Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon

Go away. But come back soon.

What is a girl star and what do we want from her? Shirley Temple and Lindsay Lohan are two girl stars, different in presentation and in historical and industrial context, but both representative of the field of beautiful, talented youth in which they shone. The girl star grows up in the spotlight, but the culture’s gaze becomes impatient as the strangely balanced qualities of precocity and naturalness that made her a child star start to signal adult sex. [1]

The mechanism for this impatience? A clock counting the girl forward to her birthday, ticking away a fallow time. The teen years are a vacuum of meaning: not child, but not woman. They are also a frustration, a time to be gotten through: Go away, but come back. This tale of two girlhoods, Temple’s and Lohan’s, sheds light on what “woman” means in the world of eroticized youth—the moment at which the protective clothing of the law drops away from the girl body—as well as the constrained field in which teen girls voice their own desires and aspirations.

Before Disney began raising flocks of sterile-yet-desirable young people to entertain the nation, but after California had raised the age of consent from sixteen to eighteen in 1913, there was Shirley Temple. Unlike teens and twenty-somethings such as Mary Pickford and Mae Marsh who played girls in the silent era, or the Our Gang (Little Rascals) kids who aged out of their stardom, Temple was a child star who grew up in the public eye. Portraying one adorable orphan after another, Shirley was the perfect star for the 1930s. The natural successor to Dickens’ nineteenth-century waifs, Temple taught Americans that pluck and good cheer guaranteed success in family and finance. The end of a Shirley Temple film finds her installed in a middle-class family every time. This plot trajectory leads Lori Merish to describe Temple as a model commodity that “generates an appropriative desire to ‘rescue’ the cute object by resituating it within a properly loving and appreciative (i.e., affectionally normative) family context.” [2] But if child stars like Temple are the perfect form of one sort of commodity, teen stars are neither here (cute) nor there (sexually available); instead, they stand poised between one market and another.

Temple was also the perfect star for the Hays Code era that began in the mid-1930s, when Hollywood instituted a regime of self-censorship as a way of avoiding government intervention.  If the films of the late 1920s and early 1930s offered shimmering close-ups of sex symbols Clara Bow, Jean Harlow, and the self-ironizing Mae West, Temple films like Curly Top (1935) and Dimples (1936) lingered instead on the spectacular cuteness of a child’s rounded face. But here’s the thing, Temple couldn’t stay a child forever. No star can.

When Shirley Temple became a teen, the love she’d inspired from adults, children, critics and theater owners dried up. Motion Picture Herald’s regular column “What the Pictures Did for Me” printed small-town theater owners’ letters about how different films performed.  When Temple became a teen, the message was clear: go away. One letter put it this way: “Yes, Shirley, go to college and when you graduate we will look you over.”[3]

Although reviews of the child Temple’s films had never mistaken them for high art, they always praised the actress for bringing star power to the weakest of storylines. But the New York Times, which had granted Temple’s excellence even while grumbling over her films’ thin plots, turned against the actress as she entered puberty. For example, Shirley bears the brunt of the critic’s distaste for Miss Annie Rooney (1942), a film publicized as containing the actress’s first kiss.[4] The reviewer describes it as “a very grim little picture.” Part of the problem with the film is Shirley’s age:

Gone are the days of the toddling tot, the days of milk-teeth and tonsils. Instead, we now see a Miss Temple in the awkward age between the paper-doll and sweater-girl period, an adolescent phenomenon who talks like a dictionary of jive and combines this somehow with quotations from Shakespeare and Shaw. She even is allowed to register slight comprehension when young Dickie Moore—tchk, tchk!—places a tentative peck on her left cheek. Miss Temple seemed impressed, the folk in the Rivoli balcony just depressed.

The review ends by asking, “Meanwhile, couldn’t Miss Temple be kept in school for just a little while?”[5] Like the theater owners, the film critics also suggested putting Temple away for a while.

