The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Constructed Identity and Commodity Culture in My Lucky Star

Ann Victoria Dolinko
North Central College

B. A. Thurber
Independent Scholar


The 1938 film My Lucky Star, starring Sonja Henie as Kristina Nielson, provides an example of how a woman’s subjectivity is constructed through commodity culture to create the Modern Girl. A college student, working woman, and expert figure skater who is in the process of assimilating to a new country, Kristina exists in the liminal space between personal agency and consumer capitalism. A close reading of three key scenes in the film demonstrates how the character of Kristina, as a Modern Girl and a figure skater, renegotiates the performance of her subjectivity within this space. The film avoids vilifying commodity culture but raises the question of whether a Modern Girl can be simultaneously dignified and empowered within its confines.

Keywords commodity culture / figure skating / performative subjectivity / immigration / Sonja Henie


A recurrent character in literature and culture of the 1920s and 1930s, the Modern Girl has been characterized as much by her appearance as her behavior. According to Jilly Lippmann and Victoria Kuttainen, her connection to commodity culture is particularly strong in a time of “intensifying commercial culture marked by a rapid proliferation of lifestyle choices” which led her to try on different identities that “afforded [her] purchase of new forms of social mobility and self-determination.” Lippmann and Kuttainen describe her as “troublesome” in more than one way: a troublemaker in her own time and a difficult figure for scholars to understand today. What makes her so troublesome for scholars is the liminal space she occupies, which lies between personal agency and commodity culture. With her advent, commodity culture became a major discourse in the construction of subjectivity in Michel Foucault’s sense. Foucault’s idea of discursive subjectivity is key here: humans “become subjects through the process of socialization of being inserted in and defined by the many power dynamics that make up our world” (Dolinko 108). Each of these power dynamics is a discourse. As a major discourse, commodity culture’s role as one of the many power structures that create an individual’s identity is central to the construction of the Modern Girl’s subjectivity. Commodity culture makes a woman into a Modern Girl, but we argue that, ultimately, the Modern Girl can manipulate commodity culture and participate in her own construction. Accessing clothing, make-up, and other commodities gave the Modern Girl the freedom to construct a nebulous identity. These commodities, which act as “technologies of the self,” to use Foucault’s term (“Technologies of the Self”), drive the Modern Girl’s identity, but are not all-encompassing: she is able to maneuver effectively within commodity culture to realize her own goals. The advent of the Modern Girl represents the moment when commodity culture becomes inscribed on the female body, that is, when the defining characteristic of femininity becomes self-objectification.

My Lucky Star (1938), directed by Roy Del Ruth and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century-Fox, affords the opportunity to study, through the main character’s development, how commodity culture constructs the Modern Girl’s identity and her resistance to this discourse. Kristina Nielsen (played by Olympic figure skater Sonja Henie) is a young Norwegian woman with a talent for figure skating. She works in a New York department store eponymously called Cabot’s Fifth Avenue.1 The owner’s son, George Cabot Junior (played by Cesar Romero), convinces the store’s Board of Directors to enroll Kristina at Plymouth University, where she will use her student status to work as a “living model” or “smart mannequin” (11:01), displaying the store’s clothes to the other women students while working to finish her degree. She is instructed to change her clothes as often as possible to show off Cabot’s merchandise (13:31). As the film progresses, Kristina both is made by and remakes herself through commodity culture. She becomes increasingly Americanized, changing from an athletic, independent outsider to a commodity controlled by men, and finally emerging as a young woman who has successfully negotiated the power structures of commodity culture to construct her own identity. The ambiguity between being constructed by and constructing herself within commodity culture is a major tension explored in this essay.

We read Kristina’s identity construction as an example of Foucault’s ideas about subject formation in action (“Truth and Power” 116); as Dolinko explains, “[o]ur subjectivity is something that is inscribed on us from the outside” (108). Foucault’s concept is a passive one, but Kristina shows an increasing degree of personal agency as the film progresses. We interpret Kristina’s increasing ability to manipulate the external forces that act upon her in terms of Judith Butler’s extension of Foucault. Unlike Foucault, Butler allows the subject a type of agency expressed as the “permanent possibility of a certain resignifying process, one which gets detoured and stalled through other mechanisms of power, which is power’s own possibility of being reworked” (47). As Kristina reworks her role within commodity culture and moves from being a passive object to an active subject, she moves from a Foucauldian passive construction, the preferred position for women in a patriarchal society, to a more Butlerian performative mode, highlighting a major anxiety about the Modern Girl: that she exercises her own agency within capitalist structures rather than remaining an object within them. We read the film’s plot as a prescient example of Butler’s theories and apply them to the subject formation of the Modern Girl. Here the film demonstrates the liminal space Kristina, as a Modern Girl, occupies. As the film progresses, Kristina’s agency develops and she becomes able “to demonstrate control over the consumption process,” one of the prerequisites to being “modern” (Weinbaum 121). In our reading of Kristina as a Modern Girl, she is neither a “dupe” nor a “resistor of consumer capitalism” (Weinbaum et al. 22); instead, she is able to manipulate commodity culture to achieve her own desired end.

