The Super-Sexualization of Children

Pop culture is ruining innocence

Lydia Wieczorek, Staff Reporter

While doing media victory laps, hitting all the big shows and red carpets, teen stars have been breaking into Hollywood’s scene and it’s no surprise people are obsessed with them. However, with fame comes public scrutiny, and while these teens should be celebrated for their talents and hard work, many people forget that they are still children.

Between Millie Bobby Brown being one of the “sexiest TV stars” by W Magazine and Finn Wolfhard having to ask his fans to stop calling him “daddy,” the sexualization of these teens is becoming apparent.

It seems deeply obvious, but at the moment there’s been a worrying trend occurring that remains vastly under talked about, and that’s the trend of sexualizing young, popular teens.

No this isn’t about kids crushing on celebrities their own age, which is completely healthy and normal, but grown adults discussing children in a way that should be considered deeply disturbing. Why are we ignoring it?

At the moment, most of this talk has been focused on rising child star Wolfhard, who is 15 and the star of two massive hits, the Netflix Original “Stranger Things” and the remake of the horror classic “IT.” It’s no doubt Wolfhard is a boy to be admired. He’s a highly talented actor, having carried two challenging and emotional roles that quickly turned him into a breakout star. As well as being an actor, Wolfhard is also a musician and someone who has shown that he will not tolerate the culture of sexual harassment by leaving his agent when allegations of sex abuse arose.

Yet, what has he gotten in return?

This past fall, 27-year-old fashion model Ali Michael posted an Instagram story stating “Not to be weird but hit me up in few years” on an image of Wolfhard and tagging his account. She later apologized when she received backlash over her comment.

This kind of attitude relies on the idea that they are “waiting until it’s legal” before doing anything, which leads to a position that is viewed as more defensible, only implying sexual attraction to a child without outright stating it.

It’s proposed as cute and humorous but, in reality, it’s immoral and disturbing. This is the very kind of insidious behavior that leads to the normalization of “barely legal” porn that exists so that people can feel better about fantasizing about the youngest men and woman possible. This is the kind of behavior that condones creepy comments that many girls have had to face since hitting puberty about “waiting until they turn 16.” Just because it is now happening to boys does not make it any less harmful.

When a child has to come out and ask grown adults to stop calling him daddy, then you know there’s a problem. He should never have been placed in that position, and those who do place him there should be heavily questioned as to why, and not excused based on their gender.

Elizabeth England, IU Southeast adjunct professor and clinical psychologist in treating children with trauma says this behavior definitely leaves an impact.

“Whether it leads to exploitation or whether it just shapes the way these teens conceive themselves, it certainly has an impact. Maybe at the core, is believing that being attractive is more important than being smart or having other qualities.”

Wolfhard’s co-star, Brown hasn’t been safe from sexualization either. Aside from being named a sexy star among the best and brightest of Hollywood, Brown has been a subject of many inappropriate comments, specifically about her appearance.

After photos of Brown at the “Stranger Things 2” premiere in November were released, one viral tweet commenting on her appearance struck a nerve with readers. Mike Sington, a retired NBC executive, shared photos of Brown on the red carpet and captioned them: “Millie Bobby Brown just grew up in front of our eyes. (She’s 13!)”

The tweet gained criticism for inaccurately and inappropriately describing Brown as “grown up.” Former child star and “Matilda” actress, Mara Wilson, took notice and retweeted Sington’s comment, saying, “Knock it the f— off.”

Brown didn’t address the comments made about her but England says this isn’t uncommon. She says the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that would ensure that an individual understands the impact and implications of sexualization doesn’t even develop until after 18. This means teens aren’t able to “think globally” as England says. Teens don’t really understand the implications of wearing “sexy clothing,” or making themselves look older with makeup. It’s just something they are doing because their idols/celebrity role models surrounding them are doing it.  

Two days later, Sington released a statement on Twitter in regards to the tweet.

Here’s part of Sington’s statement:

“Looking back, I can see how some could interpret commenting on the grown up look of a child as contributing to the objectification or even sexualization of a minor, and I appreciate those of you that brought this to my attention. That was never my intent, and I sincerely regret if anyone thought it was.”

Wilson followed up on her tweets saying “I felt sick, and then I felt furious,” [in regards to seeing Sington’s tweet.] “A 13-year-old girl is not all grown up. And even if she had been what we consider grown up, that is not newsworthy.”

Wilson also detailed her own accounts of being sexualized by adult fans when she was young, including receiving inappropriate letters from male fans or being photoshopped into child pornography meaning this issue in Hollywood has been a long time going.

She emphasized the important role the current digital climate and media have when it comes to putting young actors at risk.

“What’s really at play here is the creepy, inappropriate public inclination to sexualize young girls in the media,” Wilson writes. “We do not need to perpetuate the culture of dehumanization Hollywood has enabled.”

We need to take note of Wilson’s account as a former child star and also hear current ones who are currently immersed in this culture. We need to shy away from using a platform as an excuse to sexualize a minor because aside from all, they are kids. So, let them be kids and enjoy them for what they are, good actors and actresses.