On Child Stars and Sexism: Ownership of the Mature Female Form

ImageEarlier this week a promotional image of Alexa Vega in Robert Rodriguez’s upcoming film Machete Kills was released. The former child star is shown standing in front of a flipped car, looking dangerous with a gun in her hand, and dressed in a Western-styled bra top and chaps. It is a very provocative image, and as such it provoked a lot of reaction from the film blog world. Unfortunately, its images didn’t provoke commentary about the movie so much as statements about how Vega—the former child star known for her role in “Spy Kids”–is now a voluptuous, full-bodied woman. Now there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that a former child star is now transitioning into more adult roles (though Vega has been in smaller pictures, including the cult hit Repo! The Genetic Opera, since her appearance in Spy Kids more than 10 years ago). Nor is there any problem in acknowledging that a beautiful woman is, in fact, a beautiful woman. But there is a problem when the language used to acknowledge this shift is mired in sexist and disturbing language focused not on the movie itself but on the body of its star and a perverse gratitude for what puberty wrought on her body.

When an attractive girl is shown in a bra top the usual “she’s so hot” commentary is expected, even on film sites that are mainly news and review-based. A lot of film sites nowadays capitalize on such pictures and lists, and let’s face it—they probably get more hits because of these lists. But the language of these sorts of posts are often inherently heteronormative and sexist; probably the most disturbing sexist language is utilized when it comes to former child stars who have matured into attractive adult women. The language surrounding Vega’s picture includes remarks about how she’s “Not a kid anymore,” “is all grown up” and even “less young” which is true, but it takes on a creepy tone–particularly the “less young” remark–that seems to posit her current attractiveness in direct correlation to her previous youth and sweetness. The implications are that it’s okay to find her attractive even though she was once a kid, indeed that her current attractiveness is all the more impressive because hey, she was once just one of those “precocious little tykes” from SpyKids

One site included the following text: “It’s ok to think she’s amazingly hot, by the way. She’s grown up now (actually been married and divorced already)… Either way… good god! ….Just to make this post more legitimate, here’s the poster for Machete Kills…”  To the site’s credit, it acknowledges that this isn’t exactly a film news post, but really an excuse to post the picture of an attractive woman. At least the writer is self-aware enough to know that the post exists explicitly so we can ogle her. I guess the awareness is better than having him completely unaware that he’s specifically setting out to enjoy her body. Unfortunately, he actually gives us, the viewer, permission to ogle her as well: (“It’s ok to think she’s amazingly hot…she’s grown up now”). The implication is ‘Hey, she’s totally legal now, so it’s okay to lust for her—it’s not illegal anymore.’ It placates the viewer’s fear that they may be enjoying the beauty of a child, and gives them permission to find her sexually gratifying. The language essentially says, “Don’t worry, you’re not a pedophile—you can enjoy her looks because puberty is long gone. But gee, wasn’t puberty super good to her?” The first post even says “You’re welcome,” as if the man who wrote the post deserves your gratitude for bringing this image to your eager eyes.

 What’s equally disturbing is the bizarre conflation of Vega the woman and her fictional character, Killjoy. This conflation happens on another site where it’s noted that “She’s not a shy girl, evidently.” The statement implies that it’s okay to view Vega sexually because she’s put herself on display for us. Of course she is on display—this is a film still after all—but just because her character Killjoy is a sexy scantily-clad character does not have any bearing on how Vega is outside of the world Rodriguez created. This kind of conflation blurs the obvious boundaries between actress and character and gives us permission to view not just Killjoy the character but also Vega herself as a sexual object.

Ultimately sexist language pervades many film and pop culture websites, but the language used to describe former child stars is particularly offensive and puzzling. Often this language relishes the move of a woman from childhood to adult, as if her maturation resulted in some gift to mankind. What is it about a woman’s maturation within the public eye that lends itself to the language of objectification and sexism? Why are child stars who shift into adult roles consistently discussed in a smarmy, congratulatory way that seemingly celebrates the viewer’s ability to find the actress attractive? Perhaps there’s a sense of viewer entitlement. We the viewer have witnessed this child’s maturation via the silver screen, and as consumers and viewers of this process we somehow possess the actress–as a child of the image she has become ours to consume with our eyes. Perhaps there’s a sense that we have the right to comment on her maturity simply because we once enjoyed her as that precocious young girl. 

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12 thoughts on “On Child Stars and Sexism: Ownership of the Mature Female Form

  1. First let me say… I agree to a degree. People excusing themselves is what makes it a bit pervy. But what’s different abt them oogling at this over the latest Halle Berry pics or Jennifer Lawrence photo shoot? Mainly that they weren’t known as child stars.

