Personal Investigation: Essay

March 3, 2012

The Use of Children in Films and Media

For my essay I will be exploring the positives and negatives of the use of children actors within the film and media industry and how researching and using my contextual references has influenced my own Personal Investigation film for this project.

Throughout cinema history children have been used in films for various roles – to perhaps make the film more children friendly and relatable or as a supporting role. Children can bring a new dynamic to a film, especially if they are talented. A child’s assets are different to adults, where they are able to show emotions in a different way. The showing of love in a scene for example will be entirely different for a child than for an adult, for the main reason of the lack of sexualisation in some cases. But children can also be used to create controversy in films by giving them adult seeming roles – for example Jodie Foster’s appearance in ‘Taxi Driver’ as a 12 year old prostitute on the run from her pimp Sport. In the role she is obviously playing the character of a sex worker, dressed in small clothes, and is also witness to graphic violence in the form of a shoot-out. Her age gave her an innate sense of innocence, and this was cleverly exploited, in my opinion, by the director Martin Scorsese who made the whole idea of her character being in the position they were even more uneasy for viewing. It worked perfectly within the film dynamics.

A still taken from the movie ‘Taxi Driver’ of Robert Di Nero talking to a young Jodie Foster.

There are however, despite the positives of children actors, also issues that have arisen from the fame that is piled onto successful child actors. Drug abuse and fragile family relationships have been just some of the problems that fall upon young stars; using Lindsey Lohan as an example shows how the strain of fame can fracture a young person’s life and in some cases, such as Bobby Driscoll, eventually leads to an untimely and premature death. A long string of cases such as these surely point towards there being evidence that the pressures of being a child actor and potentially a child star can have a catastrophic effect of the development and future lives of the children involved. There are of course procedures to make sure that during filming children are well treated both physically and mentally. Going back to my earlier example of ‘Taxi Driver’, Jodie Foster was given mental and emotional health checks due to the dark nature of the film, and when filming the shoot-out scene towards the end of the film, she was taken step through step about what would be happening… but although it can be said child actors are protected from industry pressures during the actual production of a film, there is little evidence to suggest that there is any guidance for as they grow up in the spotlight.

Lindsay Lohan’s mug shot from recent years prior to her prison sentence and rehab stint for alcohol and drug abuse.

Other issues that have arisen from the use of child actors, other than post-success issues, are the disruptions to ‘normal childhood’ life. Things such as education, earnings and working hours have been highly disputed; laws have had to be brought in to combat these issues. One example of where earnings went wrong is with actor Jackie Coogan, who as a young child earned approximately 3-4 million dollars through acting jobs, only for it to be spent on extravagant items and a decadent lifestyle by his mother and step-father. When he was older he sued his parents for his lost earnings and (although not gaining much of them) it called about the Coogan Act which calls for parents/guardians of the child actor to place around 15% of all earnings into a blocked trust fund for the child to access when they are old enough. This act goes someway to protecting young actors and actresses, but the issue of earning ownership is still prevalent.

Another child actor who fell prey to the spotlight is Shirley Temple; she was extremely famous as a young child, and starred in many feature films including her breakthrough feature ‘Bright Eyes’. Shirley Temple was the first child actor to win a juvenile Academy Award in 1935 for her filming achievements during 1934. Once Temple hit adolescence the appeal of her innocent charm was lost for the big production companies, and she became a less popular choice for feature films. By 1950, Shirley Temple had retired from starring in films, only at the age of 22; this shows that the film industry can damage young people in a way other than pressures put upon them and the external factor of unfair use of their wages from parents, etc. It shows that the industry works on an aesthetic value basis, once Shirley Temple had lost her very young looks then the production companies wanted to lose her – this shallow basis upon which people are judged in the industry could be seen to affect children in a different and more dangerous way. In LA and Hollywood, eating disorders and body dimorphic syndrome are very real problems and issues that have been linked to the shallow judgment of the media. With plastic surgery being the norm in LA, which is where most of the film industry is based, by only going on an aesthetic basis when judging a child, in particular, extra pressures are placed upon the actor or actress, giving them an unfair body image. Critics of the industry would say that in attempting to make young people fit the industry mould the industry loses the finding of uniquely talented individuals.

Although in recent times though a new type of child star has been making a breakthrough; young people have taken over Hollywood and the film scene and have been making headlines not only in media but fashion too. The new child actor is a more rounded individual, with different avenues to the reasons why they’re famous; they’re hard workers, yet they manage to keep their youth too. Such actresses as Chloe Grace Moretz came onto the scene at a young age and have stuck around being recognised for their acting skills rather than their lifestyles. They have been kept as children, and perhaps for this reason won’t go down the same path as previously mentioned stars… but on the other hand; the pressures and industry demands of Hollywood will always be prevalent and possibly impressionable on young minds.

A dual-image of actress Chloe Moretz taken for a fashion feature in a magazine.

In my contextual research I looked at Benjamin Francis Leftwhich’s ‘Atlas Hands’ music video; the Swedish film ‘Let the Right One In’ and the 1974 classic ‘Swallows and Amazons’. What all three of these references have in common is the use of children as actors in them. ‘Let the Right One In’ stands out as different as there is an adult intensity and love to their relationship whereas the other two are more about the innocence and adventure of youth. All three include imagery as well as the conceptual side to relay the importance of children in the films; I find ‘Atlas Hands’ a really poignant music video because of its use of children – the imagery sets them within a large desolate but beautiful landscape and without their physical smallness they would have been far more prominent in the scenery, making it lose its significance perhaps. The influence that this has had on my project was pretty monumental – the whole concept of childhood imagination and innocence was the message behind my film. I also feel that by looking at the references I did I was able to take a new directive on my starting point ‘Love after Love’ by Derek Walcott. I took the poem to have meanings of self-discovery and reconnection, and by looking at how being a child affect the relationship that was present in the contextual references, I was able to take the direction of finding that reconnection and self-discovery through someone else. I was worried if I took the term relationship in a romantic sense for the film then it would end up clichéd, and so to keep it fresh I used the influence of childhood innocence.

In conclusion, there is nothing to suggest that children should be kept from the Hollywood screens, but that more support and guidance for young people should be given from within the industry itself in order to preserve the talent as the main focus of the individuals. Child actors add, and always will add, new dynamics to films in a way unachievable perhaps by those with more life experience to draw on. And from a personal view point, with my Self-Initiated Project, the use of children has been a pivotal conceptual point and influence towards my final film.

Bibliography:

 http://listverse.com/2009/04/19/top-10-child-stars-gone-bad/ (Accessed: 20th December 2011)

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1250777/ (Accessed: 14th January 2012)

http://www.sag.org/content/coogan-law (Accessed: 14th January 2012)

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