However, Kristina’s transformation is not unproblematic. She raises the question of whether a Modern Girl can be a dignified and empowered woman within the confines of commodity culture. With her strong resemblance to Shirley Temple, Kristina does not look like a dignified, empowered adult woman, yet she exercises her agency in several ways, from quitting a job that no longer meets her needs to organizing a skating exhibition. In the exhibition, however, Kristina undermines the agency she worked to develop by performing choreography that depicts her as weak and wearing a childish costume. In contrast, in the first skating scene she appears as an independent and a highly skilled skater. The progression of Kristina’s character through these skating scenes is exactly the opposite of that shown in the parts of the film where she does not skate. The following sections of this essay focus on how three main skating scenes problematize Kristina’s position in the liminal space between personal agency and commodity culture by showing her as simultaneously objectified and childlike while also independent and empowered.

As the plot of a Hollywood film, Kristina’s identity construction is a spectacle, and what is eventually constructed—a Modern Girl—is a spectacle in her own right.2 Thus, in our reading, My Lucky Star highlights the different layers of performativity evident in the Modern Girl. The silver screen and the shiny ice on which Kristina skates reflect some of the many ways the Modern Girl is constructed through scenes of spectacle. This imagery connects with the image of women looking into mirrors present in many cosmetics advertisements from the 1920s and 1930s. It both “celebrates the Modern Girl’s identity” and “suggests the Modern Girl’s constant obligation to judge herself against the beauty and social standards presented in the ads and elsewhere, and thus to predict the opinions and to adjust accordingly” (Barlow et al. 265–267). In contrast to the women in the advertisements, Kristina does not merely look into the mirror. In the concluding skating spectacle, she jumps through it, suggesting both subjection and self-fashioning with discourses about immigrants, Americanness, whiteness, and womanhood as they converge in commodity culture.

The following sections of this essay expand on these themes. First, a description of Henie’s experience in Hollywood helps set the film in context and provides a real-life parallel to the identity construction shown in the film. Then, this essay leads readers through an analysis of the film’s three main skating scenes. In the first skating scene, Kristina skates alone, for her own satisfaction, until a male spectator arrives and disempowers her with his gaze. The second skating scene shows her becoming American as her relationship to commodity culture changes. In the grand finale, Kristina appears to be completely duped by commodity culture despite her leading role in both organizing and performing in the skating show. Our essay ends by drawing these themes together in a way that highlights the ambiguous relationship between the Modern Girl’s identity and commodity culture. While previous literature on the Modern Girl has shown that she is an independent, autonomous woman who is simultaneously a consumer and concerned about her image, Kristina’s example provides a case study of how the Modern Girl participates in her own identity construction by reconfiguring the social forces acting upon her.

Skating as a Hollywood Spectacle

The concept of skating as a spectacle goes back at least to the nineteenth century, when American skater Jackson Haines performed for the Vienna Skating Club. A contemporary newspaper article remarked that his performance “erfreute das Auge” (pleased the eye).3 By making himself a spectacle, Haines was able to shape the course of figure skating. Sonja Henie followed in Haines’ footsteps. According to contemporary skater Maribel Vinson, Henie “influenced the trend of skating more than any other skater living or dead, with the same cult-like domination as Jackson Haines—but far more widely” (Vinson 278). Ellyn Kestnbaum credits Henie with being “the skater who did the most to transform the sport of competitive figure skating into a spectacle, and specifically a spectacle of the skater’s body” (103). In particular, Henie was known as “the supreme arbiter of skating fashions” (Vinson 281). She wore dresses with short skirts and tight bodices, which “allowed women to jump and spin and do fast steps with an ease and an effect hitherto unknown,” and thus “skating itself, as well as its raiment, became more imaginative” due to her influence (Vinson 282).

