“I am frightened for this child’s future,” said an emphatic Paul Petersen, the former child star who played Jeff Stone on the 1950s television situation comedy “The Donna Reed Show.”
Petersen wasn’t referring to an overworked minor in a Chinese sweatshop. He was talking about Alana Thompson, the 7-year-old pageant hopeful whose matchless moxie and head-bopping sass have made her a national sensation on TLC's hit reality-TV show “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.”
The show -- centered on the misadventures of Thompson (aka Honey Boo Boo) and her family of self-proclaimed rednecks in rural Georgia -- has sparked no shortage of debate over the devolution of American entertainment. Have we really sunk so low as to marvel at the travails of low-income Georgians as they roll around in toilet paper and debate the relative merits of each other’s bodily functions? Is the show an insult to decent Southerners? Or is it all just good fun?
Petersen said such questions miss the broader -- and more dire -- issues of child welfare that affect the show’s young star, a little girl who he believes will inevitably grow up to regret the intractable Honey Boo Boo persona that has made her the most talked-about thing on TV. “These images of her will never go away,” he said. “Her name and identity are forever pegged to this show, and I’m watching it and thinking, ‘What comes next?’”
For Petersen, what comes next for child celebrities has been at the forefront of his mind for more than two decades. In 1990, he founded the nonprofit organization A Minor Consideration, which helps child celebrities transition into adulthood while coping with stresses of the industry. He argues that for too many showbiz kids, that brief moment in the spotlight comes with an emotional toll that lasts a lifetime.
Anecdotal evidence for the harmful effects of child stardom is certainly not hard to find amid the mountains of made-for-TMZ reports about Amanda Bynes, Lindsay Lohan, Tatum O’Neal, Kirk Cameron, the Olsen twins, and countless others. But to be certain, child celebrity is nothing new, nor is the phenomenon of parents profiting from famous offspring, as Leopold Mozart did when he pimped out the prodigal Wolfgang to amuse European royals and make boatloads of cash.
But the rise of reality television -- a genre in which stars are just as likely to be vilified as they are celebrated -- has upped the stakes for children who are too young to understand the principle of “informed consent.” Adult reality-TV stars know the deal: They get fame, and, in exchange, their every waking moment is fair game. But children are unaware they have entered into this transaction, and it accordingly falls upon showbiz parents to do the decision-making for them.
It’s an issue that has gained increased attention as more and more unscripted shows feature real-life children, exposing their personal lives for mass consumption. Prominent reality staples such as the “Real Housewives” franchise and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” (which featured Kourtney Kardashian giving birth this week) have come under fire for exposing the stars’ children to the kind of media scrutiny directed at the stars themselves.
In 2009, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry investigated TLC for suspected child-labor violations on the hit show “Jon & Kate Plus 8.” Although no charges were ever filed, the case brought greater awareness to the negative effects that media exposure can have on everyday children -- effects that Petersen said young Alana is experiencing as we speak.
Take one look at Honey Boo Boo’s antics, and it isn’t difficult to see Petersen’s fears. The child is as cocky as she is clueless, and why shouldn’t she be? From her days as a budding pageant contestant on “Toddlers & Tiaras” to her recent gig on her own show, Thompson has learned by experience that the world revolves around her.
But Petersen said that house of cards will inevitably come crashing down, and he faulted parents and producers for building it in the first place. “When you trade momentary success for a child’s ability to cope with adult stresses, you are making a mistake,” he said.
Many child-care experts agree. Michael Brody, a psychiatrist and chair of the Television and Media Committee of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, likened child stardom itself to a kind of abuse. He said thrusting young children into the national spotlight fosters a volatile mix of inflated egos and diminished boundaries.
“You wonder what these parents are thinking,” Brody said. “To subject your kid to all this attention obviously isn’t healthy. You have a situation where the kid is calling the shots. There are no boundaries. It’s very damaging developmentally.”
Granted, it might be difficult to explain any of this to 7-year-old Alana. If nothing else, the youngster appears to be having the time of her life, but then so did Gary Coleman at his peak. Petersen said the idea that childhood stardom is worth the residual psychological damage it inflicts is one of the fallacies perpetuated by a culture in which fame is perceived to be its own reward. “People are confused by visibility and notoriety,” he said. “They see these people on TV, laughing and having fun, and they think, ‘How bad can it be?’”
Brody added that society needs to move beyond empty “What about the children?” rhetoric and take a hard look at a culture that treats children as commodities and trophies. “We talk a good game in this country about the needs of children, but we don’t walk the walk,” he said.
What’s more, Brody said, the most damaging effects of media attention come after the cameras stop rolling. “That’s where the abuse comes in,” he added. “You have all this attention -- and then you don’t. The rug gets pulled out from under you.”
Just Dumb Fun
Since the runaway success of “Honey Boo Boo,” the Internet has predictably gone viral with polarizing accounts of its questionable quality, but are the show’s critics missing the point?
