For quite some time, I've been uneasy to angry about the way our culture uses children for entertainment. James Kincaid includes a brief essay on child stars and their exploitation as the postscript to his 1998 book, Erotic Innocence; since I read that, around 2002, I've been very aware of child stars and trick children of all varieties.
Child stars are sort of a punchline - think of all those child stars of the 60s and 70s who grew up to be drug addicts, have eating disorders, be generally mocked and discarded after their cute years ended. Macauley Culkin is a good example of a more recent child star who outgrew his usefulness (ie, his cuteness, his child-ness). There have definitely been successes - child stars who grew up to have normal adult lives, child stars who managed to successfully transition to being actors, musicians, etc as adults. But more often, there's some kind of messy trauma around these kids who are used to satisfy the desires of adults.
Paul Petersen (former child star on the Donna Reed Show) has an advocacy group, A Minor Consideration, that focuses especially on the legal and financial issues surrounding child stars. Kids have been consistently screwed out of their earnings by their parents since - oh, since children started appearing on stages and on the screen. This was partially corrected by the Coogan Bill in the late 30s (a law which has since been updated).
But the bigger problem is that we LOVE cute kids. we love ogling them. and then, when they aren't cute anymore, we laugh at them. we take advantage of them. Worse, their parents exploit and take advantage of them. The absurd Gosselin family - the Jon & Kate + 8 people - highlight this in the worst way.
The cover story of US Weekly is about the Gosselins' breakup. And how the kids are suffering, experiencing this divorce very, very publicly, and being used by their parents. Well, NO KIDDING! They've BEEN used by their parents since day one. No one cared much then, when they looked like a well-scrubbed family of matchy-matchy kids with Solid Christian Values. But now, we pretend to have concern for the kids even as we're splashing their pictures all over magazines and tabloid tv.
Michael Jackson's death last month brought this all up again. Everyone sadly shook their heads over the way Michael never had a real childhood, etc etc etc. But you know who made it possible for that little boy's childhood to be taken from him? WE DID. us. we bought the product. the record labels and studios deliver what we want, and we eat that shit right up. Then, when the kid - Michael - grows up weird, we wonder why. Listen: Michael began performing publicly with the Jackson 5 when he was FIVE YEARS OLD. Their father - a truly appalling, greedy. crass man - took the boys to perform in bars, strip clubs and auditoriums when Michael was as young as six. That's a first-grader, a kindergartener. Michael was about 10 when the band hit it big and appeared on national tv. That's fifth grade.
The two little kids who acted in Slumdog Millionaire have upset me enormously; those kids came from slums, and were returned to them, even after the film made a ton of money and won academy awards. some trust funds were set up - contingent on the kids' finishing school! - but those children went back to sleeping under plastic and living in worse than hovels. And we think: how cute!
Kids may enjoy performing - acting, singing, etc - but they are also working. One of the creepy aspects of show business is that the product is a person - we consume the star, we devour them. Adults may not know everything they're getting themselves into when they launch show business careers, but they are certainly more aware, and more equipped to handle, these things than kids are. Even the most sophisticated, intelligent kid is still a child.
I am not some kind of sappy character who believes the children are the future. I love Lee Edelman's work in No Future. I do, however, believe that they are people- humans who are entitled to some dignity and respect and rights.
I try to avoid child-based products whenever I can. sometimes, it can't be avoided - there's some great television and film with child actors. But the gross commercialization and exploitation - as in the Gosselins, or pageant children (that appalling TLC show Tots & Tiaras!) - or even those Ann Geddes products with babies dressed up as bunnies and sunflowers - I avoid those like the plague.
It's important to remind ourselves of the costs of child stardom. It's far too easy, and too common, to say "what a cute kid," then forget about him or her. How often do people say "I wonder whatever happened to THAT kid?" about some child star who ten years earlier had been on covers of magazines. How often to the tabloids run articles about the drug arrests, broken marriages, bankruptcies and other crises of former child stars? All those breakdowns, rehabs, meltdowns - we are all partially responsible for those, and I think it's time we started paying better attention to what we're doing to these kids.