“I was conditioned to believe any boundary I wanted was a betrayal of her, so I stayed silent. Cooperative.”
This is a line from Jannette McCurdy’s new memoir: I’m Glad My Mom Died. With the release of this book, she launched a wave of child stars, primarily from Disney and Nickelodeon, speaking out about the abuse they endured. Typically at the hands of the company and industry in which they worked. Usually these stars are called crazy and unappreciative without any criticism as to why.
We’ve seen actors like Macauly Caulkin, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, and Demi Lovato struggle with substance abuse and call out their industry. Except, as consumers, we’ve individualized this abuse to be a problem that only they face instead of the systemic issues that are presented to child stars. The pattern shows that when the child star becomes the sole financial provider in their household, the balance is thrown off, often ending with the child failing to adjust to their new level of responsibility. Senior researcher in child studies, Jane O’Connor, adds “the fascination with fallen child stars can be seen as a reaction against the more generalized fear that children today are becoming too powerful, too knowing, and are growing up too fast.” Contrasting young celebrities who come from stable and financially well-off families who have an easier time. When it comes to nepotism babies, it’s easier to trust the parents because they’re in the industry. They know who to stay away from, what their child is worth, and how to navigate the world more than someone just entering. McCurdy, on the other hand, was pushed into this industry by a mother who wanted to live through her daughter.
Most recently on this trend of child stars speaking out: Selena Gomez had released a documentary titled My Mind & Me where she discusses coming to terms with her bipolar disorder. A large point of conversation throughout the documentary was her grapple with child stardom. She says she’s been working since she was seven. One moment that sticks out to viewers is when she finishes up an interview and, with disdain, says that being shut down after her answers to questions made her feel “like Disney.”
Similar to McCurdy’s storyline and the storyline of many others, she came from a lower income household. Many of these child actors grew up in situations where, eventually, they would become the main source of income. It seems like the thing these industries most latch on to are family dynamics. Those who come from families where there is struggle are most likely to be further hurt by industries that view them as dollar signs and nothing more.
The history of the child performer first really came into play in the Western world in the 18th/19th century with child prodigies like Mozart and Beethovan. Then in the Victorian Era there was something called “the infant phenomenon.” This was when kids would showcase their talents in theatres or travelling carnivals. This did not go completely unchallenged, though, as many were concerned about the wellbeing of these children.
One notable case when discussing the history of the child star in film is that of Jackie Coogan. His appearance in Charlie Chaplins The Kid made him one of the first child stars in Hollywood. In his case, his mother and stepfather spent much of his fortune and, after taking them to court, California enacted the Child Actor’s Bill, or The Coogan Law. This law requires that a child actor’s employer set aside 15% of their earnings in a trust. Still, these young stars still often find themselves at odds with their parents who depend on them for money. As well as loopholes in the law. McCurdy has mentioned in several interviews that she received a letter saying the Coogan account was not properly filed and she has never seen that money that her mother was in charge of. This is different from stars such as Mila Kunis who’s parents didn’t take any money from. Parents who wanted their child to succeed but didn’t need them to.
Daniel Radcliffe has said that the reason he feels he was so easily able to make the transition from child stardom to adult was because of his parents. In an interview with Conan O’brien, he’d said “I have, like, very, like, good, normal parents who were both very supportive of me, but also asked me in between every film, basically, ‘are you still enjoying this? Are you still having fun? You do know you don’t have to do this.’”
Demi Lovato mentioned in a conversation with Drew Barrymore that all the responsibility, money, and freedom caused her to resent her parents. She said, “when they would try and ground me at 17, I would say, ‘I pay the bills!’” Lovato grew up under immense pressure as a Disney Channel child to look, behave, and perform in a certain way while dealing with the responsibilities of being her family’s provider eventually led her to harmful coping mechanisms. Sadly, many of them were made public such as her history of self-harm and drug abuse. It’s easy to view this as a black-and-white issue but one must remember that when a legal guardian comes to rely on the money their child generates to support themselves, it’s easy to overlook struggles for fear that seeking help might negatively impact the income they depend on.
Mara Wilson, who starred in Matilda as a child, retired from acting to pursue writing instead. In an article for The New York Times, she began telling a story about being alone on her birthday, save for a nanny. She goes on to discuss what she calls “The Narrative”; specifically through the lens of Britney Spears. Wilson wrote, “I was never sexually harassed on a film set. My sexual harassment always came at the hands of the media and the public.” She cites that the narrative given to child stars is that they deserve all the harassment, all the abuse, and all the traumas purely because they are in the business. It is media sources and consumers blaming children for speaking out as victims.