“It’s just kind of dumb no-brainer humor,” said Angela Di Carlo, a New York makeup artist and cabaret performer who watches the show. Di Carlo likened “Honey Boo Boo” to Cletus the slack-jawed yokel on “The Simpsons,” but she admitted she is laughing at the cast members and not with them. “Not in a mean way,” she added. “I just love those country-ass accents, like calling spaghetti ‘sketti’ -- and who the hell has a baby pig for a pet?”
Ironically enough, others have defended the show for its promotion of family values. The Thompson-Shannon clan, for all their Dumpster diving and poor enunciation, are an ostensibly close-knit and loving group. They eat dinner together -- even if dinner is road kill.
Regardless of why people are watching “Honey Boo Boo,” they are watching in huge numbers. The Sept. 13 episode alone attracted an impressive 2.1 million viewers, which, for Petersen, brings up the question of compensation. An unnamed source told the Hollywood Reporter this month that the cast members on the series are paid $4,000 per episode. That figure was later laughed off by Alana’s mother, June Shannon, who told TMZ the number is much higher.
But Shannon would not be specific, and the truth is she is under no legal obligation to share any of that money with her daughter. Although some states require parents of child performers to deposit a percentage of their wages into a trust account for the child, Georgia is not one of them. In California, this requirement is known as the Coogan Law, which was named after Jackie Coogan, who starred opposite Charlie Chaplin in “The Kid.” Coogan became a national sensation in the 1920s only to discover on his 21st birthday that his parents had squandered his earnings.
In the absence of a Georgia equivalent to the Coogan Law, Alana’s entire wages belong to her parents. Petersen said that all the chatter about how much money the stars of “Honey Boo Boo” make negate an important fact: Honey Boo Boo herself could end up with nothing.
“Her name is in the title of the damn project,” he said. “What’s her compensation level? Is there a trust fund for Alana? Prove it.”
IBTimes reached out to TLC, which is owned by Discovery Communications, but the network declined to comment for this article. Authentic Entertainment, the Los Angeles-based production company that produces the show, also declined to comment.
A representative of the Georgia Department of Labor would not confirm whether producers of “Honey Boo Boo” have applied for a work permit, but she said that “all minors under the age of 18 are required to complete the Application for Employment of Minors in Entertainment.”
A Question Of Labor
You might ask why kids are allowed to work in the entertainment industry at all. In any other industry, the idea of grooming children as young as infants and tossing them into the labor pool would be frowned upon, to say the least. But when the Fair Labor Standards Act was drafted in 1938, lawmakers included exemptions for the entertainment industry. Petersen said that law, created at a time when kids were being overworked on family farms, is out of date, and that the many loopholes in the law result in “the crass exploitation of children.”
Some states -- most notably California -- have attempted to plug some of those loopholes with their own regulations, providing greater protections for child actors. But the explosion of reality television over the last 12-plus years has brought with it new semantic challenges for child-welfare proponents. In many cases, reality-TV participants are considered not actors but contestants, a designation that places them outside the jurisdiction of SAG-AFTRA.
The actor-versus-contestant dispute first gained national attention in 2007, when parents of some of the children who appeared on CBS’ “Kid Nation” filed a lawsuit claiming their kids had been forced to endure grueling and dangerous working conditions. CBS maintained that the kids were not technically “working,” and the law at the time was on its side. In response to the controversy, lawmakers in New Mexico, where “Kid Nation” was shot, have since strengthened the state’s child-labor provisions -- which now include its own version of the Coogan Law.
Meanwhile, SAG-AFTRA is doing what it can to maintain its footing in an industry that is less and less scripted. In an email message to IBTimes, SAG-AFTRA representative Pamela Greenwalt said the union does cover reality programing, including network hits such as “American Idol” and “Survivor.” Moreover, she said, union contracts cover any programming that requires performance, which “may include programs that contain scripted dialog, rehearsals, narration, hosts, or other live performances, and includes documentaries and ‘reality based’ reenactment shows.”
But union rules cannot protect cast members who appear in nonunion productions, which include “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and countless other reality-TV shows. “Performers who appear on nonunion programs -- both reality and scripted -- do so without the benefit of union protections,” she said. “They are protected only by applicable federal and state laws, which are often not as robust as union provisions.”
Amid all the talk about the negative impact of childhood stardom, it’s worth pointing out that early fame does not automatically lead to a life of petty theft and appearances on “Celebrity Rehab.” Just ask Ron Howard, the Oscar-winning director, or even Shirley Temple, the former U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia and Ghana.
Even Petersen admitted his own acting experiences, which included a short stint as a Mouseketeer on “The Mickey Mouse Club,” were mostly positive.
But Petersen considers himself one of the lucky ones, a rare success story in an industry where stunting childhood development is a systemic fact of life, a status quo propagated by greedy TV producers, fame-hungry showbiz parents and we anonymous millions who tune in.
“We sit back and watch while adults make a profit off of the destruction of childhood,” Petersen said. “Why isn’t America outraged at this abusive employment of children?”