Here’s another anecdote about a teen girl and her public. Some sixty years later, another phenomenally talented minor’s teenage years inspired a fan response likewise characterized by impatience. When Disney star Lindsay Lohan was an adolescent, she inspired a frenzy of birthday countdowns which culminated in a Rolling Stone cover for her eighteenth declaring her “Hot, ready and legal!” The star struck a pinup pose for the cover: arms behind her head, mouth open in naughty pleasure, famous red hair whipped by a wind machine. Sex with Lindsay, the cover indicated, was now officially on the table.

The context of the cover was Rolling Stone’s annual “Hot” issue, which includes their “hot list” for the year, including a roundup of cultural influencers, products and trends. In the 2004 issue led by Lohan, The Killers are the hot band, Dane Cook the hot comedian, and Maria Sharapova the hot athlete (“like Anna Kournikova, if Anna were younger, taller, thinner and actually won from time to time”).[6] The issue blurs the encomium’s various connotations, as the sexually attractive, the trendy, and the commercially successful (Sparks’ caffeinated malt liquor) mix promiscuously across the pages.

The Lohan article merges the three meanings into one. As the cover indicates, Lindsay is now officially ready to circulate: a commodity this issue of Rolling Stone is bringing fully to market. Mark Binelli’s profile of the actress is remarkably aware and toes the line between exploiting the actress’s sexual appeal and commenting on the phenomenon. The article’s first line: “Lindsay Lohan has been eighteen for just under a week when she tells me her breasts are real.”[7] Binelli goes on to describe the buildup to her birthday as simultaneously pervy and natural: “There comes a time in the life of every teenage girl who works for the DisneyCorp. when that girl realizes she has suddenly—how shall we phrase this?—’broadened her appeal.’”

The broadening precedes the availability. The other “Hot List” covers mostly, though not exclusively, feature attractive women—Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Love Hewett, Lisa Bonet, Angelina Jolie—but the Lohan cover is unique in its acknowledgment of a minor’s sexual appeal when it announces Lindsay “ready and legal.” The Rolling Stone cover culminates a year of widely discussed impatience with the actress’s girlhood that had begun around the time of Lohan’s 2003 film Freaky Friday. Instead of telling Lindsey Lohan to disappear until she was “of age,” the magazines, websites, and fraternity houses of 2004 kept her firmly in their sights and posted countdown timers, tracking the days until the child star would be legally available for sexual use.

Lohan was not the only star from the period to receive this treatment. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen also celebrated their eighteenth that year and inspired a similar frenzy of clocks, with at least seven websites devoted to tracking the moment they would become “legal.”[8] Natalie Portman, the star who has been most outspoken about the harm she experienced as an object of sexual attention, had a clock on her teen years that began when she turned thirteen. Her experience is particularly notable because another public figure, GameSpot editor Ryan Davis, created a Natalie Portman clock that was broadly popular.[9] The totality of her teen years took place “on the clock.”

Not many of the 2000s timers remain on the internet. Like the girlhoods they count away, the timers and their websites “expire.” At this moment, one leftover, a countdown to the Olsens’ birthday, lurks in a back corner of the internet. The clock tracking the moment at which “these hotties will be Playboy legal” has run out. Playboy operates as yet another metric here, another magazine that brings sexuality to market, and also clearly sells images of sexy adults, not children. But there’s something of the language of timers, the emphasis on “readiness,” the “Playboy legal,” that makes the magazine, the timers, and all the affiliated discourse so very explicitly commercial: like a countdown to Black Friday, or the annual Toyotathon, the Olsens’ eighteenth birthday is a special, time-limited occasion.[10] It’s Hefner’s magazine as catalogue of the year’s newly available models. 

Like lots of misogynist violence, the countdown timers are relatively boring, entailing no particular talent or creativity in their expression of desire. Anyone with a date in the future can enter the awaited day into a box, upload a photo and create a digital ticker that counts off the days, hours, minutes and seconds.

