2:00 pm EDT, November 16, 2017

With all the abuse in Hollywood, how are we protecting child actors?

Shows like Stranger Things and Game of Thrones put kids at the center of the biggest fandoms in the world. As we unravel Hollywood’s horrifying culture of abuse, what can we do to protect the children?

As Hollywood begins to purge itself of its sexual predators, more and more victims and perpetrators come to light. The list of men accused of using their power to assault others goes on and on. Slowly, we’re starting to have conversations about the insidiousness of a culture of abuse, especially when it comes to women. But let’s not forget that Hollywood also employs many, many children.

It’s a horrible thing to think about, but it’s necessary. If the conversations we’re having are to actually improve anything, we have to acknowledge the ways in which we are contributing, or turning a blind eye, to the mistreatment of child actors.

On Tuesday, Mara Wilson, who played Matilda in the classic 1996 film and recently published an autobiography about her experiences as a child actor, penned an opinion piece in which she addressed the dangerous position studios, tabloids and fandoms put child actors in. She was motivated to write it by comments she read on Twitter about 13-year-old Stranger Things star, Millie Bobby Brown — comments taking note of how “grown up” she looked.

Wilson brought to light an important issue that we should really talk about more. With so many mainstream TV shows geared towards adults revolving around an underage cast, viewership takes on a new kind of responsibility. We may not be responsible for the dangers of Hollywood, but we are responsible for the culture of silence that surrounds them.

mara wilson

Call out the mistreatment of young actors

The conversation surrounding Millie Bobby Brown isn’t the first of its kind we’ve seen. As Wilson pointed out, these things are insidious — from count-down clocks for teen actors about to turn 18, to shaming young artists or actresses for clothing, makeup or work-related choices that are “too grown up.” No matter how widespread the practice of reporting these things is, putting a child or teen’s body and development in the spotlight that is never appropriate.

The same goes for undue scrutiny on their relationships — which isn’t really okay with adults, either, by the way, but particularly heinous when we’re talking about teens. We saw this with Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber and Lorde when they were teens, and we’re still seeing it now. Coverage of actors’ personal lives is always of doubtful morality, but when it comes to children, it’s simply disgusting.

But there’s an audience for it. We click on tabloid articles about the Obama children, or the Stranger Things cast. We theorize which will be the next Disney star to “lose it.” And when we see child actors lost to alcohol or drugs or suicide, we shake our heads, blame them and do nothing.

The only way to stop it is to criticize these takes on young stars, and put an end to conversations that might seem harmless on the surface, but are actually disturbing. Defend child stars’ choices, and respect them.

Be responsible with fan interactions

Another Stranger Things actor, 14-year-old Finn Wolfhard, recently fired his agent after a string of sexual assault allegations were revealed about the latter. Shortly afterwards, fans came to his defense when a 27-year-old model made inappropriate comments about him. He was also harassed by a supposed fan for not stopping to interact with them, which brought both Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner and Shannon Purser, who played Barb in Stranger Things, to his defense.

It’s been a very eventful week for Wolfhard, but it gives us a glimpse of what life must be like as a young actor. It’s sad but probable that Turner herself has had similar experiences, having spent years in the global spotlight as a teen.

Besides the obvious fact that harassing a person into interacting with you is never acceptable, it should be clear that interactions with adult stars should be different from those with someone who’s underage. But fans can often seem to forget that the characters we love are being played by children, and that as a fandom, we owe them even more respect and space than we do an adult, who is probably more equipped to filter out unwanted interactions,

It must be a lot of pressure to grow up without the luxury of anonymity. Sometimes there are more important things than getting an autograph.

Hold Hollywood accountable

Unfortunately, fans aren’t usually in the position to be able to stop abuse happening behind closed doors or in the homes of Hollywood’s elite. But we do have some power — the same power that got Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey fired, that had Louis C.K. disgraced, and that is finally making people feel safe enough to tell their stories.

It would be nice to think that Netflix and other studios’ willingness to drop some of their biggest names comes from a place of compassion — but it’s more likely that it comes from the realization that fans will hold them accountable.

As fans, we should demand that studios drop alleged pedophiles and other sexual abusers involved in their projects. We should criticize stories that sexualize young characters or force young actors into uncomfortable situations. And we should never let our love for a show, a movie or a character stop us from protecting Hollywood’s most vulnerable population. As Wilson stated:

“When actors are dehumanized, objectified, seen as bankable resources rather than people, this makes for an extreme imbalance of power. And no one loves an imbalance of power more than a predator. (…) We are all part of the media, but I don’t know if we’ve realized that yet, nor understood what a tremendous responsibility that is.”

Let’s be loud about these stories; share them, bring them up in conversation, and take a stance. We need to point out the systemic abuse happening behind the scenes, and hold people accountable for letting it happen.

Hollywood is being cleaned out of abusers — we need to make sure they get rid of every last one of them.

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