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Leave the kids alone

author: shelbi glover | a&c writer

Millie Bobby Brown faces sexualization alongside her co-stars/Courtesy of Flickr

Examining America’s weird obsession with child actors

Stranger Things seemed to come out of nowhere. I watched the first season last summer, holed up in my dorm room, and I was pretty indifferent about it. I liked Nancy, I hated Steve, and I felt sad for Eleven, but otherwise, it was just another show. Social media seemed to feel the same; I saw a few passing tweets about it here and there, but it seemed like we were all in a consensus: Stranger Things was good, but nothing too special.

That is, until Stranger Things 2 shook all of us, and I mean all of us. Celebrities were crawling out of the woodwork to declare their excitement, Twitter gave us that cute hashtag emoji, and everybody was staying up to binge it all in one night (myself included). We all had a fever, and the only cure was more Stranger Things.

In fact, this has just been a great year for media revolving around kids in the 1980’s. The release of Stephen King’s It in September grossed almost $333 million, and put a spotlight on several rising child actors, most notably, Finn Wolfhard. Wolfhard, who played Richie Tozier in It and Mike Wheeler in Stranger Things, is only 14. Fourteen years old and he’s very quickly becoming the most popular actor in America.

The problem? Nobody can seem to remember that he’s 14.

Model Ali Michael, 27, posted a photo of Wolfhard on her Instagram story captioned, “not to be weird but hit me up in 4 years.” The implication that she, as a 27-year-old, is attracted to a 14-year-old is disgusting, for obvious reasons, but the real kicker is that a lot of people came to her defense. “It’s not pedophilia,” cried Twitter, clutching their Stranger Things merchandise to their chests. “We all know he’ll be hot when he grows up!” Worse, grown men argued that Wolfhard should be “flattered” and implied that he should feel proud.

The question here is, would we act the same way if a man said that about Millie Bobbie Brown, who stars in Stranger Things as Eleven? Picture this with me, for a moment: The Weeknd posts a photo of Brown, 13, with the same caption and same implication.

It doesn’t end there, either. Enter the fandom side of Instagram, who make those fun edits of characters and whatnot. It’s innocent enough, at a glance, but go any deeper and you’ll find It-stagram, and within it, “Fack” accounts. Fack, for those who have never been unfortunate enough to stumble upon this side of social media, is the name for a relationship between Finn Wolfhard and Jack Dylan Grazer (Wolfhard’s 14-year-old co-star, who played Eddie Kaspbrak in It). It’s popular enough to ship their characters from It – in fact, romantic undertones between Richie Tozier/Eddie Kaspbrak have been discussed since the book’s release in 1986 – but another thing entirely to ship two real, living, breathing 14-year-olds. Fourteen-year-olds who, as a matter of fact, are uncomfortable with accounts like these – both Wolfhard and Grazer have stated as much.

Mara Wilson, who starred in the 1996 film Matilda, has also spoken out on the sexualization of child actors. After a tweet of Millie Bobbie Brown at the Stranger Things 2 premiere captioned that she was “all grown up” went viral, Wilson wrote an article for Elle, in which she recounted her personal experiences as a child actor and called herself a “big sister to the world.” Her statement included the following:

“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.”

Not to mention that the sexualization of children is being normalized now through shows like Big Mouth, which, frankly, is just opening the door for pedophiles into regular media. Let me be clear that in no way am I insinuating that anyone who watches the show is a pedophile – only that a show revolving around the sexual desires and masturbation habits of children is really, really messed up. While many have defended Big Mouth as simply being an honest commentary on puberty, there is still a line that adults should never cross when dealing with children, and so many are already crossing that line daily.

What this really comes down to is that child actors are still children, regardless of how they act, what they say, or what they wear. Let kids be kids. Just because they’re living their dreams at such a young age doesn’t give anyone a right to discuss them as if they are adults. If you’re over the age of 17, don’t talk about your “crush” on them, or about how cute they are, or how you can’t wait for them to grow up. Don’t criticize them for dressing too “grown up.” Don’t write fanfiction about 14-year-olds, and don’t be pissed at them for being uncomfortable with it.

And, next time someone calls you out for saying/doing those things, maybe think about why it’s messed up rather than try to defend it.

About Shelbi Glover