The Broken Children Factory
If you have been exposed to the celebrity scandal media in recent weeks, and it is highly unlikely that you haven’t, you’ve no doubt seen the downward spiral of actress Amanda Bynes turn into more of a tornado. At this stage of hobbyist star watching, most onlookers of this collapse have seen it before too often. Hell, if the child star (or former child star) was female and ever associated with the Disney Channel, there’s an 80% chance they went off the rails really hard.
And to address the umbrella statement about Bynes in these circumstances, no, she is definitely an adult now, responsible for her actions, be they wise or otherwise. The media has latched onto the whole “former child star” angle because it sells, and it sells because of precedents that were blown apart before her.
The other aspect of using the angle — the one that makes these things so topical — is that we live in a television landscape the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Thanks to viewer options from cable channels that are founded on the premise of living in the past to online sources that have catalogued, well, everything, kid actors can stay forever kid actors even if their adult selves are circling the drain.
So here’s a memory experiment: I say “Macaulay Culkin” and you think of what that name immediately summons up. Odds are it’s not his performance in Party Monster or even his Frodo-torturing turn in The Good Son. It is him, as a child, clutching his freshly shaved face now stinging from aftershave, in Home Alone which you can summon up from Netflix right now. Easy peasy.
You are probably more likely to find Bynes’ seasons on All That or even her CW sitcom with former 90210 star Jennie Garth, What I Like About You, in some state of rotation on basic cable. Essentially, you will always have this reminder of the star-as-youth as evidence and as fuel for pathos. Gone are the days when Leif Garrett disappeared from the scene and stayed disappeared until he did ill-advised covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” with the intervening years of entropy out of sight. Whether that’s better for them, or only makes their depressions more potent, is speculative.
This sort of burn-out in plain sight was lampooned by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix, himself a former kid actor when he went by the name Leaf, in their Andy Kaufman-esque documentary I‘m Still Here. Most often those in the spotlight do not have the luxury of calling what they’re going through “performance art.”
But why does this happen so often? There are the usual suspects in the parents of the star kids, found living vicariously through their offspring’s fame (let’s call it Lohan’s Syndrome). Sometimes the parents aren’t to blame, at least not in the majority, and it is that rush of success, visibility, and even love that throws the actor into a tailspin. Such opiates are hard for even the grown-ups to cope with in a mature way. How can a child be expected not to fail? And when the parents put their foot down and say “no,” only to have an agent, a studio head, or hangers-on provide the spoils off-the-record, where are the boundaries? What are the definitions of who is really in charge? Is it the money people at the studio, mom and/or dad, or have the ’rents abdicated their control by delivering said kids to said studio in the first place? Very complicated stuff, this.
I think the most heartbreaking story I ever heard was from someone who knew these issues intimately and, against the odds, managed to survive regardless, and that is Drew Barrymore. She recounted the familial atmosphere of the studio set, how everyone pushed in and provided a degree of warmth that the conventional nuclear family likely could never duplicate. And at the end of the shoot, everyone hugs and promises are made to keep in touch, get together again soon, and it will be like old times. Hollywood provides these young stars with a lot of stuff, both legal and illegal, but what they fail to deliver is an accurate BS detector. (As in, sometimes “let’s do lunch” means “leave me alone.”)
Barrymore would then say how these big-little families would come together, bond, then split apart again and again, and she recalled they were like a steady stream of divorces, and how promises of “we’ll get together at Christmas” would never be consummated. She said these made her very jaded very early, forcing her to become preternaturally tough to survive.
Another aspect, and this one is zeroed in directly on the female side of the spectrum, is that young girl stars are hyper-sexualized. They don’t even have to try too hard to do it. I recall that a pair of shock-jocks in the ’90s had a running gag on their radio show regarding the Olsen Twins Countdown-To-Legal Clock. Even while she was still up to her neck in Hannah Montana, Miley Cyrus was being perved on (and this was all the more nauseating for the presence of her dad regularly at her side as the perving was commencing).
So you have this cocktail of willing enablers, authority figures with spines made of coiled dollar bills, family units that are never as steadfast as they appear, a public ready to swarm in when the kid goes from hot commodity to hot mess, cameras trained everywhere, and the unflinching videographic evidence of what they were versus what they are now, beamed in on a constant cycle. Is it any wonder that generation after generation keeps falling into the meat grinder?
But back to Amanda Bynes, her cheeks disturbingly puffy and pierced, her baggy eyes shielded by a fright wig, standing in front of a judge after purportedly striking an officer with a bong. Later, when released, she would go back to Twitter and put up messages that, while in custody, she was sexually harassed by those same police. At this point it is hard to imagine her capable of a phoenix-like rebirth. It’s hard to watch this going on, but I guess we won’t have to.
After all, we’ll always have reruns.