MGM was giving Judy Garland pills to stay awake and lose weight as well as bind her breasts and wear a corset to keep a 14-year-old silhouette, Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered by an obsessed stalker, and Drew Berrymore was taken to clubs instead of school. One big difference Wilson mentions is she was sheltered by the support of her parents: “I knew that I had money put away for me, and it was mine. If I needed to escape the public eye, I vanished — safe at home or school.” She started acting when she was five, insisting on the decision to her parents. Like McCurdy’s case, we see the resentful effects of forcing children into an industry they don’t want to be in. However, even in the case of protective parents, sometimes they can’t help their child. At seven, Wilson was asked about her thoughts on Hugh Grant’s scandal with sex workers. Her father calling the station and complaining about the inappropriateness of the situation couldn’t help his daughter in cases when he could only be there after the fact.
Media outlets view young performers as commodities–as objects. Brook Shields has said that years of being sexualized have made her feel like she has no control over her body. Brenden Fraser was blacklisted for speaking out about being sexually assaulted by former HFPA president, Phillip Berk. Then of course, there is Corey Feldman, who starred in The Goonies. He has been talking about pedophiles in Hollywood for years but is, like Fraser and many others, shut down time and again. Most notably, shut down by Barbara Walters of The View in 2013. In the case of Disney stars, especially the young women, many often feel the need to sexualize themselves in order to step away from the “Disney image.” Think of Miley Cyrus’ Cant’t be Tamed music video. Christina Aguilera began in The Mickey Mouse Club but, upon leaving Disney, she released Dirrty. In an interview with the Irish Times, Aguilera said that this song was her attempt to rip up the innocent image she’d been left with, post Disney. Many child stars lose a sense of identity because, as one can imagine, when you’re still developing your sense of who you are while playing a character, it’s easy for those two to tie together. When parents are condemning 18-year-old Miley Cyrus for growing up and not acting like her character Miley Stewart, it’s easy to feel lost. One reason for Elizabeth Taylor’s success as a child star is she was able to separate her characters from herself. She said, “I began to see myself as two separate people. Elizabeth Taylor the person and Elizabeth Taylor the commodity. I saw the difference between my image and my real self. Before I reached my teens, I resolved to separate my feelings of self-worth from the public image of Elizabeth Taylor.”
Not only does their industry view them as walking dollar signs, but these stars also have to answer to their fans. Parasocial relationships lead to never being allowed to make mistakes. They make a mistake and people feel like they no longer know them, even though they don’t actually know them. When we analyze when most child stars have their “breakdown,” it’s during their late teens and 20s. These are years when people normally go through life changes, the only difference is most people can do it privately, face consequences, and don’t have an endless amount of money to fuel them.
Sometimes, the people the child star work for take over. Surrounded by yes-men, there is no way to get to them because all they hear are people praising their bad decisions or villainizing them for simple mistakes. These children end up living in hyperboles. In extremes. They’re either praised for their abuses and pushed to them or they’re the worst person in the world and responsible for their fans’ parents not being able to control their own kids. Billy Ray Cyrus has even said in the past that, even though he was tied to his daughter through Hannah Montana, he had not been able to have a voice in regards to his child, only being reached out to after she was in trouble. Shirley Temple has said in her autobiography that mothers were restricted frm being on set so that they could not object to the mistreatment of their children.
Being exploited by a guardian or adults who should have your best interest in mind can lead the child to feel like there is no safe person to protect them. Of course they would act out and experience trauma symptoms. It is a very tall order to ask a child who is surrounded by adults, in the position of an adult, and made to act like an adult to maintain their childlike naivety in order to please. It’s easy to cast people off as crazy when we are being fed a narrative by people who benefit off that storyline. Activists like Alyson Stoner have been campaigning for mandatoria media and industry literacy courses for parents and representatives of child performers. She’s also been campaigning for a third party qualified mental health professional to be on film sets, especially when there are children on sets. It’s fruitless to think that child performers are just going to go away. Clearly there are children who love it and who have adjusted well to the industry. However, we must remember that those cases are because they have been given the resources and care to advocate for themselves. Being able to create those structures within Hollywood for all child actors and performers is important to ensure that kids who get into the industry don’t lose themselves in it.