Although we know what it counts towards, what exactly is a countdown timer wishing away? And what is it that the world of adults assessing Shirley wants to box up and ship off? The Times review of Miss Annie Rooney, which places the actress on a timeline between playing with dolls and being an adult doll, the “sweater girl” embodied by Lana Turner, offers an answer. Among all the things Lana Turner was, she was a pin-up model, which meant her image circulated as a commodity for adults and the US military—appearing on fighter planes and selling war bonds. Her sexy adult image simultaneously dispersed and proliferated across the globe and gave materiality to the abstract (selling bonds through sex). 

In other words, in contrast to frustratingly useless adolescents like Temple and Lohan, Turner and other adult sex icons like Marilyn Monroe were usefull. In her reflections on Monroe’s stardom, feminist scholar Griselda Pollock notes that “[e]xploitation was the essence of Marilyn Monroe—in its positive sense, as ‘full use,’ as well as in its negative sense.”[11] If Marilyn, whose cover image inaugurated Playboy Magazine (without her consent), seemed available for guilt-free circulation, the countdown timers acknowledge that teen girls are not, and instead perform a different form of exploitation, commodifying the wait.  Like any good website, the extant Olsen page has other links to click on. In addition to linking out to a now-defunct Hilary Duff countdown, there are sponsored links, including one for starting an eBay business and two to porn sites. If frustrated by the as-yet unavailable teen star, the user is offered something similar through the website’s targeted advertising.

The ticky-tac nature of a countdown, however, indicates that the wait, even if pleasurably frustrating to the clock watchers, or profitable to website owners, is nonetheless frustrating. The turnover of the last digit from nine to zero is a reminder of legality’s arbitrariness, an obstruction in the form of a row of numbers below the tantalizing image. Faced with an adolescent who is neither baby-doll cute nor sweater-girl available—in a word, jailbait—celebrity birthday coverage presents a complaint: What’s the use of you? What’s the point of you now?

The countdown timers are obviously gross, and articles decrying those bad old days can be counted on to appear whenever an attractive young star turns eighteen.[12] The timers just won’t go away. Like mold in the basement, they’ve grown up from the sleazy 2000s into the “anti-woke” Barstool-Republican culture of the 2020s, which feeds on chaos (Trump is fun!) and opposition to social propriety (some women are too ugly for TV!).[13] But at the same time that contemporary GameSpot hosts laugh appreciatively at the countdown clocks that would get them “cancelled” today,[14] there’s a boom of reconsiderations of 2000s celebrity culture, with the publication of memoirs from two of its most important pop princesses, Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears, as well as Sarah Ditum’s new book Toxic. Certainly, there’s a perverse nostalgic pleasure in saying, my god, weren’t we awful, and it’s fun to hate Justin Timberlake’s smug face, but these shifts also reflect material changes in the media environment, including the discouraging effects of lawsuits against bloggers such as Perez Hilton, as well as the #MeToo-era reckoning with the recent past.

Reconsiderations and the backlash unfold nearly simultaneously on today’s internet, but girl stars remain at the center. The late, great film theorist Richard Dyer once wrote that “the star phenomenon cannot help being also about the person in public. Stars, after all, are always inescapably people in public.”[15] With the staying power of a bad tattoo, the star birthday countdowns that won’t die give their crude accounting of girls and their pending adulthood, what it is to be a teen girl in public.

The countdown timers figure teen girlness as incompletion, the not yet.

