Ever since the explosive success of Stranger Things, a weird thing has been happening on the Internet. It’s not supernatural or alien related, but it certainly is disturbing, and that is the creeping sexualization of some of the child actors on the hit series — a cast of kids who are, we must remember, mostly in their early teens.
Most of the attention has focused on young actress Millie Bobby Brown, who won an Emmy last year for her performance of Eleven, a supernaturally gifted young runaway with a recurrent nosebleed. All over social media, heated conversations (read shrieking, profanity-ridden arguments) have been breaking out between fans who feel entitled to comment on Brown’s appearance and fans who feel that this is tantamount to publicly ogling children.
And then there’s the US celebrity magazine W, which included Brown in a cover list of the stars who make “TV sexier than ever” this week. To be precise, W was technically saying that TV was sexy, not Brown, but the unnerving association is clear (pretty young teen equals smoking-hot TV totty). Not surprisingly, many found the correlation deeply offensive. Culture Affinity, a blog devoted to dissecting American pop culture, called the magazine feature tantamount to promoting pedophilia and pointed out that “there is no need for child actors to grow up knowing that adults are disgustingly lusting after them.”
This point was underscored in the backlash against 27-year-old American model Ali Michael, who came under fire for tweeting that 14-year-old actor Finn Wolfhard (who plays Mike Wheeler in the series) should “hit her up in four years’ time” and tagged the young actor on it. A joke, obviously, as outlined in her subsequent apology. But I entreat you to watch Wolfhard’s heartbreakingly awkward response in a video Q&A if you don’t find the whole thing unnerving.
You see, it’s not just that we live in a culture that sexualizes children; it’s that, in the age of social media, children are no longer sheltered from it. Imagine not just going through the self-conscious hell of puberty but also having every aspect of your pubescent body and emerging sexuality remarked on and dissected by the press and social media.
Earlier this month, Mara Wilson, the now-30-year-old actress best known for playing the title role in the Hollywood adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, gives us a clear-eyed sense in her essay for U.S. Elle. In the piece, Wilson describes her own experience growing up in the public eye (she was never abused but was on the receiving end of a plethora of unwanted attention) and expresses her adult rage at the public ogling of Brown. Most eloquently, Wilson sets out the reason why we should all really be offended by the systematic objectification of minors.
“My position, as someone who grew up in and near Hollywood, has always been that it isn’t necessarily immoral but amoral,” she writes. “When actors are dehumanized, objectified and seen as bankable resources rather than people, this makes for an extreme imbalance of power. And no one loves an imbalance of power more than a predator.”
In this way, without ever mentioning Harvey Weinstein, Wilson draws a simple and obvious connection between the pervy adult men who sent her marriage proposals at the age of eight and the sexual assault scandals currently ripping apart the U.S. entertainment industry. Predators like Weinstein are not born fully formed; they are nurtured and allowed to flourish in environments that reward the exploitation of the weak for the enrichment of the powerful. Hollywood is, undoubtedly, such an environment (as is our economic system as a whole) and, consequently, the exploitation of children — sexually or otherwise — is nothing new.
From the days of teenage Judy Garland popping pills in her corset on the set of The Wizard of Oz to Brown on the cover of W, young female bodies have long fed the greedy and sexually exploitative beast called Hollywood. As its audience and media (for in the digital era, we are all the media now), we have a responsibility to demand better treatment—not just for vulnerable children but for everyone involved in an industry well known for eating its own. Exploitation works on a continuum. Let’s start by letting kids be kids even — perhaps especially — when they’re in the spotlight.