We used to view the rebellion of child stars as separate from their work. Getting a DUI or tweeting mentally unstable epigrams was seen in ironic juxtaposition with the innocent, happy-go-lucky characters they played on TV, and this of course made us feel sympathetic. We knew that they had grown up in audition rooms and tour buses instead of stable homes, so we assumed their behavior resulted from a tumultuous adolescence.
At some point, though, this “fall from grace” narrative was played out so many times by so many different child stars that we stopped feeling sympathy. We realized that those reporting on these stars—tacky Hollywood news outlets and daytime talk show roundtables—had a mutually beneficial relationship with them. The stars needed the attention, the media needed ratings, and thus an endless chain of “provocation-reaction” incidents would take place—say something inappropriate here, be photographed smoking weed there, etc. As Kevin Fallon of the Daily Beast writes of Miley Cyrus’ recent “Twerk-heard-round-the-world,” “We want Miley Cyrus to stick her face into a large woman’s butt crack because we want to be talking about it the next morning.” Now that we’ve become conscious of the engineered provocation fueling our desire, we’ve lost interest.
So what did child stars do in return? They became self-aware. Loss of innocence became a central theme of their creative output, in addition to the media narrative of their lives. On casting Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine said that he wanted “girls that were representative of that [Disney] pop mythology,” which added to the viewing experience the rather gimmicky thrill of “I can’t believe a former Waverly Place wizard is doing that!” Probably the most apt parody of Amanda Bynes’ Faulkner-esque Twitter account is a GIF of her as a young Nickelodeon star on The Amanda Show with the caption “I Want Drake to Murder My Vagina.” And as for Lindsay Lohan, Bret Easton Ellis said that “even if you intensely dislike [The Canyons]” (where Lohan stars alongside porn star James Deen), you have to “begrudgingly admit” that “Lindsay is interesting in it.” Interesting because it’s Lindsay Lohan, not because there is anything interesting about the movie.
Some see this attempt to shock as liberatory. Amanda Dobbins of Vulture writes of Miley Cyrus’ “smoking pot, making protest videos, wearing bad leggings, tweeting too much” as her “trying to find a new audience.” She argues that Miley’s antics “never felt market-tested” and that she doesn’t need to “fake-fellate a piece of paper in order to convince you that she’s a grown-up.” Unfortunately, Dobbins wrote “In Praise of Miley Cyrus” before the VMA incident, so she wasn’t aware that while Miley’s rebellion might not require fake fellatio, it does need a foam finger and one interesting form of dance. This is a testament to the fact that any possibility of these child stars actually being taken seriously as artists is severely limited when they build their new image in relation to their time on Nick or Disney. It will inherently be an exploitative affair, with ample references to their former identities.
Instead of an overzealous showbiz mom or energetic talent agent controlling their every move, they now serve pervy middlebrow indie directors, and, well, probably the same talent agents. As David Edelstein of Vulture writes of Spring Breakers, “Korine must have told them if they did Spring Breakers they’d be sticking it to the Man. Do they fully understand that the Man is now him, and that for 90 minutes he and his protruding camera are sticking it to them?” Dustin Parker of Grantland shares a similar sentiment, asking, what better stars to serve directors than actresses “born and bred” in the Disney machine?
The argument that they don’t have a way of “getting out,” while important to consider, doesn’t hold up under further scrutiny. Kirsten Dunst post-child-stardom became a damn good actress, because her career was about her actually starring in good work as opposed to continually serving a shallow, constructed notion of “child-star-ness.” Drew Barrymore had a brief drug stint, but barely anyone in their early 20s knows about it. This is one case, where when self-awareness is incorporated into art, it becomes a bad thing. Sure, former child stars should be self-aware, but that should deter them from looking toward the future with a foot stuck in the past.
These recent developments bring up two interesting questions. One: Why does this always happen to women? Sure, Justin Bieber has been caught yelling at paparazzi and smoking weed, but he receives nowhere as near as much attention as Miley, Amanda, or Lindsay. Why is it less interesting when men lose their innocence? Two: Does it have something to do with our generation’s incessant nostalgia for the ’90s? Gawker recently published a comprehensive Amanda versus Linsday guidebook (albeit with a dose of its go-to snark), which might as well have been in Tiger Beat circa 1999. Whatever deeper aspects of this phenomenon these questions point to, child stars can only hope to escape themselves if they actually escape themselves. It is possible—Kirsten Dunst, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ryan Gosling all lived to tell the tale.