    You say “The implications are that it’s okay to find her attractive even though she was once a kid”… people have a weird memory when it comes to film. Part of us feel we know these people because we have them on our shelves or paid a fee to go see them on the big screen and believe they are their characters. So when there’s a MONUMENTAL shift in image as there is from Spy Kids to this we have a hard time trying to come to terms with the fact we find it appealing (in a sexual/physical way). People mask that with innuendo and bravado. So naturally people try to excuse this attraction by remarking that it isn’t illegal, it isn’t creepy to want to walk up next to her and ask her for a drink, or even fantasize. Just like how the same commenters, bloggers have fatansized about Rosario Dawson and Scarlett Johannson (remember those shots from Avengers?) So while I’m sure there are a lot of people posting on the image above with ill intent, for the most part they’re just trying to discuss that attraction with the same excuse.

    As it pertains to your points… here’s what I find interesting:

    In paragraph 3 you mention a site that says it’s ok to ogle her because she’s ‘legal’… You even go so far as to say the fact that is self aware of how ‘wrong’ he claims it is makes it better. I once again refer to Halle Berry, and the laundry list of women who’ve been objectified for the sake of fan service and because they are flat out attractive. It’s normal to find an attractive woman attractive. Is it any worse for a man to look across the bar and say a woman looks hot? Are you not claiming that I cannot appreciate the female form or is that too much sexism for my feeble male brain?

    Para 4 you say, “The statement implies that it’s okay to view Vega sexually because she’s put herself on display for us. Of course she is on display—this is a film still after all—but just because her character Killjoy is a sexy scantily-clad character does not have any bearing on how Vega is outside of the world Rodriguez created.” So you start out complaining that it’s not ok because we’re objectifying then you say it’s ok because of course she’s put herself on display because she knew she was making a film that would make it to the public’s eye. Whether we’re doing so to character or actress isn’t relevant. For the idiot who spots her on the streets and shouts to her why she isn’t Killjoy or wearing those pants all the while it means you’re dealing with an IDIOT…

    The article discusses the men’s vision and expression of the image but at no time discusses the over sexualizaiton of men in films? The money shot of Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling’s abs. Women are just as bad as men. Even look at Twilight and all the women screaming down Talyor Lautner, who I’m sure soon enough (if not already) will finally be old enough to be ‘legal’ and then all those women will say, “it’s ok now” just as these articles do.

    I say the excuse makes it weird. Instead they should flat out just say that she’s hot and be done… gratify what is being given to us and enjoy and also know the sensible thing. She’s probably not going to give you her number or invite you over for a late night drink if you run into her on the street one day.

    • First, I like (and agree) with your point that people mask their discomfort with innuendo and bravado. That’s a fair point. The writers of these posts are most definitely trying to excuse their behavior and discomfort by masking it in sarcasm and humor.

      Your complaint about paragraph 3 may come down to a lack of clarity on my part. I don’t ACTUALLY think that sexism that is aware that it IS sexism is BETTER. That was supposed to a sarcastic remark. Sexism is sexism, and it sucks. When a sexist remark is followed up with an apology it’s almost worse, because the author KNOWS he’s saying something “wrong” but says it anyway. I don’t understand what you mean by “feeble male brain.” I never accuse men of being feeble-minded. It is normal to find attractive women attractive–I never argue against that. But how we TALK about them is problematic. Halle Berry is an attractive woman–I won’t dispute that. A guy in a bar can say a woman looks hot, too (I would say the same) but there’s a difference between saying Alexa Vega is attractive (which isn’t necessarily real food for a film blog, but happens regardless) and describing her attractiveness with a language that speaks to her maturation in (what you agreed on twitter) is a “pervy” way.

      Regarding paragraph 4: It sounds like you think I say it’s okay to objectify Vega because she’s a character. This is not the case. I am agreeing that she is, by virtue of the nature of the film still–on display. Photographs display things–that’s just their nature. What I am lamenting is the fact that film blogs like those I discussed do not read into the image anything about the film itself, or her character, but instead focus on her attractiveness ONLY, and use perverse language to describe her body. There’s no actual news there, no real analysis, just “she’s hot.” It may be a fact (she IS beautiful), but it’s not news. Yes, her character is technically on display here, and by virtue of the act of acting, so too is Alexa Vega’s actual body. This still does not give us a free pass to use perverse language. You can look at her (that’s what a publicity department WANTS you to do) but this does not encourage or permit perverse language. Her display-ness is not a tacit agreement to be dissected or objectified.

      And yes, something similar did happen with Taylor Lautner when he moved into the Twilight era after his earlier childhood successes. My article may focus on women in film, but I never stated that this doesn’t happen (with at least some parity) in the male childhood stardom transition as well. I still think it’s a largely female-based phenomenon (at least in regards to its pervasiveness), but Lautner certainly faced some of this “grown-up” language as well. I never said women can’t be just as perverse in their language. It’s just, perhaps, less common.

      • Andrew clearly missed your sarcasm on every level. It’s also fairly invalid to point out male sexualisation. Just because this article is focused on female sexualisation doesn’t mean that the author excuses any other form of sexualisation as okay. Just try and stay focused, people. Also, NO ONE can ever argue that men are sexualised more, or even NEARLY as much as women. Again, focus please!

  2. AMEN SISTER was going to be my main comment on this, Joanna, but then I saw the above comment and was like ehhhh I guess not everyone is getting what you’re saying, somehow, still?