The frustrated impatience with teen girlhood says a lot about how we still think about the point of women—availability for heterosexual sex. Importantly, though, this isn’t sex as the teen girl might desire it. Queer theorists have written quite a bit about the relentless march toward a future point of seemingly inevitable heterosexual coupling, and pointed out that because children do not yet participate in heterosexuality and often have strange attachments (to dogs, to cartoons, to inanimate objects), they can represent challenging, queer figures.[16] Nicole Seymour, for example, has written about the culture’s relentless tendency to describe development according to “a classical narrative paradigm–a forward-looking schema with strict criteria for progress and closure, and one that is exceedingly difficult to interrogate, precisely because of its natural appearance.”[17] Despite the pressure on childhood to conform to narratives that end in heterosexual coupling (how many times has a least favorite uncle asked a child about a boyfriend or girlfriend?) children’s desires often exceed the grasp of adults’ boring ideas about sexuality. Indeed, Kathryn Boyd Stockton makes the argument that, “from the standpoint of ‘normal’ adults,” all children are queer: “either ‘homosexual’ (an interesting problem in itself) or ‘not-yet-straight,’ merely approaching the official destination of straight couplehood (and therefore estranged from what it ‘should’ approach).”[18]

Like that bad uncle, the timers are blunt instruments, registering only adult desire for and never the desire of the teen star. None of the clock watchers scrutinizing Lindsay Lohan’s coming availability seemed to imagine that she might, for a time, choose to be partnered with a woman, as she did when she dated Samantha Ronson in 2008. The Samantha Ronson period also represented a moment of control for Lohan and her partner that helped change the celebrity landscape when Ronson sued PerezHilton for defamation, one of several lawsuits that have made online bloggers more circumspect in their gossip. [19] But the timers don’t index the star’s sexual, legal, or even commercial agency. Instead, they simply track her availability.

Perhaps more than expressing a culture that presses childhood forward toward adult heterosexuality, what the countdown timers most clearly indicate is a refusal to believe that teen girls are children at all. The very different media moment of Temple’s aging shows a surprising continuity between the speculation around the sex a teenage Lindsay may or may not have been having and that around the bedroom activities of one of America’s most wholesome child stars. In a press release dated May 2nd 1947 titled “Miss Marker Grows Up,” publicist and celebrity reporter Jack Hirschberg reports on wise-beyond-her-years Shirley Temple:

Shirley Temple tossed a spoonful of sugar into her coffee and sighed audibly:

It’s been a long, long time!”

Miss Temple wasn’t crooning the jitterbug lullaby of the same name. She had reference to her 16 years as ward of the State of California. This period of regimentation is now over, for Shirley turned 18 last week. Now she’s an adult – officially!

The excited officially! is surprisingly like the Lindsay Rolling Stone cover, implying that young Shirley has been an adult in some capacity prior to this moment, and raising the question of where in time her maturity might be located.

Deeper into the press release, the artificiality of eighteen is framed, if not sexually, romantically.

“‘It’s been so silly!’ said Shirley as we breakfasted in the RKO Studio Cafe. ‘Here I am a married woman, yet I’ve had to attend school four hours a day, take an afternoon nap, and ask permission every time I wanted to do anything other than sleep, eat, or breathe.’’’ Shirley’s marriage points to the strangeness of California law, which allowed for marriage with parental consent at any age, while locating the age of majority at 18.[20] Indeed, California law still allows for child marriage. Shirley’s complaint, however, seems to be about the state’s interference in a different system of control that she and the article frame as natural—she had passed, as expected, from the care of her parents to her husband John Agar, and yet she remained  a minor in the eyes of the state.  

When a woman wed in 1945, as Temple did, the expectation was that she’d be taken care of by her new custodian, a husband who would control financial matters. Of course, by the time Lohan achieved her majority, this particular system of treating women as property that circulated from father to husband had largely disappeared. And nobody would have cast Michael Lohan in the role of responsible patriarch! But press devoted to demonstrating the illegitimacy of state protections stayed firmly in place.

What happened gently in Shirley’s case happened more violently and crassly in Lindsay’s. If Shirley Temple was the perfect child star for the late 1930s and 1940s of the Hays Code, Lindsay Lohan was the perfect child star for the naughty aughties, much to her detriment. Despite coming up as Disney star, Lohan and the other teens who shopped with her at Kitson and partied at Le Deux were no longer protected from gossip reporters by the pressure of big studios. Instead, the velour-tracksuit-clad actresses of the early 2000s faced the venomous laptop of Perez Hilton and the paparazzi-feeding scandal mill that was TMZ. In a world of up-skirt photos and blog dissections of messy party nights, one of the only protections for girls like Lohan was their legal age.

