I recently watched Mina Le’s video ‘The Curse of the Child Star’ and it got me thinking, what is it exactly that catapults these child stars from a family friendly figure that the youth idolise, to the global superstars that we have been accustomed to seeing in our modern-day media. When analysing the current landscape of celebrities, it becomes painfully obvious that this long enduring phenomenon of the ‘child star’ has now become so synonymous with current celebrity culture that it is almost an innate requirement for success in the mainstream. However, I began to notice that only a handful of these child stars will make it as they grow older, many stars who achieved an unbridled amount of success in their childhood are not able to translate this into their adult career. So, why are some able to achieve superstardom as an adult whilst others fade away into the background?
First and foremost, one of the leading reasons that not all child actors make it big in Hollywood is simply because they don’t want to. Take Danny Lloyd for example, he played Danny Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s highly acclaimed horror ‘The Shining’, despite the universal success of this film Danny went on to qualify as a biology professor, completely removing himself from the limelight. The exploitative nature of being a child star puts an unnatural amount of responsibility on vulnerable children who fall victim to having their childhood hijacked on a public stage. This overwhelming amount of pressure is enough for some to turn their back on Hollywood forever. Additionally, some actors age out of the roles that they have been type casted into, once a child is no longer able to offer the cute innocence that is associated with their role they are simply discarded as “cattle” . They are seen as easily replaceable as there will always be a new young actor ready to take on the part, as they are “forced” into “retirement”.
Becoming a child star undoubtedly appears to carry more burdens than blessings for the unfortunate individual that finds themself in the eye of the storm, as well as contending with the pressure of being in the public eye and the worry of aging out of work there are also the pushy parents. It is not uncommon to hear of parents who force their children into a lifestyle that they wanted for themselves but were unable to achieve. This was discussed at length by former child star Jeanette McCurdy who tragically suffered years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother. McCurdy recalled a childhood of “chaos”, as she was forced to live out her mother’s “dream of being a famous actor”, despite this taking an obvious toll on her and leading to the development of an eating disorder, McCurdy’s mother took advantage of her daughter in order to benefit from her success. This greedy prioritisation of power and money often leaves the child as the ultimate victim, with psychologist Ginger Clark stating that kids tend to “spin out” when they don’t have a “stable parental unit that sets limits”. The lack of boundaries allows the line between parent and child to become blurred, with the child taking on the monetary responsibilities of a parent and the parent adopting a childish irresponsibility for success, the child-parent relationship begins to work backwards, inevitably leading to a disaster. Hollywood has left a long trail of cautionary tales in its pat but this has not prevented more from taking the wrong road and finding themselves unable to escape the downward spiral that they have fallen into until they reach rock bottom, whilst the rest of the world watches on.
With the potential pitfalls leading many to failed careers, what is it that allows some child stars to escape their previous child friendly image and establish themselves as the global icons that are at the forefront of pop culture? Talent? Yes, but this is far from the only factor dictating the longevity and success of their careers to come. In line with Hollywood traditions, stealing from black culture has long been a practice amongst those that we see in the entertainment industry, the addition of social media has only served to further illuminate the extent that whit celebrities will go to in order to use black culture as a tool to propel their career. With hip-hop becoming the most popular musical genre in 2017 in the US, it is no surprise that those in the spotlight would try to increase their proximity to the genre in an attempt to boost their own careers, bringing on the all too familiar conversation of cultural appropriation vs cultural appreciation.
The adoption of black culture by white celebrities has been a long-standing tradition in Hollywood and can be documented throughout Hollywood’s history. The theft of black art can be seen in the meteoric rise of those such as Elvis Presley, with the release of ‘Hound Dog’. This song saw Elvis make millions, whilst Big Mama Thornton, the original signer, barley made any money off of this noting that “Everybody livin’ in a house but me. I’m just livin’.” This infamous example is one of many. Not only has black culture been used for financial gain it has also been extended to signify stepping into adulthood, leaving behind the youthful reputation that was once associated with the artists’ childhood career. This proves to be extremely problematic as it emphasises the automatic adult treatment of black people/black culture whilst simultaneously adopting a caring demure approach to white people who use this same display of black culture to their benefit.