Once she finished her amateur career by winning her third Olympic gold medal in 1936, Henie went to Hollywood “to see what could be done about bringing figure skating before all sorts of people everywhere” (Henie 67). In addition, Henie hoped “if it were possible, to make some money.” She saw arranging “a big ice show that might go on tour” as another path towards these goals, but Hollywood seemed better to her, perhaps because of its global reach.4 When she began approaching Hollywood producers, Henie joined a legion of young women whose example Liz Conor has used to construct the “Screen-Struck Girl,” an archetype who sought “mass recognition through her transformation into reproduced spectacle” (78). The desire to become a “Screen Star”—to use Conor’s terminology— “was construed as either a loss of feminine essence in the Modern Girl, or conversely . . . as an expression of the Modern Girl’s modernity” (78–79). As such, Henie’s arrival in Hollywood is yet another aspect of the ambivalence that characterizes the Modern Girl as both agent and object of spectacle.

Henie entered Hollywood not only with the desire to become a star but also with her own platform from which to do so: figure skating. All of her films feature skating numbers that range from simple to extravagant. As a leisure activity designed by and for upper-class men and connected to Norse mythology through its origin story (Thurber 563), skating provided a platform capable of raising Henie above the masses. Henie’s films introduced skating as spectacle to a mass audience and were suffused with commodity culture. Like Kristina in the plot of My Lucky Star, in real life, Henie came to Hollywood with a high degree of agency and determination, but she was quickly transformed into a girlish, infantilized product for the pleasure and consumption of mass audiences. Combined with the entertainment or escapist aspect of the Henie film genre, the use of skating helped Henie’s films support commodity culture.

Henie arrived in Hollywood at the height of Shirley Temple’s popularity, and there were many parallels between them. Both Temple and Henie starred in musical comedies and demonstrated a capacity for action and agency despite their charm and girlish coquetry. Henie and Temple even look similar: both have round faces surrounded by short, curly blonde hair (compare, for example, Fig. 1 and Fig. 2). Moreover, Temple was known for her “determination,” “sunny optimism,” and “spunk” (Custen 210), characteristics shared by Henie, as various accounts of her life note (see Henie; Strait and Henie; Vinson).  These strong parallels suggest that this image of femininity, set within the rags-to-riches journey, was appealing to audiences of the time. George F. Custen’s argument that “the escapism of [Temple’s] films . . . taught us not to question the inequalities raised by our economic system and our class structure” can be applied to Henie’s films as well (201): My Lucky Star, with its lavish department store and idyllic college setting, is thus one among many.

Henie and her parents negotiated an advantageous contract with Darryl Zanuck, the new Vice President of Production at Twentieth Century-Fox (Strait and Henie 95–96). Zanuck had successfully led Temple—and through her, Twentieth Century-Fox—to stardom via musicals, and his plan for Henie was identical (Strait and Henie 97). In taking Henie on, he took on the task of creating “a saleable commodity” as a means of  “enacting American ability to control the international commercial marketplace” (Negra 60). Custen groups Henie with Rin Tin Tin, Alice Faye, and Tyrone Power as stars Zanuck created “out of his instinct [for] something that, with the proper genre films, could be packaged and sold to moviegoers” (208). He packaged Henie by surrounding her with an all-star cast and putting her at the center of dazzling skating spectacles to focus on her strength (skating) and minimize her weakness (English that was supposedly “virtually unintelligible” [Strait and Henie 97]).5 Zanuck describes his strategy in a memo dated February 25, 1937:

I caution you against giving Sonja Henie too many lines. You should work it like we did in One in a Million [Henie’s first film], where we get the impression that she is carrying the whole thing, whereas if you analyze it, you will see that everything is happening around her, and only occasionally does she speak a line. And, when she does, it is always a very effective one… (Zanuck 12)

This pattern continued throughout Henie’s film career.

My Lucky Star is Henie’s fourth film—one that was, according to a contemporary review, “adequately entertaining for the masses.”6 Previous scholarship on the film includes several examinations of Henie’s Hollywood portfolio that discuss My Lucky Star in the context of Henie’s life and other films.7 Of relevance to our essay, Negra’s chapter on Henie highlights the film’s advocacy “for a consensus value system that establishes how even the most extraordinary member of a group is finally validated not by standing apart, but by standing among” through “a delicate negotiation and conflation of individualist and collective values” (92). In his extension of Negra’s work, Arne Lunde’s remarks on Henie focus on Zanuck’s work “to make Henie’s Nordic identity more Americanized and patriotically realigned with the Allied war effort.”8 The plot of My Lucky Star parallels this transformation: Kristina, a Norwegian immigrant, becomes American as the result of social and economic pressures. 

