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.