The power and price of kindness

Fame can bring financial success to young artists, but it also comes with hidden costs. Credit: Shutterstock

Anyone who paid attention to North American pop culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s will remember that it was a time fascinated by childhood. The most common entertainment revolved around idealized images of predominantly white children and young teenagers. From the appealing cast of the Harry Potter franchise, to fresh-faced pop princesses, to child characters in shows for young and old, idealized images of childhood were everywhere.

Many of those who performed the roles are now mature enough to make sense of having been kids growing up in the public eye. It should come as no surprise that many of them have had uncomfortable and even traumatic experiences. Adding to the intense drama of recent events in the life of Britney Spears, the memoirs of Sarah Polley and Jennette McCurdy have us wondering why we love seeing child stars and what our appetite for cute white kids says about us.

The costs of fame

The phenomenon of childhood stardom is not new. Researcher Jane O’Connor suggests that Jesus was the first child star; a seemingly old soul in a tiny body whose ability to dazzle adults at a young age was a sign of things to come.

In the 1700s, Mozart and his sister Maria Anna spent much of their childhood on tour, performing lovably and brilliantly for audiences across Europe.

With the development of 20th century recording technology, child performers could be preserved on film and in sound, so that their charm is available to us forever.

Hollywood’s first real child star was Jackie Coogan, who starred in Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 silent film masterpiece “The Kid.” This performance launched a career that would make him an international star before the age of 10. When he reached adulthood, however, he discovered that his mother and stepfather had spent all of his earnings, and worse, there was no law stopping them. to have done it. Coogan sued, but he was only able to recover a fraction of his winnings.

Child stars: the power and price of kindness

A sketch of a young Mozart with his father and sister. Circa 1845. Credit: Shutterstock

California enacted the Coogan Act in 1939 to protect the financial interests of children working in motion pictures. Many child stars since Coogan have served as primary breadwinners in their homes, in a delicate reversal of the family hierarchy.

At the dramatic climax of “The Kid,” five-year-old Jackie portrayed despair with a conviction that transformed expectations of what a child actor could do. But how could such a young child access such a deep emotion on command? His father had trained him for the stage by threatening to leave him in a workhouse if he did not do well.

In a time and place where many children worked in dangerous jobs and had lost their fathers in the Great War, the danger of poverty and abandonment was acute, even for a small boy. Coogan’s harrowing performance provided emotional catharsis for millions of viewers over the past century – the price was his own distress and fear.

Working children and the inner child

The ability to cry at the right time remains “the skill you want in child’s play,” according to Jennette McCurdy, who starred in the Nickelodeon TV show “iCarly.” For most audiences, the magic of child performers is how they force us to access our own feelings and reconnect with our inner child.

Child stars: the power and price of kindness

Jackie Coogan in 1924. Coogan rose to fame alongside Charlie Chaplin in the 1921 film ‘The Kid’. Credit: National Library of France

The sound of a child’s voice singing a familiar song is powerful because it simultaneously evokes the future and the past. We remember our own childhood and we can also imagine that the music and stories we love will carry on into a new generation. The child’s performance can elicit poignant moments that help us retain – or regain – our sense of humanity.

Historian Carolyn Steedman argues that our cultural notion of “self” took the form of a vulnerable child beginning in the 19th century. Meanwhile, the use of children in hazardous working conditions was juxtaposed uncomfortably with new ways of viewing children as fragile and precious. Child entertainment stars work under better conditions than chimney sweeps, of course. Still, it’s essential to recognize child stars as workers, whose shining eyes, dimpled cheeks and soft voices are the tools of their trade.

Our appetite for the power of cute shows no signs of waning, so it’s important to face the cost of child stars. Do real children have to do this work for us? Are there ways for kids to experience the excitement of play without the dangers of fame? Recent strategies for child actors indicate a positive change. Australian animated show ‘Bluey’ protects the identities of its child actors to allow them to maintain their privacy alongside fame. It seems like a healthy approach, but we won’t know for sure until these actors — and their child audiences — grow up and tell us.


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