Child Stars Have Always Been Exploited—and We’re Finally Talking About It

The sexualization of young famous women is not new, nor has it gone anywhere.

As former child star Mara Wilson wrote in a February 23rd opinion essay for The New York Times, “Our culture builds [famous] girls up just to destroy them.” She would know, having been called a “spoiled brat” and “at midlife” at just 13 after sharing her true, somewhat negative feelings to a reporter during a 2000 press junket for Thomas and the Magic Railroad. Wilson was witnessing her “narrative” come to fruition. She wrote, “I’d been trained to seem, to be, as normal as possible—whatever it took to avoid my inevitable downfall.”

Wilson penned her op-ed in response to the Times’ new doc Framing Britney Spears in which reporters investigate how Spears was doomed from the start, having been made famous by a society that loves nothing more than to ruin the women they make famous.

“The way people talked about Britney Spears was terrifying to me then, and it still is now,” Wilson wrote, referring to Spears’ tabloid-fueled “downfall.” Wilson continued, “Fortunately people are becoming aware of what we did to Ms. Spears and starting to apologize to her. But we’re still living with the scars.”

Society may be more aware of how young, female stars are treated by the press due to a modern rebrand of the way mental health is discussed, as well as celebrities’ ability to shape their own image via social media. However, we are still living in the same culture that brought up and destroyed Spears, as Tavi Gevinson explained in her opinion essay in The Cut.

Despite her current conservatorship situation, Framing Britney Spears attempted to show that Spears did, at one point, hold the power to make her own decisions and shape her own image, Gevinson wrote. The doc tried to make audiences feel better by showing proof that Spears’ outward display of her sexuality was not meant to be sexy, but rather, a symbol of empowerment, self-control, and “coolness.”

“By suggesting she once had complete control, the documentary fuels the sense of injustice when that control is then taken away [via the conservatorship],” Gevinson wrote. “The result is a documentary eager to characterize Spears’s early image as an expression of female power rather than the corporation-sanctioned sexualization of a 16-year-old.”

As is true for any young woman in Hollywood, Spears did have power in that she was young, white, and beautiful, but this power only holds value within a set of standards constructed by our patriarchal society. “The deceitful notion that you have power because you’re considered desirable centers male desire, rather than your own pleasure,” Gevinson wrote, adding that the idea of a woman being “in her prime” hurts men, too, “by teaching them to see women as commodities and to define their own self-worth according to what they can obtain.”

“If teen girls—or young women—are encountering adult men socially, they are navigating norms and expectations that were built to rationalize men’s behavior,” Gevinson continued. “They are not inured to power imbalances or how power may complicate consent. They are not historically taught to leave a sexual encounter the moment that it becomes violent or to subordinate men’s desires in favor of their own pleasure or safety.”

She continued, They are taught to be responsible for the actions of sexual predators, who receive a vast margin of plausible deniability. Even if Spears truly believed she controlled her own sexuality in the early aughts, this statement wouldn’t, and couldn’t, be truthful in the society we live in.

Young women, both famous and not, still operate in the same patriarchal system that built up and knocked down Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Drew Barrymore, and countless others who came into fame at an early age. “A big part of The Narrative is the assumption that famous kids deserve it. They asked for this by becoming famous and entitled, so it’s fine to attack them,” Wilson wrote. Think Millie Bobby Brown, the Jenner sisters, the Gen Z female TikTok-ers who trend on Twitter for the wrong reasons.

They, too, may look back years from now and see “empowering” moments “as violating, exploitative, and manipulative,” as Gevinson wrote. She continued, “I noticed that ‘gray’ and ‘complicated’ were words I used to stop questioning whatever had happened, rather than to understand it. ‘Formative’ revealed itself to mean ‘traumatic.’ ‘Creep’ or ‘bad guy’ or ‘pervy but not Harvey Weinstein’ now strike me as wildly nonspecific euphemisms for a danger that was too uncomfortable to grapple with at the time and that, again, prioritizes men’s identities over their actions.”

It’s now obvious that what Spears experienced during her teen and young adult years was wrong and traumatic. But it’s less obvious to us that the sexualization and mistreatment of young women is still happening, and has shape shifted while continuing to operate under the same male-structured standards that gave and then stripped Spears of her power. As Gevinson concludes, “Having power is not the same as being free.”

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