His name was Don, or maybe Doug. He was a grown man, one I’d never met, and he wanted me to answer his fan letter. His writing was hard to read, but I could make out just enough: “I love your legs,” and “Can I have your lip print on the enclosed index card?”
I was 15. I had acted in movies since I was five, but hadn’t appeared on screen since I was twelve. And while Don-or-Doug’s letter gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, it didn’t give me a shock. Even before I was out of middle school, I had been featured on foot fetish websites, photoshopped into child porn, and received all kinds of letters and messages online from grown men. At every premiere and awards show, I would see strange men holding photos of me they’d printed themselves, hoping I would sign, and I would, hoping they were going to sell it somewhere and not keep it. None of the boys at school paid any attention to me, except to put the occasional “kick me” sign on my back. But I had something these men wanted: my youth.
As soon as I’d hit puberty, it had become okay for strangers to discuss my body. Every time I stumbled across an article about myself, every fear I had about my pubescent body was confirmed: I was “ugly,” which as a woman, made me useless, or I was “cute,” which made me an object. I was “grown up,” which made me vulnerable. Because I was a child actor, my body was public domain.
As I threw Don-or-Doug’s letter in the recycling bin, I laughed to myself. What else could I do?
Like everyone, I watched Stranger Things. Like everyone, I was impressed with the child actors. Many tend either to go too big and melodramatic with their acting choices, or too far in the other direction, becoming over-rehearsed, wooden, and recitative. It’s rare to find child actors who are able to give nuanced emotional performances. What was remarkable about these kids was their innocence: They seemed real and genuine, like actual kids. There wasn’t anything affected or pretentious about them or their performances. Millie Bobby Brown, as Eleven, especially stood out.
I wasn’t worried about her. Not at first. It’s my nature to worry about child actors—my younger sister often calls me “a big sister to the world.” But they seemed to have a camaraderie with each other, and friends and families who could support them and understand what they were going through.
Then Millie Bobby Brown turned 13.
Last week, I saw a photo of her on Twitter, dressed up for a premiere. I thought she looked like a teenage girl. The caption, however, read that, at 13, she "just grew up in front of our eyes." It had been tweeted by a grown man.
I felt sick, and then I felt furious. A 13-year-old girl is not all grown up (opens in new tab). And even if she had been what we consider grown up, that is not newsworthy. I thought of the media outlets that posted countdown clocks (opens in new tab) until Emma Watson or Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen were “legal”—that is to say, “safe” fantasy material. These websites also run scare pieces about kidnapped children, teen sex-trafficking, and pedophile predators. Young girls at risk, young girls objectified: It’s all titillation to them. These adults fetishize innocence, and the loss of innocence even more. They know what they’re selling.
The responses to the tweet weren’t much better. There were two particular types of comment that cropped up in the replies.
“She looks so old! Why is she dressed like that?”
Dressed like what, exactly? A teenage girl who, like all teenage girls, wants to look pretty? Her outfit had been flattering, and I’d seen more revealed at a 1997 Girl Scout Father-Daughter Dance. And even if she had been dressed in a “revealing” way, what would it matter? The implication was that if a young girl in the public eye showed anything that could even possibly be construed as an expression of her sexuality, she would be an acceptable target for scorn or harassment. It was especially upsetting to see other women tweeting this kind of thing: Every woman has experienced that same harassment or scorn in her life, and they should know it never feels good.
“This must be her parents’ fault.”
Stage parents are about as popular as pharmaceutical companies or animal abusers. Perhaps the reputation is earned: While some have their children’s best interests at heart, many do not. However, saying what amounts to “if she didn’t want to be sexualized, her parents should not have dressed her that way” takes the responsibility away from the one doing the sexualizing. It would be unacceptable for an adult to comment on the body of a 13-year-old girl they knew. So why do these adults make pronouncements about the body of a 13-year-old girl they have never met?
I laughed when it happened to me. But I can’t laugh when it happens to others.
There has been a lot of discussion (opens in new tab) recently of abuse in Hollywood, and rightfully so. Is Hollywood inherently corrupt, hostile to women and young people (opens in new tab)? Possibly. My position, as someone who grew up in and near Hollywood, has always been that it isn’t necessarily immoral, but amoral. 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.
Yet for the most part, I felt safe growing up on film sets. Yes, I did see producers and famous actors make inappropriate comments to crew members and less famous actors. I did hear stories about adults commenting on children’s bodies, grabbing them, even stalking them. But they were never more than stories to me. I never had that same sick feeling I had as a young girl opening a letter from a strange man, or checking my fan sites—or as an adult, reading a tweet about Millie Bobby Brown.
What’s really at play here the creepy, inappropriate public inclination to sexualize young girls in the media. We do not need to perpetuate the culture of dehumanization Hollywood has enabled. But the media has become democratized; social media and user-generated content mean anyone can write about anyone, and there is a good chance anyone will see it. 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.
I’m not saying we need to tiptoe around celebrities’ feelings. But we should be careful and thoughtful. I’m thirty years old now, much less of a celebrity than I once was, and if a stranger on the internet tells me that I’m ugly, or that they want to have sex with me (which happens multiple times a week), I can handle it. I am not a child anymore. Millie Bobby Brown is. Commenting on a child’s body, whether in a “positive” or “negative” way, in a sexualizing or pitying way, is still commenting on a child’s body.
And I don’t think people want to accept, on the extreme end of the spectrum, how many Don-or-Dougs there are out there. Some of these predators might be unreachable, completely unable to understand their actions. Child stars are seen as theirs: their property, their fantasy. Predators can fetishize their innocence and youth without any guilt, because they believe that once a child becomes a public figure, they forfeit their rights to be protected the way a child should. The sad and scary truth is that they have greater access to child stars these days: One can only imagine what John Hinckley or the man who murdered Rebecca Shaeffer could have done if they’d had social media. As the complete failure of many social media platforms to tackle harassment promptly and effectively has shown us, monsters can hide in plain sight. We need to acknowledge this, and we need accountability.
But some of us can grasp the potential impact of our words on these children. It’s never a bad idea to assume whoever you discuss on the internet can and will see what you say about them, and this is doubly true of children. Nobody can protect them all of the time. I had protective parents, and agents reading my fan mail before sending it on, but Don-or-Doug found a way to slip through, as predators always do. And it wasn’t just the predators who hurt me. We—the public, the media—are all grown up. We just need to act like it.
Mara Wilson is best known for her childhood roles in Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda. Now she plays The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home on Welcome to Night Vale, and has appeared on Broad City and Bojack Horseman. Her writing has appeared on McSweeney’s, Reductress, Cracked, The Toast, and her first book, Where Am I Now? (opens in new tab) was published by Penguin in September 2016.
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