From Matilda to Eleven, These Actors Found Fame But Risk Losing Their Childhood

We need to get to the point where we think it's upside down to treat a child like a vehicle for adult sexual gratification

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A brunette reclines on a couch, her arm over her head, her face expressionless. She is 13. Another brunette, this one male, his lips parted, stares dazed at the camera as he pulls his oversized ripped jeans up tight, his crotch in the center of the frame. He’s 14. A redhead with a tentative gaze poses in a Prada bralette. She’s 15.

These are the child stars of today—Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard, and It’s Sophia Lillis, respectively—in high fashion mags Flaunt, i-D and Dazed and Confused—packaged for public consumption. These are the child stars of today, posing as adults, their synthetic maturity being sold to actual adults.

To enter show business, a space that skews much older than they are, children are often forced into artificial personas that skew the same way—the price of entry, in other words, is their childhood.

So, Brown’s red-carpet look shows off her legs and she strikes Posh-like poses—pouty lips, hip jutting, like the fashion industry has taught her—in too-big heels. So, Wolfhard hears grown men call out his name, or, sometimes, “daddy.” (Something he admits he doesn’t like in an interview with one of the very magazines packaging him as a sex symbol for these men. “That’s really scary for me,” he says.) So, Lillis, in a bikini, is shot like the woman of your dreams in It—except that she’s not yet a woman.

In The Lolita Effect, author M. G. Durham notes that a “pristine” body skirting pubescence is the Western ideal, which is why adults are often presented as younger than they are (see: Rita Ora licking a multi-coloured lolly), while children are presented as older (see: 17-year-old Dakota Fanning with a bottle of Oh, Lola! between her legs). The unifying thread? Youth is sex. “Realistic, strong, and non-exploitative representations of girls’ sexuality would be a progressive social step, but images of girls posed and styled as objects of the erotic adult gaze can’t be,” writes Durham. “They often employ the conventions of sex work, legitimising the use of young girls for prostitution and pornography.” (See: A “sexy” Halloween costume of Brown’s character, Eleven, sold online for adults.)

This isn’t just scary, it’s dangerous.

In a much-referenced 2007 report, The American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls reveals that the objectification of kids in the media negatively affects girls’ body confidence and sexual self-image and can result in eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. Various former child stars, including Brooke Shields and Miley Cyrus, have all but confirmed these findings through their own stories of childhood sexualization. And Modern Family’s Ariel Winter told The Hollywood Reporter in September that from the age of seven she was decked out in “the smallest miniskirts, sailor suits, low-cut things, the shortest dresses you’ve ever seen.” Then she suddenly acquired curves around the age of 12, at which point she was deemed a “slut” and a “whore” on social media. The symbol of suicide awareness tattooed behind her ear implies her so-called “rough” years were a lot more than that.

Following the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the conversation around Hollywood exploitation has expanded to include children. When 27-year-old model Ali Michael posted an Instagram story telling Wolfhard to “hit [her] up in four years,” it went viral and not in a good way. She swiftly apologized, but this cultural shift has encouraged other ex-child stars to come forward. Emboldened by the Weinstein accusers, Broadway star Anthony Rapp alleged that when he was only 14, actor Kevin Spacey, who was 26 at the time, molested him. Post-Spacey, Bryan Singer’s name re-emerged, even briefly trending on Twitter—the A-list director and producer has been accused of multiple sexual improprieties with underage boys, though he has always denied all allegations, and has never faced criminal charges. All of this in addition to Corey Feldman’s repeated claims that he and Corey Haim were targeted by a Hollywood pedophile ring.

This weekend, one-time child star Mara Wilson joined the conversation, stating that the exploitation of young actors outside of Hollywood is sometimes even more problematic than it is inside. She was responding to a tweet by Mike Singleton (an ex-senior exec at NBC, according to his Twitter bio), who posted an image of Brown at the premiere of her show’s second season wearing a black leather dress and the makeup of a woman twice her age, and wrote that she “grew up in front of our eyes.” Wilson told him to knock it off. “The people that were mostly a threat to me as a child were not Hollywood insiders, but grown-up male ‘fans,’” she tweeted. “It does not feel good to have strange men comment on your body when you are 13, whether in a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ way.”

Of course, imagery is not the source of this systemic abuse—but it is an integral part of the landscape.

“As a society, we need to replace all of these sexualized images with ones showing girls in positive settings—ones that show the uniqueness and competence of girls,” the APA Task Force’s Eileen Zurbriggen said in the 2007 report. “The goal should be to deliver messages to all adolescents—boys and girls—that lead to healthy sexual development.”

Some publications are already doing that. New York magazine recently ran a cover feature in which the young cast of Stranger Things wore jeans and T-shirts and rode skateboards. Entertainment Weekly opted for a moodier theme, but without sacrificing the age of its subjects. And the September issue of Teen Vogue presents Millie Bobby Brown in appropriately youthful dress, minimally made up, with a crown perched on her head. It’s a playful series of photos for a playful girl of thirteen.

The publication continued in this protective vein last week when it reported that Stranger Things creators the Duffer Brothers were being called out on social media for pressuring actress Sadie Sink, 15, into kissing co-star Caleb McLaughlin, 16, and then blaming her for it. (In the behind-the-scenes series Beyond Stranger Things, Ross Duffer talks about the unscripted scene with Sink, saying, “You were so freaked out that I was like, ‘Well, I gotta make her do it now.’”)

Things may be murky in Hawkins, Indiana, but this was a clear abuse of power. We need to get to the point where treating a child like this, like a vehicle for adult sexual gratification, is what is considered upside down.

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