It seems hard to believe, but Millie Bobby Brown of Stranger Things fame makes her cinematic debut this week in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The fifteen year old Brit has been acting since she was nine, making her TV debut in an Alice in Wonderland themed spin-off of Once Upon a Time. More bit-parts followed before her massive breakthrough in Netflix’s Stranger Things, which catapulted her into the upper echelons of fame before she’d even reached adolescence. She has many illustrious honours to her name: A Screen Actors Guild ensemble award and solo nomination; An Emmy nomination in a year where her competition included Thandie Newton and Ann Dowd; a place on the Time 100 list of the world’s most influential people; a goodwill ambassador role with UNICEF (making her the youngest person to receive such an appointment); and modelling gigs with Calvin Klein and Moncler. Variety reported that she will receive a salary of $350,000 per episode for the third season of Stranger Things, a wage comparable of that to her adult co-stars Winona Ryder and David Harbour. Her Instagram following is larger than the population of the Netherlands. In short, Millie Bobby Brown is a very big deal.
So why am I constantly terrified for her?
It’s easy to forget just how damn thrilling Stranger Things seemed when it premiered, and how none of us expected it to become what it did. The show was just billed as that ’80s horror pastiche with Winona Ryder in it, a Summer filler series to bide the time until Netflix unleashed what was supposed to be The Next Big Thing, Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down. That show became a one season flop - and one of the costliest in television history - while Stranger Things turned into the must-watch show of the season. The nostalgic love letter to Stephen King and his prime era of horror had many things going for it, but it was in Brown’s performance that everything tied together. Overall, Stranger Things was a savvy show when it came to its child casting, finding kids with the acting chops to pull off the material but also the sheer charisma to evoke ’80s kids movies without seeing cloying. Brown had perhaps the toughest job of the lot as the straight man of sorts to the gaggle of geeky boys she befriends. Supported by a striking ensemble, Brown still managed to be a scene stealer, even as she barely said a word. With a shaven head and hardened eyes, Eleven is an alluring yet tragic figure who inspires as much fear as she does parental attachment. She is every lost girl, the new Carrie, the young woman who finally gets to do what the boys did before her. It wasn’t just one of the child star breakout performances of the year: It was a full-on A Star Is Born moment, and it felt like everyone knew it, especially the cast and crew of Stranger Things. Suddenly, she was everywhere and people couldn’t get enough of her. Can you forgive me for being so worried?
Truthfully, I worry for most child stars, past and present. It’s a soul sucking profession at the best of times, but being engulfed by it before you’re even old enough to know what you’re getting yourself in for is a recipe for disaster. You only need to give a cursory glance to the history of Hollywood to see how child actors in particular have suffered under this system. Jackie Coogan’s parents squandered the money he made as an actor in such a publicly scandalous way that the state of California changed their laws regarding the earnings of child performers. The Diff’rent Strokes trio struggled with everything from drug use to legal problems to bankruptcy to death. Judy Garland’s troubles from her youth onwards are now the stuff of Hollywood fables. Child stars have struggled with depression, drug use, physical and sexual abuse, and financial struggles, and that doesn’t even get into the problems that often accompany trying to break into the industry all over again as an adult. One former child actor, Paul Petersen, founded the support group A Minor Consideration to help give guidance to former child performers after the suicide of Rusty Hamer. We know this history and we’re painfully familiar with this vicious cycle, so it’s no wonder that, whenever a bright young thing enters the scene and captures our attention, there’s a voice in the back of our head that starts wondering how long it will be before it all falls apart. It’s a cruel but weary voice, one you’re desperate to prove wrong, despite the odds.
As morbid as it feels to even acknowledge it, Brown bears many of the child star warning markers that have us so nervous. She was launched into fame at an impressionable age and her family, but especially her dad, are heavily involved in managing her career.
Brown has also been a regular feature on the convention circuit, which has proven to be a lucrative side-hustle for many actors favoured in the geek sphere. One article in The Hollywood Reporter described an instance where a major TV star left a con with literal bin bags stuffed full of twenty dollar bills after a few hours of meet-and-greets and autograph sessions. At the upcoming Stranger Con, an autograph from Brown will cost you $99. In March 2017, Brown pulled out of a convention because of exhaustion and issued an apology on Instagram to the fans missing out. She got a lot of credit for the maturity of this apology, but, as Duana from LaineyGossip noted, the lack of regulation and emotional investment of these conventions is a lot to ask any adolescent girl to deal with. Imagine spending all day signing things for fans who are paying to talk to you, to get a photograph with you, to get close to you. Child labour laws restrict how many hours a day someone like Brown can be on a movie set, but they’re powerless when it comes to off-the-clock activities like cons. Brown’s management can send her out to one of those every weekend should they so desire. And the people pulling the strings behind the scenes are her family.
In 2016, after breaking through, big agencies clamoured to sign Brown, but her father made some unexpected demands. Robert Brown, according to The Hollywood Reporter, asked for $100m up front before an agency could sign his daughter, which isn’t how agencies work. Brown’s manager said she was unaware of the requests made by Millie’s father, with a rep for the Brown family saying they had made the demand but that it was ‘ill advice from someone outside the industry that was said in jest.’ Brown’s father had already given interviews talking about the major financial sacrifices the family had made to achieve Millie’s dreams, including a point where the family had to return to the UK from America when they ran out of money. Millie herself has talked about the disheartening experience of not being able to find work as a pre-teen. Work. As a kid. To support her family who were becoming increasingly reliant on her ability to make a liveable wage. When you’ve lived with that pressure, it’s not hard to see why weekends of conventions become so alluring to your team, if not yourself.
What makes Brown and fellow child stars her age so vulnerable right now is how visible they are to the world and how accessible they’ve become to the masses. They’re all on social media in part because it’s a major part of the job now but also because they’re teenagers and that’s what teens today do. Brown has become an advocate for victims of bullying, particularly in terms of online harassment, and dishearteningly, she’s the perfect candidate for that position. One especially cruel ‘meme’ attached homophobic insults and slurs to images of Brown and inferred that she was the one saying them. The ‘homophobic Millie Bobby Brown’ nonsense led her to leave Twitter for a while.
The parasocial dynamic of celebrity is tough right now, but the bind that Brown and other child stars find themselves in is trickier now than it’s ever been. Expectations are higher and they’re more open to the world as individuals: You have to be emotionally bulletproof but also vulnerable enough to appeal to the fans who want more from you; you have to grow up in the public eye, awkwardness and all, but also be socially and politically savvy beyond your years lest you slip up and face the internet’s ire; you have to respond to fan tweets and do convention meet-and-greets and be primed for any and all interruptions in your day-to-day life because the one time you’re tired and don’t feel like taking a selfie with a fan will probably be the moment when you go viral for being ‘ungrateful’. Then there are the creepy older dudes who want to be your friend (hello, Drake), or the websites dedicated to obsessing over every boy who even glances your way. And at the end of it are a slew of headlines querying as to whether you’ve gotten uncool or outstayed your welcome in Hollywood or aren’t as good as everyone says you are.
To root for any child star is to root against a crooked system that sets up the most vulnerable people in our society to fail on a grand and hyper-visible scale. Even talking about our concerns in relation to someone so famous and high-profile feels troublesome, if only because you can’t help but wonder if merely thinking about the bad side of child star fame will jinx someone like Millie Bobby Brown. How do you deal with this historical problem without treating it as some weary inevitability that none of us can do anything about? Brown is a talented and charismatic on and off-screen presence who deserves a flourishing career should she decide it is her long-term goal. I hope she has the freedom to make that choice.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.