I posed this question years ago to Paul Petersen, a noted child performer himself (on the classic “The Donna Reed Show”) and for decades the courageous advocate for past and present child stars. He has fought for legislation to protect their assets and their welfare, often attracting hatred and attacks from stage parents in the process, but draws a hard line at banning kids in stage, screen and TV. “Gotta have those cute kids, Jack” he replied, essentially admitting that as brutal as pre-adult careers in show business often were, the public would never give up their lovable moppets. I don’t dispute Paul’s clear-eyed acceptance of reality, but I also think his answer ducks the question. As he knows better than anyone (you should check out the website of his non-profit organization here, and consider sending a contribution his way), the carnage on young lives a too-early introduction into one of the most callous and mind-warping of professions brings is well-documented and undeniable. Enablers and apologists, not to mention greedy parents willing to cash in their kids’ chances at a healthy childhood for fees and residuals, point to the prominent child stars (Shirley Temple, Brooke Shields) who did not grow up miserable, dysfunctional, and lost, but that is like arguing that child abuse is tolerable because some victims recover from its wounds.
The evidence of child stardom’s destructive effects is ever-present, so much so that the public has become inured to it, and hardly notices. Incidents and quotes exposing Justin Bieber’s gradual evolution into a narcissistic jerk have been regular features of the tabloid news, as have weekly hints that former Disney star Miley Cyrus is heading off the rails. Her infamous fellow alumna from the Mouse Factory, Lindsay Lohan, continues to cement her credentials as the poster girl for child stars gone bad, and just yesterday, former Nickelodeon comic Amanda Bynes was ordered to undergo psychiatric examination following the latest in a year’s worth of weird conduct.
Over at Cracked, a former child star who managed to escape the Biz with her sanity, values and reputation intact weighed in with an unusually sensitive (for Cracked) essay entitled, “7 Reasons Child Stars Go Crazy.” The author is Mara Wilson, now virtually forgotten despite the fact that she is barely in her thirties and the Broadway musical adapted from her most popular film, “Matilda,” was a 2013 Tony winner. Wilson identifies the key factors dooming her less fortunate colleagues as…
7. Their parents won’t help them
6. Their parents can’t help them
5. They get used to love and attention and then lose it.
4. They have been sexually exploited.
3. They need to rebel, but can’t.
2. They don’t know what else to do, and, as the #1 reason child stars go crazy,
1. They can’t escape it.
I doubt that Paul would take issue with any of Mara’s reasons, especially #4. He helped lead successful efforts to bury the film that horrifically exploited a 12-year-old Dakota Fanning, “Hounddog,” in which her mother allowed her to film graphic scenes of simulated rape with an adult actor. Petersen couldn’t stop the sexualizing of Fanning at an obscenely young age, however, and the same process is now underway with Fanning’s teen-aged sister Elle, a fashion model at 12, and Abigail Breslin, who a blink ago was the tiny star of “Little Miss Sunshine” and who now appears to be about 25 (she is 17).
Wilson ends her essay with this hopeful thought:
“…Movies like “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and, um, “Twilight” have used CGI rather than human babies in some scenes. Some of them looked pretty creepy, but CG technology is improving all the time. Considering all the legal hassle child stars can be, I won’t be surprised when they are phased out by CGI children voiced by adult actors.
“When, not if.”
We can hope, Mara, we can hope.
Spark and Source: Cracked
31 thoughts on “Should Child Actors Be Banned?”
While these cases are noteworthy and often sensational (and sensationalized) in the big scheme of things is this merely one of those “first world problems”?
The complex nature of society developed by the “first world” certainly leads to different problems, but they still are problems.
Screwing up children is very different from not being able to download any apps to your iphone. While this is a first world problem, it’s not a sarcastic, unimportant “first world problem”
Given: it is a tragedy when any child is abused.
That being said given there are tens of thousands of children in this country who get no love or support from their parent(s), it’s hard for me to rally to the aid of a child star who gets used to love and attention and then loses it and then has issues dealing with it.
That reads to me as: If people are worse off than you, I give you no sympathy.
Since Jack’s post was about doing away with child acting, your comment seems particularly out of place.
Sympathy != action. I can have sympathy for your plight and still recognize your parents’ rights to be your parents and make bad decisions that cause you pain.
Fair enough. I’ll post another comment that I believe you’ll find “in place”.
Which, is, of course, why the abuse of child actors persists, and why Paul’s work, especially, is so important. Naturally, kids who appear to be rich, pampered and famous garner no sympathy, which is why the are so easy to exploit. Everyone who isn’t in show business thinks its a dream job. Morons.
The premature and tragic deaths of Dana Plato, Rusty Hamer, Michael Jackson, Carl Switzer, Anissa Jones, River Phoenix, Coey Haim, Jack Wild, Brad Renfro, Brigette Andersen, Bobby Driscoll, yes, even Judy Garland…and many more are no less premature and tragic than the deaths of other, less famous children.
Everyone who isn’t in show business is a moron?
I did a project a while back in West Hollywood. The office building we were in had a casting company on the first floor. When they had a call for a child part the place was swarming with stage mothers/fathers and children. Some of the children looked like they enjoyed it. Most looked like they’d rather be doing something else. All of them had parents who approved of their being there.
No, everyone who thinks show business is “fun,’ “easy” and a bed of roses is a moron.
It’s a brutal, stressful, sexist, abusive, mostly economically unrewarding, unethical and insane mess that nobody in their right mind should intentionally enter. Putting one’s children into its maw is unforgivable, no matter how talented they are.
Been watching your DVD of “The Producers” lately, Jack?