Let’s take for example Kylie Jenner’s 2015 picture of herself in cornrows – a protective hairstyle used on black hair – this caused an uproar and prompted many accusations of cultural appropriation, not helped by the Kardashian/Jenner’s long history of stealing from black women/culture for their own gain. This was called out by Amandla Stenberg noting that Jenner uses her platform to “appropriate black features and culture but fail to use ur position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards ur wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter”. In response to this, Justin Bieber, who has also participated in the appropriation of black culture, unsurprisingly came to the defence of Jenner asking that people don’t attack the “17-year-old kid”. This interaction is significant as not only did it paint Kylie as the victim, despite being the older of the two, it also attempted to absolve Jenner of any wrong doing because Justin Bieber, a white man, said so. This incident ironically coincided with a time in which Jenner was shedding her childhood image. Now, there is nothing wrong with growing up, it’s inevitable, but the way that Jenner chose to display her move into womanhood is important, the lip fillers and alterations made to her body closely resembled the natural appearance and features of a black woman, this new appearance started viral challenges in which people attempted to get their lips like Kylie and led to her being lauded as the new beauty standard. Herein lies the problem, white celebrities such as Kylie are afforded the luxury of getting close enough to blackness to financially and socially profit from it but not close enough to feel the consequences of it, black women such as Teyana Taylor and Ari Lennox are ridiculed for they very same features that white people mimic and benefit from. Kylie, like so many others, participated in the intentional sexualisation of her image whilst ensuring that this image remained closely intertwined with a ‘black aesthetic’. This allowed the public to digest this easier as young black girls are seen as older and their bodies are hypersexualised from as young as 5. The widespread routine of white women recklessly using black culture as a costume only serves to contribute to the harm of black girls; Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood details the ‘adultification’ of young black girls and how they face severe consequences for a stereotype that has been placed upon them, whilst those who are able to slip in and out of this black image do not face any of the same repercussions. The “criminalisation” of black girls’ childhood is brought on by those who will never have to live that same experience but will instead be praised for stepping into that same stereotype until they decide to discard it.
Although the use of black culture as a gateway into adulthood is primarily a result of white celebrities making a conscious choice to do this, it is further propelled by the co-sign of some black celebrities who are willing to support the appropriation of their white friends if they too are able to benefit from it. The black celebrities that prioritise their proximity to whiteness in return for social or financial gain, often suffer a bigger loss than their white counterparts that they are supporting. As seen in the case with Justin Bieber and Lil Twist, the rapper was a close friend of the Canadian signer and willingly condoned his antics and appropriation of black culture, however as soon as things took a turn for the worst Lil Twist was the first to get in trouble, serving as a “scapegoat for Justin Bieber’s drug charges”. As the rapper encouraged Justin throughout his ‘black stage’, which also saw him transitions into adulthood, he did not care for the consequences that may come with this, forgetting that his closeness to the popstar will not erase his skin colour when things begin to go downhill, he will be the first accused and the most severely punished. Years after the incident the rapper himself has acknowledged this, being reminded that no matter how wealthy you are or how high you are on the social scale, society will always remind you that there is a clear distinction between you and your white counterparts. As of 2022, Bieber has since discarded this black image that he used to boost his career, yet black boys are still seen as “responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,”.
Ultimately, the use of black culture as a gateway into adulthood is steadily receiving increased pushback in the mainstream as more people become aware of what is happening. Whilst some celebrities have been held accountable and have been forced to address their problematic past, which is a step in the right direction there is still a long wat to go. Many are still able to profit off of the backs of black people whilst amassing more success in the process, leaving their black peers in the back despite being responsible for the foundation of their superstardom.