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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - VIEWPOINTS -

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-yearold 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 retweeted 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.

JUST KIDS: Finn Wolfhard

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