While previous scholarship on My Lucky Star has recognized the degree to which Kristina’s identity is transformed and Americanized over the course of the film, no direct connection has yet been made between this film and the identity of the Modern Girl. This essay makes this connection by analyzing My Lucky Star as a Bildungsroman for the Modern Girl. The film’s support of commodity culture and the way Kristina’s agency increases off the ice while decreasing on it raise the question of whether the Modern Girl can be simultaneously dignified and empowered within commodity culture. On ice, Kristina is increasingly transformed into a spectacle, while off ice, she develops a greater sense of agency as she begins to learn how to maneuver through commodity culture.

The three skating scenes that anchor My Lucky Star show a distinct progression in specularity that parallels the phases of Kristina’s identity construction within commodity culture. The first is essentially a private skating session that becomes a spectacle when a male intruder arrives and subjects her to his gaze. The second is a competition among women, judged by men, where the prize is the leading role in the grand finale. That finale, the third major skating scene, is a grand spectacle celebrating commodity culture—a fashion show on ice designed to sell clothing. As both the leading skater and one of the event’s organizers, Kristina has completed her transformation into a spectacle and, to quote from the work of Liz Conor, simultaneously found her place “within the capitalist exchange economy” (106). This essay follows the film through these skating scenes to show how each represents a distinct phase of Kristina’s identity construction as a Modern Girl by and within commodity culture.

Disempowerment Through Spectacularization

In the first skating scene, Kristina occupies the liminal space between agency and commodity culture as she skates with athleticism and skill on the ice rink in the sporting goods department of Cabot’s. Kristina’s skating is initially for her own satisfaction, something done alone, late in the day, when she can find quiet private ice time at the department store where she works. Then, the film’s perspective changes from the action of Kristina’s character to a view from the heterosexual male gaze first described by Laura Mulvey:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in the looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. (Mulvey 19)

As Kristina becomes the object of the male gaze, the viewpoint switches from an athletic woman enjoying herself to Kristina’s role in the lives of men. At this point, the camera takes the male perspective, from which, as John Berger has described, men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” (Berger 47).

, Kristina is the image of the Modern Girl of the late 1930s. Her bobbed hair, cap (though not quite the common cloche hat), use of make-up, and “open, easy smile” are among the criteria cited by Weinbaum and her colleagues. Missing are the “provocative clothing” and “elongated body” (Weinbaum et al. 2); these can be excused by her athleticism and the low temperature of the ice rink. The “public displays of female body parts, such as nude shoulders” observed in Modern Girls (Barlow et al. 264) are not quite possible in ice skating due to the winter cold, but the short skirt and sleeves of Kristina’s dress come close. There is no music, just the sound of her blades; the sounds of cars and wind outside the store are not audible inside.

This is one of the few scenes where Kristina is portrayed as her authentic self. As she skates purely for own pleasure, she appears confident and athletic. She is foreign and alone, yet empowered, as shown by her choice of skating moves. She performs the most difficult jump of the film, the Axel, in this scene and no other. The Axel, first performed by a Norwegian skater, Axel Paulsen, at a competition in Vienna in 1882, is a jump with a forward takeoff where the skater completes one-and-one-half revolutions in the air (Hines 27). In her autobiography, Henie calls the Axel “one of the most outstanding highlights you can acquire” (167). This jump symbolizes Kristina’s determination and ambition: she is an athletic woman who managed to make her way from Norway to New York and find a job. It also links her to her homeland through its Norwegian inventor. As the film progresses, however, this link is severed: as Kristina becomes American, she stops doing Axels.

The perspective changes at 5:52—in the middle of the routine—when the camera goes through Kristina’s legs, then cuts to a view of George Cabot, Jr, watching her. The male gaze is upon her, but Kristina does not realize she has company until she completes the routine and George bursts into applause. Kristina looks shocked and attempts to run away. Her movements change from long, powerful strokes to tiny, mincing steps on her toes (6:15), from unselfconsciously fluid and powerful to self-consciously constrained. Her mincing steps represent an internal shift toward perceiving her body as an object, changing her experience of it from a “medium for the enactment of [her] aims” to a “fragile encumbrance” (Young 34) under the influence of the male gaze.  In pursuit of her, George slips on the ice and hits his head. As the scene proceeds from misunderstanding to coercive scheming, her need to help him pulls her back, and he asks who she is. Her job is not—as he first supposes—to model the store’s clothing but to wrap packages. She explains her presence as pure recreation: “I love to skate. That’s why I came up here to practice a little. . . . I hope you’re not thinking of firing me, Mr. Cabot” (7:03–7:11). George’s next line, “You know what? I was thinking you would ask for a raise” marks his approval of Kristina; he sees her as a commodity that has just increased in value (7:13). This encounter begins his scheme to use her to increase the store’s profits and earn his father’s approval.