But, as a now-infamous interview on the The Tonight Show with Jay Leno demonstrates, powerful men were willing to treat the illegality of sex with minors as a joke or a lie that interfered with the purpose of young women’s beauty, which is to be put to work. On the show, Leno asks about seventeen-year-old Lindsay’s relationship with twenty-four-year-old Wilmer Valderrama. Lindsay giggles and says, “Jay it’s not legal,” to which Jay replies “let’s get him thrown in jail, what do I care?” Although, of course, Jay does care, because pushing past Lindsay’s invocation of the law to get a scoop on her sexual activity makes for good TV.[21]

It was a time of confused expression for young women, which registers in teen Lindsay’s giggle.  In the 2000s exploitation, including self-exploitation, had gone mainstream. After all, the college-aged women who bared their breasts on spring break for Girls Gone Wild or bounced joyfully at the opening of The Man Show (1999-2004) were only a year or two older than teen stars like Lohan. What did those handful of adolescent years matter? Leno, the countdown timers, the actresses themselves, and even classical Hollywood publicists present desire for teen girls as natural and the girls as innocently precocious when it comes to sex and romance. As a result, the age of consent and the idea of protection looked like artifice at best and a trap at worst. 

“Protection” is a messy term, of course. All manner of strange bedfellows bump around under its euphemistic cover. Legislating the desires of minors—for reproductive choice, for gender affirming surgery, for expression of sexual identity—can take up the same language of protection as legislation designed to regulate desires for minors.    

In the Rolling Stone profile for the Hot issue, the reporter asks Lindsay how she feels about making the shift “from child star to sex symbol.” At first, the actress replies, “I don’t think of myself as a sex symbol. It’s weird that people call me that.” When pressed, she revises her initial statement, “I mean, I look up to sex symbols: Madonna, Marilyn Monroe. So it doesn’t bother me if people call me that.” Here, Lindsay wrangles with being someone whom adults have desire for—“It’s weird.” She then goes on to think about what she might want, naming an aspirational identification with adult stars. A shockingly rapid moment of a teen’s education unfolds in this interview, as Lohan recalibrates her sense of self in the context of adult desires. 

How unsurprising, how boring, and how un-titillating, it was, then, when Lindsay posed for Playboy while doing Marilyn cosplay. When I say the Lindsay Lohan Playboy spread is the least sexy thing in the world, unlike her critics at the time, I don’t mean this as shade on Lindsay. The shoot was notoriously expensive (Lindsay commanded one million dollars for the issue), she had to reshoot her images, and there was a general sense that Lohan was already overexposed.[22] As one porn blogger put it, “there was nothing particularly shocking or new about this shoot.”[23] The magazine fails to titillate not because of Lindsay but because of its inevitability: it has all the surprise and shock value of a reunion tour or a Vegas residency. Whatever complex, personal desires young Lindsay Lohan may have had that led her to attach to figures as various as Aaron Carter, Wilmer Valderrama, and Samantha Ronson, in Playboy, a twenty-five-year-old Lindsay moves into the role being of full use. Perhaps the spread fulfills one of Lohan’s desires—putting her in the company of one of her idols, Marilyn Monroe—but it also gave the clock watchers what they said they wanted packaged up as precisely that thing. The anticipation of a teen girl becoming “Playboy legal” offered pleasurable, frustrating tension, but the narrative resolution here—her “arrival” at adulthood—is a letdown. 

