What Can We Learn From the Life of Shirley Temple?

One of the most successful child stars in film history has died. Is there anything we can learn from Shirley Temple’s extraordinary 85 years of life?

On Feb. 11 Americans woke up to the news that Shirley Temple Black had died at the age of 85. Shirley Temple is considered by many to be the most popular movie star in film history and an icon of a bygone age.

But for anyone under the age of 40, the name Shirley Temple may mean nothing more than a nonalcoholic drink served to children at restaurants!

So who was Shirley Temple, and what can her life teach us today in 2014?

The original child star

Shirley Temple was, perhaps, the first real child star. She was born in 1928 and began acting at the age of 3 in low-budget films. Her natural showmanship, blond curls and attractive, wholesome appearance drew people to her, and her popularity continued to rise the more she performed. She received a movie contract from Fox at the age of 6 and began to make high-profile Hollywood films. A 6-year-old receiving a Hollywood contract is extraordinary even by today’s standards!

In fact, from 1935 to 1938, Shirley Temple was the most popular actress in America—drawing more viewers to her films than any other Hollywood star! She was between the ages of 6 and 10 years old throughout this time period! Consider the other iconic actors who were working in that era—Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis and Judy Garland.

Her popularity between those years must be understood in its historical context. In the 1930s America was crippled by the Great Depression. Millions of Americans were out of work, many losing their homes and their hope.

Shirley Temple brought a sense of positivity to people’s lives through her movies. Her dimpled smile, optimistic personality and lively dancing attracted a depressed American public. Her movies often reflected themes of the Great Depression, as she often played orphaned or poverty-stricken characters whose positive outlook and outgoing personality helped raise them out of bad circumstances.

As we remember the life and honor the legacy of Shirley Temple Black, Americans should think of her as a symbol of innocence and wholesomeness that has been lost in today’s culture. My mother (who watched her movies as a child) said this about her impression of the films: “The situations were not always great—her dad dies, her dad is wounded in the Civil War and lost in a hospital, or she gets put in an orphanage—but it always ends positively. She endures through her little trials. That seemed to be the theme of many of the movies. She also had good relationships with the servants and blacks in the movies, during a time when racial integration was unheard of [Shirley Temple’s character was the first white girl to dance with a black man in movie history].”

This was an era when film was often used to promote positive values and uplifting story lines—enduring through difficulties, being happy and positive, and building friendships despite racial differences.

These were the kind of stories America needed during the Great Depression.

In fact, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called her “Little Miss Miracle” because of her ability to make people happy during a depressing time. President Roosevelt is also quoted as saying, “As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right.” It would be an honor to have a U.S. president say that about anyone—let alone an 8-year-old girl!

Her life after “growing up”

As all childhood stars do, Shirley Temple grew up. Though she continued to act in films during her teens and early 20s, she was never able to maintain her top Hollywood status after she grew out of her adolescent years. With the advent of television, her films gained renewed popularity with the youth of the Baby Boomer generation.

What Shirley Temple Black did with the rest of her life is unique for a childhood actor. She gave her life back to her country in service. From 1969 to 1992, she served in various positions of public service, including being part of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations and being appointed U.S. ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

She was not only a talented actress in her youth, but also an intelligent adult woman who continued to make contributions to her country until she retired.

Where are the “Shirley Temples” today?

Shirley Temple Black’s death should make us ponder where we have gone as a culture in the last 70 or 80 years. Today, the wholesome images and themes of Shirley Temple’s movies are almost nonexistent in Hollywood. It is common today to see vulgar behavior and sexual overtones in movies that are made for children. Our child stars today, instead of projecting a wholesome image, are sexualized from a very young age. It is undeniable that young stars have a strong influence on young girls to dress in a way that emphasizes sensuality.

Consider some of today’s top female musicians: Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Beyonce Knowles, Britney Spears, etc. These are all talented young women who use sexuality—not merely their exceptional vocal chords—to sell their brand. They contribute almost nothing positive or wholesome through what they produce. The same goes for many male stars as well, such as Justin Bieber, Drake, Robin Thicke, Eminem and Kanye West. They often express sensual and violent themes in different ways.

How many young stars today grow out of their youth and then contribute to society in positive ways? Not many. Instead, we read and watch the almost continual self-destruction of young stars like Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez into a vortex of drug use, promiscuity, bizarre behavior and legal problems.

A lesson for today

As we remember the life and honor the legacy of Shirley Temple Black, Americans should think of her as a symbol of innocence and wholesomeness that has been lost in today’s culture. We should consider the state of our youth today—what they view as entertainment, the celebrities they model themselves after and how they act and dress—and consider how destructive these influences are.

This is primarily a message to parents and young people to extract themselves from the sensuality and impurities of today’s culture.

Parents: Don’t allow your children to look to sexualized celebrities as role models or dress in ways that emphasize sensuality. Help your children be wholesome human beings who grow up respecting themselves, others and, most importantly, God.

Young people: Don’t be taken in by the messages of today’s culture. Stand out as a person of character who lives and dresses in a way that is respectful of yourself, others and, most importantly, God.

We would do well to consider the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16, emphasis added).

To learn more about developing a wholesome lifestyle, read our blog post “3 Lies Every Woman Needs to Stop Believing.”

About the Author

Erik Jones

Erik Jones

Erik Jones is a full-time writer and editor at the Life, Hope & Truth offices in McKinney, Texas.

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