It also marks Kristina’s entry into commodity culture: she begins to become a Modern Girl. This scheme is her opportunity to “produce [her] modern [self] through techniques of appearing” (Conor 128). George convinces the store’s board of directors to send Kristina to Plymouth University as the first of many “living models, smart mannequins [placed] in all the classrooms” in a direct attempt to influence young women’s purchases (11:56). This is not merely an invention of the filmmakers but a real strategy employed by retailers of the time; Conor discusses “live women, called mannequins vivants, who were employed to model ‘haute couture’” between 1920 and 1940 (109). She argues that among the “ultimate goals” of these women was “attracting the gaze” that was “enabled by their guided participation in consumerism” (Conor 116). This marketing stunt is based on Sarah Berry’s idea that social status, as shown in 1930s films, was “a matter of appearances.” She argues that these films “emphasized the demystification of upper-class glamour in ways that underscored the economic basis, rather than inherent social superiority, of upper-class culture” (Berry xix).

Once he has convinced the board to try this advertising scheme, George opens the boardroom door and invites Kristina, who is waiting outside, in. He takes her arm and presents her to the male board members (12:41). A board member then measures Kristina for her new clothing—“for a college education,” as George puts it—in the boardroom, in front of all the men (13:27). She has gone from wrapping packages to being wrapped in the latest fashions and packed off to college by men. She is specifically instructed to display as many of the store’s wares as possible: “Remember, you are to wear as many ensembles as you can” and “change your clothes on the slightest provocation” (13:32, 13:39).

Kristina’s transformation from subject to object in the first fifteen minutes of the film is remarkable; Kristina becomes “a thing that exists as looked at and acted upon” (Young 39), a mannequin, dehumanized and lacking autonomy, and a commodity whose main purpose is to increase the store’s profits. Kristina’s new role represents the “belief among retailers and advertisers that women would respond to the suggestion that they use goods in order to appear modern” (Conor 108). In her mannequin role, Kristina does not merely exist as a spectacle; she is required to encourage others to become spectacles as well.

Cabot’s department store ships Kristina out into an idealized version of America. In contrast to Shirley Temple’s films, which tend to focus on the dichotomy between city and countryside, My Lucky Star focuses on the transformative spectacle of the modern department store. The film is escapist in that its plot revolves around buying beautiful things, even though the Depression-Era audience probably could not afford any of these items. The maxim that “money doesn’t buy happiness” often featured in Shirley Temple films applies here as well (Custen 201): Kristina must find happiness not through the material things she is given by Cabot’s but by learning to fit in at an American college. 

Kristina arrives at Plymouth University in a horse-drawn taxi driven by fellow student Buddy (Buddy Ebsen). The taxi drives into the quad under the gaze of an appreciative group of male students. Kristina is immediately claimed by Larry Taylor (Richard Greene) with the remark “I saw her first” (15:49). He moves beside the carriage, where Kristina is looking through the window as if in a cage, and lifts her out (15:58), asking Buddy who she is. Buddy looks at something in his hand and responds, “New York Central” (16:08)—a place, probably where he picked her up, rather than a name. This scene highlights the passivity of her subject construction within commodity culture: she is a parcel wrapped by Cabot’s in the latest fashions being transferred from the store to the university. In Beauvoir’s terms, “she is not regarded as an autonomous being” (xxii).

As the film progresses, Kristina learns to respond to her objectification by increasingly deflecting the force of commodity culture, constructing her subjectivity to achieve her own desires. She sees George’s scheme as an opportunity to finish her education—after all, she’ll need to attend classes—and assures the Cabot’s board members that they “won’t be sorry” for giving her “this wonderful opportunity” (14:25). Although they see her as a commodity to be used to increase sales, Kristina  manipulates the situation to achieve her own goals. This is consistent with Butler’s interpretation of Foucault’s technologies of the self: both Foucault and Butler claim that identity is socially constructed, but Butler sees the self as “the site of resignification, reinterpretation, and reorganization of the matrixes of power” (Dolinko 175). My Lucky Star shows Kristina negotiating “among competing interpretations of subjectivity" during the remainder of the film (Dolinko 167).