I hope neither will read this, but if they do, that neither will resent it: I keep mixing-up Mara Wilson with Jena Malone. I watched the latter in the movie “Saved!”; just about every scene thoroughly creeped me out.
When you ask “Should Child Actors Be Banned?” who are you contemplating would be doing the banning?
The industry within the market could certainly decide that the employment of children may be good for the bottom line but not good for the children and decide to take the high road and stop employing them or develop industry standards: Likelihood: LOW
The consumers within the market could certainly decide not to financially support products that were produced with side effects to obvious detriment of children, therefore destroying the bottom line for the industry to push for the option above: Likelihood: LOW
With options decreasing, it pretty much leaves you with the government. California could do it, then movies would be filmed elsewhere. The national level of the federal government could do it. But I imagine that the business interests so tied with politicians in that realm would probably reduce the likelihood of this as well. Likelihood: LOW.
Maybe there could be some kind of special union, for the children…?
We already have laws on the books that deal with child labor. How are child actors exempted from these laws?
Too messy a question to answer here. The states have different rules (which is why Hounddog, which has a male, partially nude actor simulating rape on top 12-year-old Dakota Fanning, wasn’t shot in Hollywood, and why Jon and Kate plus 8 filmed where they could claim that their kids weren’t working) and they are not enforced uniformly.
I know your opposition to the legality of alcohol but that you’ve resigned to it being so long ingrained in the culture as to be impossible to end and therefore the associated societal ills will simply exist and be mitigated.
Do you feel that such a scenario with the child actors also exists?
Sure. If even Paul Petersen won’t get behind outlawing child performers, it has no chance at all. But I still think there is no ethical argument for NOT outlawing them.
Would I be correct in assuming you’re also opposed to youth sports?
Professional or high intensity youth sports, like figure skating and gymnastics, football and basketball? Identical to child acting, and just as harmful, arguably moreso. Yup. Child abuse. The same for music prodigies.
Bonus points for being consistent.
Wouldn’t that make supporters of Beethoven and Mozart ultimately boil down to being “Ends Justifies the Means” type of people?
Sure. Mozart is a poster child for the risks of prodigy-dom.
Likewise it could be said that Beethoven is the poster child of a prodigy who, through culture and strong consistent parenting managed to make it to adulthood with pretty solid principles and a sound moral compass of his own.
There’s always the chance of educating the parents of current and would-be child actors. I don’t think banning them is a good solution – I’ve met and worked with amazing kids, and you don’t love acting as an adult if you’re forbidden from participating as a child. It’s not the child acting that’s the problem in my mind, it’s the exposure to the narcissistic, entitled, all-empowering world of Fame that rots the brain and soul.
Thanks, Jack! I love Brooke Shields! We all wanted to be Brooke. Brooke with the beautiful skin, luscious hair, perfect brows, wealth, fame; WHO wouldn’t want to be Brooke? Brooke didn’t want to be Brooke. Men twice her age approached at parties confusing her with “Violet” or the “Blue Lagoon” girl. Sexually exploited by Mapplethorpe. Put on display like a 20th century courtesan. Brooke survived.
Then there is Anissa Jones. Sweet, gentle, “Uncle Bill, Uncle Bill”. An overdose at 18. The most massive ever observed by the coroner of San Diego. Her devastated brother, Paul followed eight years later.
Gary Coleman, my childhood favorite. Gary, abused, exploited, mistreated, and discarded. Forced to work with kidney disease. He died too young. I miss Gary.
The ultimate idol. The one we all loved. Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson, the musical prodigy. A genius akin to Mozart. What a terrible, cautionary tale of abuse, neglect, exploitation, isolation, and finally a complete break with reality. I miss Michael. I miss all my childhood idols. We thought their lives were perfect. We thought it would be great to trade places. We were wrong.
Why is it that child actors are exempt from Federal / State labor laws? I understand that there are other exceptions to those rules, such as working in a family business or farm. Are any of you lawyer types familiar with that legislation?
I’m not necessarily in favor of banning child actors, though I WOULD like to ban kiddie beauty pageants (eeeewww!)
It’s called the “Newsie” exemption, after the kids who used to deliver papers. Kids in the entertainment business are exempt from regular labor laws. There are laws governing children in show business, but, many times, they are ignored. Those laws vary from state to state, too. They are stringent in California which is why filmmakers and television producers often find another state where costs are cheaper and laws governing children are either lax or nonexistent. Children in reality shows have little to no protection at all.
I’m a big admirer of Mr. Petersen’s and of his work to call attention to the exploitation of children working for profit. Especially when it’s not always for their own profit. Banning child actors? I’m not sure it’s realistic or that it will ever happen. Sadly, it would be easier to do that than to convince people to realistically assess their child’s talent, take a good hard look at the sacrifices needed to make a show business career happen and decide to just let the kid be a kid.
Question: Are the mental health and drug and alcohol problems of actors a function of the underlying personality traits required of actors? Doesn’t your brain have to be a little different for you to be able to light up a stage or a movie or TV set at age eight or twenty or sixty? And aren’t those the same brains that have trouble with personality disorders and bipolar diseases? And don’t people with these diseases medicate with sex, drugs, rock and roll and alcohol?
Certainly, there are lots of grounded, mentally well actors. But I think it’s a little akin to the situation with high performance athletes. If you can hit major league pitching, your brain has to be different. If you can drive a car 220 mph inside a walled track, your brain is different. I think the Mickey Mantles and Pete Roses and Chuck Yeagers of the world drink or gamble to shut off their very unique brains.
I just wonder whether the same applies to at least some actors and child actors.
Did Chuck Yeager have a drinking or gambling problem? If so, that would be news to me.