Both the public and the media have a responsibility to protect child actors

The huge success of Stranger Things, the award winning television show on Netflix, has recently been the at the centre of a debate about the ways in which child stars are treated by the public and media. Can a collective blame be placed on the public’s acceptance of objectification as an unavoidable part of being a young star? Or should the blame be more concentrated on the hypocrisy inherent in the media outlets that both condemn yet simultaneously perpetuate the sexualisation of children?

Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike in the series, has had a lot of support from other actors after being criticised by fans for not greeting them as they waited for him outside his hotel, calling him ‘rude’ and ‘ heartless’. Game of Thrones actress Sophie Turner tweeted, saying ‘It doesn’t matter if they are an actor… they are kids first. Give them the space they need in order to grow without feeling like they owe anyone anything for living their childhood dreams’. Shannon Purser, who plays Barb in Stranger Things, has also tweeted her support, saying that ‘No actor is under any obligation to stop for anyone’, that Finn is ‘human and he needs breaks too’.

Most would agree that the responses of Turner and Purser are entirely accurate– Finn Wolfhard is a 14 year old child, and should be allowed to live out his childhood without feeling obligated to stop for every person he meets in the street. Parents drill into their children from infancy the importance of ‘stranger danger’, yet dedicated fans of child stars seem to expect them to forgo this when they are approached for an autograph or a selfie. In their endeavours to provide us with television entertainment, they are unable to attend school properly, they miss out on formative interaction with other children of their age, and instead they are thrown into a world filled with schedules, travelling, and expectations.

Perhaps even more invasive is the incessant media coverage these children face; the documentation and commentary surrounding every social outing or trip to the shops. A seemingly obvious statement is that it is wrong to sexualise or glamorise the lives and bodies of underage children. With recent sexual harassment allegations at the forefront of every news channel and publication, one would assume that child sexualisation would be far from accepted in modern day society. But unfortunately, this assumption is incorrect, and society appears to find no issue with idealizing and even fetishizing these underage stars.

Model Ali Michael has been accused of sexualizing Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard, posting an Instagram story with a picture of the young actor and the caption ‘Not to be weird but hit me up in 4 years’. Given that Wolfhard is several years below the age of consent, and that there is a thirteen-year age gap between the two, this post, naturally, did not go down well. Michael has since apologised, claiming it was a joke, and that ‘It was never my intention (nor has it ever been) to sexualise a minor in any way’.  Wolfhard himself condemned Michael’s comments, describing them as ‘gross’.

Despite the backlash that Michael’s post was met with, the sexualisation of these actors seems to be systemic, enabled first and foremost by the media. Wolfhard’s co-star Millie Bobby Brown, aged 13, was featured on a Halloween costume website which labelled her childish outfits as ‘sexy’, and has also been included in a list of actors under the title ‘Why TV Is Sexier Than Ever’ on the cover of W Magazine alongside adult stars such as Nicole Kidman, Claire Foy, Alexander Skarsgard and James Franco. The same media publication that created this cover story followed it two months later with an article disparaging Kevin Spacey and discussing his inadequate response to the paedophilic sexual assault allegations of then-fourteen- year-old Anthony Rapp. Finn Wolfhard has recently fired his agent following several sexual assault allegations, another story which gossip magazines have covered, whilst also producing columns focusing on the physical desirability of other young stars.

This duplicitous treatment of these two issues begs the question – isn’t it entirely hypocritical for the same publication to sexualise and idealise actors under the  age of sixteen, yet also to denounce the paedophilic sexual assault and harassment cases that are currently being investigated? Can this multi-faceted coverage not be condemned for perpetuating the sexual harassment, assault, and rape culture of underage children?

This blatant sexualisation of minors is entirely inappropriate, and it shines a light on the inherent hypocrisy of the media that has so far seemingly gone unnoticed. With Stranger Things 2 released this October, we are once again provided with critically acclaimed and award winning entertainment viewable from the comfort of our homes. So what can society give back to these children who are being objectified, criticised, and potentially mentally damaged as a peripheral result of their careers?

In 2014, in a speech as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, fellow child star Emma Watson said that she decided that she was a feminist when ‘At 14 I started to be sexualised by certain elements of the media’, and in a 2016 interview with The Times, she said ‘you have to accept that there will always be a certain portion of the media who will want to sensationalise and pigeonhole me’. Watson’s experience shows how long this sexualisation of children, particularly females, has been occurring for, and how it is now being normalised and accepted as commonplace.

Adult fans and the media alike should remember that these actors are still children, and should endeavour to prevent such sexualisation from being imposed upon them.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

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