Homogenization and Empowerment Through Consumption

The second skating scene marks a turning point in the construction of Kristina’s subjectivity and a change in her relationship to commodity culture. When she was simply a package, commodity culture eclipsed her individuality, but ultimately commodity culture is what allows her to become American. In this way, the film takes a stance against conspicuous consumption and shows how commodity culture can be useful without vilifying corporations.9 Yet there must be limits on consumption, and Kristina learns to function as something of a brake. She must “demonstrate control over the consumption process” (Weinbaum 120) before she can be accepted, and that acceptance allows her to succeed in selling clothes to the other female students. She wins that acceptance through her exceptional skating skills.

Kristina enters the “fancy ice skating” competition; the prize is the starring role in the Ice Carnival. She wears a special skating dress from Cabot’s: a white sleeveless dress with a sparkly bodice and a poofy skirt that barely covers her bottom (38:01). Her routine begins with tiny steps on her toes, then moves into long, powerful glides. The Axel, which she performed in the initial skating scene, is conspicuously absent. Omitting the Axel indicates that she is stepping away from her Norwegian heritage as well as her athleticism so that she can fit in with the other women students: tempering her athletic ability is necessary for her social success. Instead, she performs a split jump, which highlights her femininity, according to  Henie herself:

The split jump is to my way of thinking a jump solely for girls. Some men do this in their free skating, but, to me at least, they create nothing but an angular, gauche effect which is not in keeping with good masculine appearance on ice. There is, however, no other jump a girl can do that gives such a pleasing impression. The line of the body combined with speed, height, and grace can’t be touched by any other jump in the figure skating repertory. (Henie 165)

Kristina’s athleticism becomes a currency that helps her gain the respect of the other students, thereby empowering her and enabling her to sell more clothes. By removing her best jump, she tempers her public display of athletic power, but still wins the fancy skating competition. The other students show their new acceptance of her by lifting her to their shoulders and carrying her off the ice. Clothing sales at Cabot’s skyrocket. Kristina is then photographed for the cover of Life magazine (42:11).

As a Norwegian immigrant who has found a way to fit in with her American peers, Kristina provides an example of the Modern Girl’s “repeated role” in “the racial formation of the nation or colony in which she resided” (Barlow et al. 247). While the particularities of her Scandinavian heritage are being erased, Kristina is aggressively racialized as white before and during this skating scene, which takes place outdoors, against a notably white winter backdrop. Following the pattern noted by Negra, the lighting and costumes make Kristina appear whiter than the other characters (87). During the hayride to the festival, she seems to glow (27:57ff.). Negra uses this whiteness as a sort of glue to connect consumerism and identity, noting that the film

simultaneously advertises winter fashions, winter sports and college camaraderie, doing so through a discourse of whiteness that involves careful handling of the structuring tension between exceptionalism and averageness in the Henie Persona. (Negra 90)

While Kristina’s transformation from white Nordic to white American may not seem like racialization to today’s viewers, whiteness was more sharply delineated in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Jacobson summarizes the emergence of a “contest over whiteness” (5) by noting that “[t]he period of mass European immigration, from the 1840s to the restrictive legislation of 1924, witnessed a fracturing of whiteness into a hierarchy of plural and scientifically determined white races” (7). The process of fracturing whiteness is highlighted in My Lucky Star by the contrast between Kristina’s acceptably ethnicized whiteness and the unacceptable whiteness of the buffoonish Greek man who runs the ice cream shop. “Mediterraneans,” unlike Scandinavians, were among those whose numbers “would be dramatically curtailed” by the Johnson-Reed Act (Jacobson 69).

Once racially assimilated, Kristina can more successfully embody the American Modern Girl. As part of this process, Kristina develops a more nuanced balance between individuality and group identity as well as in her relationship to commodity culture. Finding this balance gives her point from which “to challenge pre-existing ideologies of female subservience and self-sacrifice,” a feature of the Modern Girl recognized by Barlow and colleagues (288). When she is featured on the cover of Life magazine with the headline “Life Goes to College” (42:56), George attempts to move her to Florida (45:50), where she is to start the female students studying in swimsuits and graduating “not in those ugly black gowns, but in beautiful, gorgeous one-piece bathing suits” (46:25). She refuses his overtures with the vehement comment “I’m not going to Florida, you must be mad!” (46:36) and quits her job as a mannequin, adding “I’ll get along, I’ll wait on tables or work at a store downtown, like all the girls are doing. In fact, I’d like it better” (46:55). This is one of several times in the latter part of the movie when Kristina asserts herself to obtain her desired result. Now that she fits in, she knows what “all the girls are doing” and finds support in replicating their behavior. Rather than continuing to let men pass her around like a package, she becomes a leader, even suggesting to George and Larry that they make the Ice Carnival into “a fashion show on ice” to be held in the sporting goods department at Cabot’s Fifth Avenue (1:06:57). She has reconfigured her role within consumer culture from that of a package to that of an active subject.

