that’s sure to disturb.  It’s a cheap effect.  Even without a high / low culture distinction, it’s quite possible to criticize the aesthetics of a work that relies on cheap effects.

By on 10/23/08 at 04:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Exactly, and that’s a great note. And what’s really hard to get a grip on is the relationship between Robinson’s dancing with Shirley Temple (which is constantly replaying Uncle Tom’s Cabin in different ways) and his work as an artist in other contexts, say in which he does the same sort of moves but doesn’t do them opposite Temple.

Thanks for your response. I suppose the simplest answer (before I get long and ponderous) is that the way I frame the post I wrote is not the same as my understanding of what the Shirley Temple movie is. The closer you get to any text you find repulsive, the shock of recognition might show you something ugly within yourself which is specific to you, but the larger problem of what to do with such texts in general seems to me to be a general critical problem. And in that sense, re-emphasizing the boundary between critic and text (or the between thought and action) is a strong counterargument—and you nicely juxtapose the relationship between paradigms of critical reading and the problem of pornography more generally—but it doesn‘t solve that problem for me, it just defers it.

Partly, this may simply be a philosophical difference, but I really don’t think we live in a world where “the whole difference between action and fantasy” is something we can always clearly observe (and I don‘t want to put words in your mouth), but I think when we do, in this kind of discussion, we do so at the cost of blinding ourself to vitally important considerations about how literature works. For example, you say that “It’s quite possible to watch Triumph of the Will, admire it technically, even be stirred by some of the scenes, and then condemn it for stirring people towards fascism,” but if you locate the fault in the movie itself, then you need to presume the difference between the “critic” who can experience a thing but somehow police himself from being controlled by it (a kind of scrubbing paradigm, too, no?), and “people” who lack that ability. But—and here’s the part where I put on my poststructuralist face—I just don’t think the text is in the text: I think we respond to Triumph of the Will to the extent that a part of us finds that kind of narrative attractive. Now, most of us don’t find it attractive; these days, it’s very easy to resist the blandishments of Nazi propaganda (and so we tend to talk about Triumph all the time) and Sontag called the photography Riefenstahl did later in her career evidence of her fascist aesthetics, but you can do that because it’s so very easy to disavow fascism as it’s identified with WWII, and it‘s very easy to flag someone like Riefenstahl, who literally was a Nazi propagandist, with that label (and the industry of sexualized colonialist nostalgia photography of is huge, much larger than Riefenstahl, and tends not to be flagged as such because it isn‘t linked to such a blatant form of racism). Which is to say, the really dangerous texts are the ones that speak to desires we have that we can’t so easily control, and especially the ones that are socially acceptable. It is not socially acceptable to say anything good about Hitler, and when “Joe the Plumber” told Katie Couric that Barrack Obama [url="http://www.politico.com/blogs/bensmith/1008/Joe_speaks.html"]tap-danced
[/url] around the question like Sammy Davis, Jr, he got some flak for it, because people that caught the reference pretty much understand that blackface is a Very Bad Thing. But Joe the plumber wasn’t brainwashed by Shirley Temple movies; tap-dancing is a code word for a particular racist worldview, and while that racist worldview doesn‘t need Shirley Temple movies to exist, those movies don‘t work without it. The problem, then, is not in the movies, it’s in the viewer, and one doesn‘t solve it by criticizing the text. 

