If you’re ever bored and want a reminder of how depressing the world is, go onto the website for the Daily Mail — the world’s largest online newspaper, by the way — and google the phrase ‘all grown up’. It won’t take you long to find countless articles of celebrity coverage dedicated to leering over under-age young women, or those who have just passed the age of 16. There’s a video of Amber Le Bon in a Karen Millen ad, age 14, that fawns over how ‘sophisticated’ she looks; there’s 16 year old Kiernan Shipka on the red carpet; there are several on Bindi Irwin and Kylie Jenner throughout the years; there’s one on Anna Chlumsky that seems shocked to discover she’s not the kid from My Girl anymore; there’s even one on Jessica Alba’s two year old daughter, defined as grown up because she’s wearing a dress that’s vaguely similar to her mother’s.
The Daily Mail aren’t exactly known for their respectful boundaries on issues of gender or sex, but it’s still completely unnerving to see the patterns they follow with this supposed coverage. It’s mostly women who are subjected to this ‘all grown up’ fetishizing, and attention is always paid to how mature or sophisticated or adult they look, regardless of whether or not that actually do. If they’re the child of a celebrity, further focus will be given to how much they look like their glamorous mother or dashing father, with comparisons made between body parts. The message is clear: In the eyes of the media, these girls are public property, and the Mail invites you to lecher over them.
I wasn’t surprised to see the Mail pull this exact line with Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown at the L.A. premiere for the second season. It bothered me more to see people on Twitter buying into the All Grown Up myth, as if it excused them from making snide comments about her appearance or casually dismissive remarks about her acting or character on the show. So many people didn’t seem to care that Brown is only 13. Then again, such concerns have always been easily dismissed when it comes to child stars. The other kids on the show have received similarly unnerving treatment both from the media and fans, a lot of which has come from people old enough to be their parents. They’re simultaneously infantilised and talked to like toddlers, yet held to the kind of standards demanded primarily of seasoned professionals in their late 40s. They must be cute yet achingly precocious, the perfect child who can sell their images like adults. They must be all grown up yet remain in a state of arrested development.
Stranger Things was a surprise hit for Netflix, one that they never could have predicted would reach the meteoric heights of buzz and enthusiasm that it did. It was mostly intended to be a filler show for the Summer season, a chaser to the intended hit, The Get Dowm. That was quickly cancelled while Stranger Things became a critical and commercial darling, pushing its core cast of kids into the limelight and the endless circuit of talk shows, interviews, red carpets and convention signings. A full year between seasons, the kids of the show became the go-to chat show guests and fan favourites, even more than bigger names like Winona Ryder and David Harbour. Now, the show is back and with more attention than ever, with an after-show, toy lines, merchandising, and the inimitable weight of expectations. The budget’s bigger, the audiences more expansive, and Netflix’s hopes greater than they ever could have anticipated for a genre homage to Stephen King and The Goonies. That’s a lot of pressure to put on any kid, but there’s something about the way the Stranger Things ensemble has been packaged and sold to the public that feels like an intense microcosm of everything wrong with how we treat child actors, and I can’t help but feel my unease grow at how very wrong it could all go.
Our pop culture demands more from kids now. That key demographic of kids aged 13-19 has moved its power to the internet, turning social media influencers into worldwide stars whose clout remains unknown to anyone older than 21. The tried and tested Disney Channel/Nickelodeon model still exists but now it’s all about the Instagram likes and YouTube views, combined with the pressure of the traditional entertainment system. The Stranger Things kids are all active on social media, and it doesn’t take much digging through their mentions to see unsettling stuff, vocal demands from fans and discomfiting confessions, all coming in hundreds of tweets at a time, so dizzying that keeping up with it is a full-time occupation.
We also get sick of people much quicker than we used to, with online coverage and the 24 hour news cycle making the process faster than ever. We demand more and more from celebrities but wish to dispose of them more speedily than before. If they don’t meet fan requests, they’re labelled ungrateful, as Finn Wolfhard was by a grown man on Twitter for not stopping for an autograph. The uncomfortable entitlement many feel towards their favourite celebrities becomes especially upsetting when directed at children.
The ensemble of kids has faced these pressures, but arguably none so much as Brown, who has the pressure of supporting her family on her shoulders. Part of the ‘dream story’ of Brown’s rise to fame has been tied to her years as a struggling child actress, wherein her family poured all their savings into making her a star. Before she’s old enough to drive, Brown is financially supporting her family, and her father seems eager to make that count, reportedly demanding a $100,000 bonus from Brown’s new agent before she signed with them. That’s on top of her numerous appearances on the convention circuit, where fans pay upwards of $50 in cash for an autograph or photo-op. These con gigs are major money spinners, with one Hollywood Reporter article noting how some stars could leave after a day’s work with ‘garbage bags of 20s’. Brown ended up dropping out of one scheduled appearance — wherein she was the only appearing cast member — due to exhaustion. There are child labour laws regulating the hours a kid can work on-set during shooting, but there’s nothing stopping parents from marching those kids to conventions every weekend to full up those garbage bags. The financial windfall may be great but the emotional cost is often unaccounted for: Hours of interacting with people who have paid to stand near you or ask for a hug or something special to make their day, many of whom are adults, all of whom want something from you.
Perhaps that was what upset me so much about seeing her subjected to the All Grown Up gaze. She’s already empowered and stifled by the demands of adulthood in a way no child should ever be, and it’s accepted not only as the norm but as an exciting stepping stone to success. Brown’s adolescence could be heavily documented by the press and scrutinised as if she were performing her latest part. Has Hollywood already decided if she’ll be the glamorous leading lady or the ‘dumpy’ best friend? Is this a discussion her agent has already had with her and her family?
The impossible to ignore problem with Stranger Things is that eventually people will get over it. It will stop being the hottest show on TV and quickly be replaced by something new and exciting that gets people’s enthusiasm revved up. Those kids are incredibly talented and will hopefully be able to have sustained careers should they wish to, but it’s hard to overlook how their popularity in this bubble will burst, because that’s what we do and that’s how we view fads. Child actors are dismissed as disposable commodities by a culture that demands everything off them.
I think a lot about the child stars of our culture and how well-known their tragic stories have become: I think of Judy Garland, who was pitted against Lana Turner as the sexless chubby best friend by MGM before being put on the drug regimen that controlled her entire life; or of Jackie Coogan, whose exploitation of his earnings by his family led to a change in law; and Brad Renfro, the bright young star who fell into alcoholism and drug addiction (Wikipedia still identifies him by his mugshot); and Judith Barsi, horrifically abused and murdered by her father; of River Phoenix, who claimed he lost his virginity at the age of 4; of the two Coreys and their descent into walking punchlines, even as they pleaded with the world to listen to their stories of abuse in the industry; of Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan, who the media prefer to think of as crazy bitches than troubled women poisoned by the business; of Brooke Shields, who did nude scenes at 12 and needlessly provocative Calvin Klein jeans ads at 14; and I think of every sidebar ad I’ve ever seen begging for my clicks to show just how hideously ugly all your favourite child stars got.
The Stranger Things kids may be the exception to a cruel rule. Perhaps they’ll be the ones who go on to have careers like Jodie Foster and Leonardo DiCaprio, or maybe they’ll get out of the business and have happy lives independent of Hollywood. I hope that the world doesn’t ruin them, as it so often does with the kids they bring out to entertain the masses. They shouldn’t have to grow up so quickly to meet those demands.