Through the Looking Glass of Commodity Culture

George and Larry take up Kristina’s suggestion, and the Plymouth University Ice Carnival doubles as a fashion show in the final skating scene. The scene shifts from the university back to the department store, where the film began. The small ice rink in the sporting goods department where the first skating scene took place has been enlarged and spectator seating has been added. Students and commodities come together in one place for the grand skating finale, which captures the essence of the Modern Girl—both the liminal space she occupies and her troublesome nature as a figure whose identity is somehow independent of, yet beholden to, consumer culture.10 Compared with the first skating scene, where Kristina was skating for herself and unaware of the male gaze, the final number shows her dwelling in the liminal space between personal agency and commodity culture. Dressed like a baby (and looking remarkably like Shirley Temple), Kristina appears to have become an object, thoroughly absorbed into the spectacle of commodity culture. Yet behind the disempowering spectacle of the skating show, she has both subverted and appropriated commodity culture for her own ends, much as Sonja Henie did in real life. Kristina is the one who conceived of the Ice Carnival as a fashion show and managed the democratic process behind the event: the students, the university administration, and the department store all came together under her leadership to produce the event. As she goes through the looking glass and back—both literally in the skating show’s choreography and figuratively as part of the Modern Girl spectacle—she shows that she has successfully reconfigured her identity and has developed a sense of agency within commodity culture. Conor notes that “by becoming spectacle, women were also positioned with the capitalist exchange economy” (106). This is exactly what happens to Kristina in the Ice Carnival. She becomes the star performer in the spectacle at what appears to be the cost of her individual agency, yet behind the scenes, she is in charge of the show.

The theme of the grand finale is “Alice in Wonderland through the Looking Glass,” which recapitulates Kristina’s journey in the film as well as pointing to the cinema as a looking-glass for audience members (1:15:19). In this elaborate and bizarre scene, Kristina stars as Alice in a frilly off-white dress with short sleeves and a large bonnet. The dress barely covers her bottom and exposes the childish, ruffled underpants beneath. Viewers are reminded of Shirley Temple because of the costume’s similarity to one Temple wears in The Little Colonel and Baby Take a Bow (compare Figure 2 and Figure 3). As Kristina skates, she hops through a large mirror and chases after a white rabbit, running on her toes. Her skating has been infantilized through her costume and choreography: her connecting movements are mincing and doll-like, even robotic, rather than strong and flowing as they were before she was subjected to the male gaze. She has become a commodity in this odd merging of commercialism, sport, and academia, but she is the one who came up with the idea for the fashion show on ice, and her college friends chose to participate to support her. This brings the tension between her subjectivity and objectivity to the fore. That tension is crucial to Kristina’s development as a Modern Girl in the film. Going through the looking glass of the Ice Carnival spectacle returns her to the liminal space she occupied at the beginning of the film, but with a newly constructed identity in which she has reworked the “matrixes of power” represented by the Cabots and their store (Dolinko 175). Advertising and image construction have become reality. Her performance as both a skater and an American woman has made her a commodity, and her commodification has become her identity.

The final skating spectacle is troublesome in that Kristina has control over it to some extent—the scene is her idea—but in it she is both infantilized and feminized. She is empowered in her life off the ice but undignified on it. This combination of control and spectacle is what makes the Modern Girl, as exemplified by Kristina, so “troublesome” (Lippmann and Kuttainen). The amalgamation of academia, commodity culture, and sport presented in this scene places the Modern Girl in a context that endures to this day.


As Kristina progresses from exceptional to one among many, she learns to fit into both university and commodity culture. Kristina steps through the looking glass of commodity culture and loses herself as she becomes a smart mannequin displaying clothes for Cabot’s. When she steps back out of the looking glass, she is very different. In this final transformation,  Kristina becomes an active agent, consciously manipulating her image to achieve her aims. At the Ice Carnival, Kristina has a clearer sense of her own identity and is both working and studying on her own terms. She has been able to use the commodities offered by Cabot’s to “create openings for representing a femininity that is self-consciously elected and crafted” (Barlow et al. 267). She has learned to fit in and participate in commodity culture in a way that offers her opportunities and visibility: the immigrant has been Americanized.