Of course, Shirley Temple never posed for Hefner’s magazine. Instead, she ran for office on a conservative Republican ticket and then served as an ambassador. Since posing for Playboy and following a series of arrests and disastrous film shoots (being fired from The Canyons, I Know Who Killed Me, etc.), Lohan has largely stepped out of the public eye. These narrative conclusions, like Lohan’s possible queerness, are also not what the ticker imagines. Its count, its minutes and seconds, don’t track a teen’s life into her future. Instead, they tick tick forward to a crescendo of desire that is a moment of acquisition—the sweater girl pinup, the moment of legality, the Playboy spread—after which the story loses its interest. The clock stops.




[1] The preternatural precocity is part of what leads Lori Merish to connect Temple to the culture of the freak show.  “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple,” in Rosemarie Garland Thomson, ed., Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 185-206.

[2]Ibid, 188.

[3] “What the Picture Did For Me,” Motion Picture Herald 140.3, July 20, 1940, 40-42.

[4] In Child Star, Temple Black has this to say about kissing Dickie Moore: “Hardly a woman of the world, I was weary of his ineptness. After all, it was only on the cheek, and contrary to publicity hoopla indicating his as my initial kiss, months before someone had kissed me, and on the lips, in a horse corral” (341). Incidentally, this was not Shirley Temple’s first onscreen kiss. That had already taken places years earlier as part of the bizarre Baby Burlesks film series.

[5] T.S. “Miss Annie Rooney, Starring Shirley Temple, Opens at the Rivoli.” New York Times, June 8, 1942, 11.

[6] Tom Nawrocki, “Maria Sharapova.” Rolling Stone, Issue 955, August 19, 2004, 94.

[7] Binelli, Mark. “Confessions of A Teenage Drama Queeen.” Rolling Stone, Issue 955, August 19, 2004, 60-64.

[8] Peter Hartlaub, “When young female celebrities become adults, the seedier side of society takes note. The case of the Olsen twins is just the latest sad example,” SFGate, June 25, 2004,

[9] For a discussion of this topic, see this Reddit thread:

[10] Thanks to Sara Clugage for the “Toyotathon” comparison.

[11] Griselda Pollock, “The Missing wit(h) ness: Monroe, Fascinance and the Unguarded Intimacy of Being Dead.” Journal of Visual Art Practice 16.3 (2017): 265-296, 194.

[12] As an example of the countdown timer’s refusal to die, take the case of Millie Bobbie Brown who was the subject of this impatient clock watching as she approached her 18th in 2024. See Kylie Cheung, “Millie Bobbie Brown’s 18th Birthday Sparked a Gross Countdown,” Jezebel, February 22, 2022,

[13] Derek Robertson, “How Republicans Became the ‘Barstool’ Party.” Politico, June 20, 2021, Tom Ley, “Barstool Sports Founder Tells Employee She’ll Be Too Ugly To Be On Camera In Five Years,” Deadspin. June 28, 2018,

[14] “Old GameSpot Stuff: Ryan Davis Made That Natalie Portman Countdown Website,”

[15] Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. New York: Routledge, 2004.

[16] See, for example, the collection Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children.

[17] Nicole Seymour, “Somatic Syntax: Replotting the Developmental Narrative in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding. Studies in the Novel 41.3 (2009): 293-313, 294.

[18] Kathryn Boyd Stockton, “Growing Sideways, or Versions of the Queer Child: The Ghost, the Homosexual, the Freudian, the Innocent, and the Interval of Animal,” in Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children, eds. Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 277-315.

[19] “Lohan friend sues blogger for defamation,” Associated Press, October 11, 2007. Available via the Wayback Machine:

[20] Claudia Boyd-Barrett, “California Laws Don’t Prevent Minors from Marrying Adults,” California Health Report, September 10, 2021,

[21] “Lindsay Lohan – The Tonight Show with Jay Leno 2004,”

[22] Charles McGrath, “Why a Fallen Angel is a Centerfold.” New York Times, November 5, 2011.

[23] Quoted in Pamela Owen, “It Was Nothing New,” Daily Mail, December 18, 2011.