But, and here’s the point, you also don’t solve it by absolving the text itself of any responsibility. It’s possible to vastly overstate the case for literature’s power to control our minds, and I don‘t want to do that either: Stowe might think about the literary power of sympathy as “embodying the same fantasy that it promulgates,” a kind of rape that its subject learns to regard as love, but I don‘t have to agree with her in the specifics. Clearly something like that is going with a lot of writers like her, and the tradition of Christian thinking that conceptualizes conversion as a kind of forced love didn’t begin in the 19th century (think John Donne‘s Sonnet 14 addressed to God: “Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me”), even though reading her through that lens—trying to get into her head and understand what she was trying to accomplish—doesn‘t mean I agree with her about the power of her text in its specific form. Yet on the other hand, and I hope this won’t seem like a contradiction, neither does it mean I have to go to the other extreme and block off the effect that (for lack of a better term) “powerful” texts can have on people. Propaganda works, and the things we read and consume do have effects on who we are as people, and while we can systematically blind ourselves to the power such texts have on us by flattering our critical capacities, I find the fact that “despite [my] intellectual understanding of racism and sexism, [I] found [myself] enjoying the racist and sexist fantasy in the movie” to be both disturbing on a personal level, and a problem for how I conceptualize my engagement with texts more generally. It’s not just that there is an ugly part of me that I can now see and think about better (because if that were all, then such a text serves a purpose in bringing it out), but the idea that such a text has the ability to make that part of me even uglier is an even more disturbing possibility, isn‘t it? 

In a way I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too, I suppose, to say that literature both does and doesn’t have a certain power over us. But that’s pretty much what I think. It’s a very, very slippery slope, and I don’t really know how to get a firm footing on it, but there seems to me to be a lot of space between “hate speech” and “protected political speech” that we simply don’t have a firm grasp on, and that idea that we should be better critics just gives the problem a name rather than solving it. So I don’t think I’m contradicting myself in saying that literature might not have the power to ravish us and force us to love it, but that we should also find ways to respect the power that it does have, a power that is no less real because it’s located in our own hidden desires.

By on 10/24/08 at 01:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Aaron—Have you thought of reading Temple and Robinson as a variation on Huck and Jim?

You might want to take a look at some of the commentary that’s been written about the one classic Warner Brothers cartoon that may never be reissued, “Coal Black and de Sebben’ Dwarfs.”


It keeps showing up on YouTube as fast as it gets taken down. As the title suggests, it’s a satire of Disney’s famous first feature. It’s very good and it’s built on really nasty racial stereotypes.

(Come to think of it, in the mid-1930s Down Beat magazine was able to praise Benny Goodman for being the first white bandleader to hire a black musician (pianist Teddy Wilson) while at the same time referring to that musician as “boy.")

By Bill Benzon on 10/24/08 at 02:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Again, Aaron, I should probably think a while longer before responding, but there were a couple of immediate things:

“if you locate the fault in the movie itself, then you need to presume the difference between the “critic” who can experience a thing but somehow police himself from being controlled by it (a kind of scrubbing paradigm, too, no?), and “people” who lack that ability”

There I don’t agree.  The critic isn’t saying that he or she was unmoved; on the contrary, the critic is reporting that the movie seems to likely to have a particular emotional effect based on the effect that it had on them.  And the critic is not presenting him or herself as having a unique or trained ability not to translate desire into action; everyone is presumed to have that ability, at least to some degree. Otherwise, Dworkin is right, and we should ban everything that would be objectionable if people translated it into action.

But you can still dislike particular emotional effects.  People do so all the time, saying that a movie is too sickeningly sweet, or relies on sudden shocks of gore, or—as in this case—calls on sentiment for a particularly bad cultural/political purpose. 

But for the rest, I don’t have any easy answers.  Propaganda works, yes, and systems like racism exist within social power structures, within individual people’s heads, and within works of art all at once.

I don’t want to enact the syndrome of “guy reads feminist’s work and then doesn’t link to her blog”, so I’m going to link to the most recent post from what I think is a good blog, here.  I found it because I was looking for feminist responses to this kind of thing.  As the post points out, there are dangers in the direction of making these connections too strongly.  (I hope that connecting two blogs like this doesn’t lead to flames in either direction.  I most emphatically am not trying to imply that anyone here is a “whiny academic”, and in the other direction, if someone has problems with SM, I’d really rather you didn’t go flame their blog.)

By on 10/24/08 at 02:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I like your article quite a bit, but I do question some comments you made in a follow-up comment.