    I think the fact that this is even “news” is kind of ridiculous. Like, personally I was excited to see a new shot from MACHETE KILLS because I enjoyed the first one and I like Rodriguez films in general. Nowhere in the discussion of this picture have I seen bloggers actually talking about the film that it’s from, it’s just a bunch of heterosexual dudes with minds blown that a girl can physically age in the span of 10 years (which, ironically, has the whole “Little Nancy Callahan. She grew up. Filled out.” thing from SIN CITY running through my head haha). I don’t care if people think she’s hot, because hey, she is! And I’m happy she is so comfortable with herself and her sexuality that she’s sharing this kind of image herself. She and I are almost exactly the same age, and I know I’m not comfortable enough to be so upfront about my body and my sexuality, so I admire it in other people. But don’t get so obsessed with the fact that she used to be young and (GASP!) isn’t anymore (is now “legal” in fact, on the off chance you are in a position to bang her, you know). Do movie sites that are focused on news and reviews typically post film stills of hot men and women just to comment on the fact that they’re hot? Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so! (Or I hope not!) It’s this fascination with her age that makes it so-called “news” and that’s just weird and, honestly, condescending.

    Also LOLOLOL Andrew please don’t say that dudes have it as bad in terms of being sexualized/objectified in the media, my goodness. That’s just too hilarious of a thing for me to even really respond reasonably to, I’m sorry. Of course heterosexual women objectify men/obsess over certain male actors/singers/whatever, but it is very rarely discussed in the predatory, condescending manner that hetero men often discuss women in these situations. This is especially relevant because teen girls tend to develop earlier than guys, so they are considered sexually viable at a younger age, and the whole “jailbait” thing for teen girls has really developed into a scary subculture that is given free reign in the media as young actresses and singers are sexualized at younger and younger ages. I remember the internet celebrating when Miley Cyrus came of age, and it kind of freaked me out. I don’t see that kind of thing happening with dudes in the same way, at least not as frequently.

    Oh my god I’ve talked so much I’m sorry. Basically I agree with you Joanna and I’m sorry this issue isn’t always taken as seriously as it should be. It might not seem like a big issue but it is part of a very large problem regarding how women are routinely discussed with sexist and ignorant language within the film community (and world at large, obviously).

  3. Hey—

    Just wanted to comment and say that I agree 1000% with you and Alex. I don’t think any of us give a fuck about whether movie bloggers find actresses attractive; it’s how they state that attraction that makes our skin crawl. This reminds me of that whole “Nice Guy”™ insistence that catcalls are OK, because “it was a compliment!” As if any commentary on Vega’s body is OK, because… A) she’s sexy and it’s good and they’re just expressing healthy sexual interest or B) she and/or her studio encourage it by putting it out there in the first place.

    Because, for the privileged assholes writing about her under the guise of “film journalism,” her body is their property. They saw her act as a child, they see this sexy photo of her now, so she’s theirs. Nothing they say about her can be objectionable because, for them, she’s not really a human being. And they’re hardly an aberration, because in American culture, this is how women, especially actresses (and especially sex workers) are viewed: as chattel. It’s so gross, and I’m really glad you’re calling out all these sites on it.

    Incidentally, the idea that “oh what about the men, Ryan Gosling gets the same treatment” is unbelievable bullshit. Male privilege, anyone? Even when men are objectified, it’s not in the context of a culture that dehumanizes them and is A-OK with sexual violence against them. The sites loudly lusting after Alexa Vega are participating in and contributing to rape culture. So basically… what the two of you said.

  4. Thank you for writing this. Seriously. I’m straight, white male and this shit disturbs me nonetheless. Certain sites and writers have this gross tendency to break sexuality down into reductive bullshit like “hot or not” and sometimes it takes on an extra creepy vibe as you discuss. So tired of it. Nothing wrong with admiring beauty or finding sexy photos of actresses, well, sexy. But this absolutely juvenile attitude toward sexuality in women (and sometimes men when it relates to homosexuality) is terrible.

  5. Haven’t read the above comments, because they are too long. But can I just say thank you for calling it on this one? It is totally wrong for women ever to be portrayed this way (as sexual objects for the male gaze), but it is particularly disturbing when we see former child stars portrayed this way. I am most concerned about why former child stars feel the need to hyper-sexualise their image in order to prove that they are grown up. Surely, there are other ways to be taken more seriously as a more mature actor, no? This is a great article.

  6. Interesting read. Thanks. This all reminds me of when the Olsen twins turned 18 and frat houses/bars across the country had birthday parties because they were finally legal. That was the most blatant and nauseating display of some of the points you raise here. I believe some people even had a countdown.

  7. You ask why men seem to be drawn to the images of child stars who have grown up and become sexual. I think it goes along with the whole school girl/virgin fantasy, the idea that you can be the big man, be in control and teach them new things. It’s a very male fantasy because it’s a power fantasy really.

    I think this explains these kind of photos and the obsession with child stars. Explains, but doesn’t excuse.

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