“A fascination with female power” such as that displayed by Kristina in the final scene of the film is one of the themes that Sarah Berry found throughout 1930s Hollywood films. Such films, she explains, “promoted specific kinds of gender, racial, and class stereotypes, but they also drew attention to the ways that dress and performance increasingly functioned to define social identity” (xvi).  My Lucky Star does both. Kristina’s identity as a Modern Girl is constructed by commodity culture, yet she also plays a role in constructing that culture. In essence, she becomes herself through her own commoditization.

Kristina’s development in the film exemplifies the Modern Girl’s role in consumer culture. She begins as an athletic, independent outsider, but as her identity is mediated through commodity culture she occupies the liminal space between an individual and a smart mannequin. Kristina, as a Modern Girl, is both a “dupe” and a “resistor of consumer capitalism” (Weinbaum et al. 22). She highlights the Modern Girl’s troublesomeness by leading the audience to question whether it is possible for dignity and empowerment to coexist in a self shaped by commodity culture.

As a cultural artifact, My Lucky Star shows what an important part of the construction of subjectivity commodity culture had become in the late 1930s. As one of the main power structures present in society, commodity culture constructed women’s identities by giving them access to resources such as clothing and make-up. Advertising campaigns encouraged women to purchase and use these items to make themselves into beautiful objects. However, there is potential for the Modern Girl to differentiate among the commodities on offer and realize her own goals. Hollywood’s global reach disseminated this essentially positive view of the Modern Girl internationally. Twentieth Century-Fox had a vested interest in glorifying commodity culture. Instead, it drew a tempting picture of how commodities create subjects, suggesting that it is possible for women to participate in their own identity construction by reconfiguring the forces acting upon them. In this way, femininity became something that can be acquired, manipulated, and performed.


1. It is not clear whether there is an intentional connection to the Cabot family of Boston Brahmin fame. This family of merchants built its fortune by shipping rum, opium, and slaves beginning in the eighteenth century. Henry Cabot Lodge (born in 1850) was known for his racist immigration views and influenced the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which banned Asian immigrants and set quotas for European immigrants based on eugenic ideas (Jacobson 83–85). Nordic immigrants were considered most desirable and the only people “truly fit for the rigors of self-government” (Jacobson 69; 247) in an origin hierarchy that Wilkerson argues remains in place to this day (276–278).

2. For a fuller discussion of the relationship between the spectacle and subjectivity of the Modern Girl, see Conor.

3. “Jackson Haines” 176. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are the authors’ own.

4. Henie 67. Henie had received offers from European film companies for roles in short films, but “none [had] the scope” to give skating “a new public life” like Hollywood did (Henie 70).

5. Maribel Vinson, one of Henie’s competitors and the first woman to write about sports for the New York Times, reports that “Hollywood movie-magazine claims that she [Henie] knew very little English when she arrived are entirely false; she still had a quite charming accent, but a definite command of our language, as the words of our 1936 interview prove conclusively” (283). The claim that she knew little English makes her seem more naive than she actually was, strengthening her connection to the young Shirley Temple.

6. Chartrier 15. It was Variety’s practice to have critics sign their reviews using four-letter “dog-tags.” This review of My Lucky Star was signed “Char.”, which Robert J. Landry connects with Roy Chartier (26).

7. Greg Faller and Mona Pedersen focus on Henie’s image as a film star versus an athlete, with Faller focusing on performance and publicity and Pedersen discussing the different feminine ideals that influenced the construction of Henie’s film star image. Both mention, but do not focus on, My Lucky Star. Kara Fagan looks more deeply into Henie’s films, as opposed to her biography, and argues that the films “address the disparity between her passive body … and her potentially transgressive athletic figure … by surrounding the star with excessive female bodies that escape the gender binary in a variety of troubling ways” (47).

8. 152. It was rumored that Henie enjoyed a friendship with Adolf Hitler (Strait and Henie 78–79), and therefore this Americanization of her identity and the transformation of her image into a figure who supported the allied war effort was part of a rehabilitative public relations effort.

9. The message of consumerism in this film fits with Weber's analysis of the United States in chapter 2 of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The American college students mock conspicuous consumption. To become one of the group, Kristina must show she is a hard worker, not a spoiled rich girl flaunting her wealth.

10. The liminal space is highlighted by the roles of the other students skating in the fashion show. They go from being college students to being, like Kristina, living mannequins in the department store. College life and commodity culture merge as a major college event takes place in a department store.

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