“Tap dancing” is a code word (phrase) for a particular racist world view? Really? That simply? When I think of tap dancing I think of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Rita Hayworth as well as Sammie Davis Jr. and Bill Robinson. I don’t think tap dancing is inextricably linked to blackface.

The expression “tap dancing around the truth” doesn’t strike me as having racist overtones. I realize Joe mentioned Sammie Davis Jr., so perhaps one could infer something about the state of his soul, but I think it goes too far to state that “tap dancing” itself is a code phrase. At least it’s not to me or, I believe, my friends.

I have no idea if Joe is racist or not, but if I have to stop liking _An American in Paris_—well, damn.

By on 10/24/08 at 03:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Fair enough; I was both hasty and brief in that statement. That said, I would stand behind a less strong version of the argument. I can‘t imagine a scenario in which John McCain was accused of tap-dancing around the question like Fred Astaire, and it’s the reference to Sammy Davis Jr that makes the thrust of the assertion clear, to me anyway. I’ll grant you that watching Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple might have rendered me hyper-sensitive, but it also doesn’t mean I’m wrong to say that in that context the reference to “tap-dancing“ has far more to do with Bojangles than An American in Paris, which you have my official permission to enjoy. 

The comparison with Huck and Jim is interesting; I wonder if it could be a way of testing the limitations of the Leslie Fiedler reading of American romance? I can’t recall if he talks about Little Eva and Uncle Tom in Love and Death, but my first impression is that their relationship (and that between Temple and Robinson) seems interestingly different in the ways they put on blackface. Huck can use Jim’s dialect but Twain gets to write that as a way of both adopting a kind of ethnographic authority (which he then satirizes); Ishmael gets to go savage, but then he floats to safety on Queequeg’s coffin, and Hawkeye gets to have a kind of authoritative knowledge of Indians as a way of killing them. In each case, the American black/white pair is a very masculine duo, and a masculinity that gets performed in a very frontier sense. But Temple and Robinson (and Tom and Eva) don’t really map onto that frontier romance model; both seem premised on a kind of house-divided political dilemma for which domesticity can be the answer. I think people like Amy Kaplan are right to argue that manifest destiny and domesticity aren’t unrelated, but they also aren’t the same things, and these kinds of narratives do seem to be using those separate ideologies to address differently structured problems.

You wrote: “The critic isn’t saying that he or she was unmoved; on the contrary, the critic is reporting that the movie seems to likely to have a particular emotional effect based on the effect that it had on them.  And the critic is not presenting him or herself as having a unique or trained ability not to translate desire into action; everyone is presumed to have that ability, at least to some degree. Otherwise, Dworkin is right, and we should ban everything that would be objectionable if people translated it into action.”

I wouldn’t really disagree with anything in that statement, and thinking through the reason why (while reading the article you linked) makes me think that maybe I’m simply unsatisfied with the “is propaganda good or is it bad?“ style of argument, in the same way “Trinity” at that blog is with the “is porn good or is it bad?” style of argument that most discussions of Dworkin tend towards. When the discussion tends towards absolutes (where we have a choice between banning everything that would be objectionable if people translated it into action and making absolutely everything into protected speech) we manage to lose the thing that is most crucial: a real discussion of how and to what ends a text manages to have influence over the world we live in, and why. We run the risk of living in a world in which either everything is allowed or nothing is permitted, or, even worse, where both are true. Dworkin’s argument needs to be taken seriously, but so does the counter-argument, but asking whether a thing is “good” or “bad” almost predetermines that we will do one or the other.

