Sunday 18 August 2019

The pursuit of child stars makes grim reading

The new series of Stranger Things has revealed a creepy undercurrent in our culture. It has to stop, writes Ciara O'Connor

Just kids: Finn Wolfhard
Just kids: Finn Wolfhard

With every day bringing a new accusation of sexual misconduct against a Hollywood big-hitter, it's becoming increasingly obvious that something about the culture as a whole needs to change.

It's easy to blame the bigwigs for what appears to be a hyper-sexualised environment where bodies are there for the taking, but since the last season of Stranger Things was released a couple of weeks ago, it has become obvious that the rot goes much deeper - right down to the fans who watch the shows.

Stranger Things was a breakout hit when Netflix released it last year. The highly anticipated second season dropped on Halloween and fans all over the world binged on all nine episodes immediately.

The series' success is due in a large part to the cast of freakishly talented children who star in it - adult actors, including Winona Ryder, have only supporting roles.

Since the first season the kids, as kids are wont to do, have gotten older. This audacious ageing has invited a whole lot of unsavoury creepiness, and revealed some uncomfortable truths about how we view child stars.

A cursory search of Twitter reveals countless comments about 14-year-old Finn Wolfhard from grown women along the lines of, "I'm v aware of how inappropriate it is 2 have a crush on a 14-year-old but I feel like that's the only appropriate response 2 finn wolfhard" or "I feel so creepy bc I love Finn Wolfhard but he is only 14 years old".

Model Ali Michael, who is 27, shared a photo of Wolfhard with the caption "not to be weird but hit me up in four years". She tagged him so he was sure to see it. The idea that we just have to wait for kids to be "legal" once they hit puberty is an insidious one and implies that it's just an arbitrary law making it wrong, not the fact that the person is literally still a child, no matter how old you think they look.

It's the kind of viewpoint that made it acceptable for The Sun and the Sunday Sport to "count down" to the 16th birthdays of celebrities like Emma Watson and Charlotte Church, so we could all have a laugh about how sexy these underage girls were. Both women said they found it upsetting.

Indeed, Finn described the model's comment as "gross". Which is fair enough. Except for the fact that he was stopped by a reporter and asked to comment. On what planet is it OK for an adult to stop a child and ask him what he makes of another adult stating their would-be sexual attraction to him? We've totally lost it.

It seems our relationship with celebrity has become so dysfunctional that we don't know how to simply admire. We have no vocabulary to talk about actors and singers, or anyone talented, outside of sexual attraction.

Straight women do not think Jennifer Lawrence is a talented actress who seems like a laugh; they have a "girl crush" on her. Straight men talk about "fancying" Tom Hardy, when they really mean he's a badass who they'd like to have a pint with.

Perhaps it's difficult to remember that the Stranger Things kids are kids. To be sure, they have more charm and social nous than most adults. But recently at a panel at San Diego Comic Con, Wolfhard was introduced as having "the greatest porn name ever".

When appearing on Game Grumps, Finn had to ask people to stop calling him "Daddy". For those who don't live online, "Daddy" has become a meme referring to that delightful Freudian psychosexual way of identifying a male authority figure.

If you scroll through the comments on most celebrity dreamboats on Instagram you'll find hundreds of "daddy" and "choke me daddy" comments. Grim, yes. And when applied to a 14 year old? Grim doesn't cover it.

One particularly re-tweeted tweet was about how 13-year-old Millie Bobby Brown "just grew up in front of our eyes. (She's 13!)" with photos of Millie with straightened hair and make-up, wearing the kind of little kitten heels we all regrettably wore when we were kids. Because she's a kid. She hasn't just "grown up". What he, and everyone else who commented is saying, is "she hit puberty!" which is a pretty creepy thing for a strange adult man to comment on. And publicly!

This kind of sexualised discourse around child celebrities is so pervasive that he, and many others, thought nothing of posting their weird musings on a 13-year-old's body and presentation on Twitter.

As Mara Wilson, who starred in a number of films as a child in the 1990s, wrote: "It does not feel good to have strange men comment on your body when you are 13, whether in a 'positive' or 'negative' way." No s**t.

The Stranger Things kids had the audacity to go through puberty - and since they've done so they appear to have become public property.

One grown man complained that 14-year-old Finn did not stop and talk to him when he accosted him outside a hotel, calling him "rude" and "heartless".

The narrative that is built around celebrity today is that they "owe" their fans. This is disturbing enough for adult celebrities, but completely unacceptable for children.

Networks and executives aren't faultless in this. The tireless promoting that the cast have been doing feels unnecessary - the show is already a huge hit. But good ratings aren't enough for TV shows today, they have to have a life outside the show.

Media appearances and promos are carefully constructed to appeal to internet "fandoms", without which a show is nothing.

The Stranger Things boys performed a Motown medley and mockumentary bit with James Corden last week on his show - it was transparently designed to work afterwards in short, shareable, video form. It duly went viral. Hype about the boys abounded. It feels cynical and needless.

The last few days have seen a growing social media campaign to "protect the stranger things [sic] kids". It's a sign of a deeply dysfunctional time that this has had to happen.

Twitter is full of wry bets about how many of them will turn out to be drug addicts; we're all familiar with the traditional narrative of The Child Star.

But those who are fans should make sure they're not feeding into it, even as a joke. Unless you're under 16, it really is "inappropriate", "creepy" and "weird", and not in a cute way. So just don't. Because when it comes to kids, it's just not funny.

Sunday Independent

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