And maybe that’s why watching Shirley Temple movies and taking them seriously still seems like a useful thing to do; not only are they unquestionably racist—and unless we think we can scrub ourselves clean or abstemiously avoid being polluted by them in the first place, ignoring them accomplishes nothing—they are an interesting kind of racism that foregrounds its own affect as such. To put it another way, like sentimental literature as a genre more generally, the ways these movies use “performance” to present racist tropes also presents race as a kind of project and a performance, and it might not be going to far to say that blackface is often a theorization of racism that tracks its limitations in useful ways. Nothing is more typical of blackface performances than that rictus smile that both Temple and Robinson affect, for example, and yet (as a clever friend recently pointed out to me) nothing is quite so obvious an expression of abjectness, exactly the sort of thing that most apologias of slavery tried to obscure. In some ways Bojangles is the very epitome of the yassa massah Unlce Tom, and yet, at the same time, his dancing makes such a caricature out of that happy darkey image as to tear it apart, like what (as another clever friend recently reminded me of) Ralph Ellison called “yessing them to death.” There are limitations to that strategy (which Invisible Man traces out) but it is a strategy, an active submission, and maybe these movies can help us explore that as such (the ways Louis Armstrong understood blackface as a kind of honor, however ambiguous). But doing so has risks too, and I’d want to be really, really careful with being too sure that one can play with fire without getting burned; not that you said that, of course, but I’d say that’s the source of my anxiety the more I work with this material: the real danger seems to be not oversensitivity but self-satisfied complacency.

By on 10/25/08 at 11:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a chapter on Bill Robinson in Marshall & Jean Stearns, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance, quite a bit on tap dancing in general, and, naturally, a chapter on Astaire (and chapters on many others).

As for Huck and Jim, I was thinking more of Toni Morrison’s take that Leslie Fiedler’s - Jim as nurturing parent to Huck. Given your reading of the film, it might come out as using the nurturing role as a denial of the rapist. And then we have Disney’s Uncle Remus.

By Bill Benzon on 10/25/08 at 12:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

the ways Louis Armstrong understood blackface as a kind of honor, however ambiguous

The honor was in being chosen King of the Zulus. Blackface is what came as a consequence of the honor. Blackface makeup was standard for black minstrel performers after the Civil War and it continued on into the 20th century in certain limited contexts.

By Bill Benzon on 10/25/08 at 12:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

RE: King of the Zulus, I of course don’t really know what I’m talking about, but would question whether you can really distinguish the honor from the blackface that came with it, especially since it already involves a kind of dressing up as an objectified version of blackness (last year, as I recall, they actually brought some Zulus from South Africa to take part in the festivities). I don’t say that to damn it, but to suggest that blacking up is part of a larger continuum of racial performances, and the good and the bad aren’t clearly distinguishable.

As for Temple and Morrison, that’s useful. And maybe making Jim or Robinson into a nurturing parent does displace the idea of the rapist (in this case, onto the Yankee soldiers) by making black men either servile and old (Robinson) or incredibly passive and enervated (Fetchit, who has a smaller role). It reminds me, though, of a blogpost I just read hereat Sociological Images, on the wearisome persistance of the black character whose “main role is to facilitate the moral development of the white character through their wise advice and unending patience.”

By on 10/26/08 at 05:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, it’s certainly a performance of objectified blackness. And Armstrong knew a great deal about such performances as he’d being doing all kinds of such, on the stage and in movies, not to mention real life. But I make the distinction because Armstrong himself made such a distinction in the letter he wrote to one Betty Jane Holder in 1952, though not explicitly. Armstrong was a prolific and highly skilled writer of letters; and the passage where he describes getting made up deserves a close reading. The make-up was applied to him while he was asleep, yadda yadda… and he notes that Earl Hines (his pianist) did a double-take when he saw him in the make-up. Armstong’s letters are fascinating documents, some published in Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words (Thomas Brothers, ed. Oxford U Press 1999).

....the black character whose “main role is to facilitate the moral development of the white character through their wise advice and unending patience.”

Yep, that’s the character. Robinson played with Temple in four films and coached her in others. Such a pairing is heavily loaded with ideological freight.

By Bill Benzon on 10/26/08 at 05:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi, I have a chapter of The Female Complaint called “Poor Eliza” that’s partly about Shirley Temple’s *Dimples*, have you seen it?  Wait till you see how it parcels out the adorable-sexualization of Temple and her racialization, as here all connected to demands that she and Af-Am subjects *perform*.  Nice post! LB

By supervalentthought on 11/19/08 at 01:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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