Girls on Film: Lindsay Lohan, Child Stars, and Cinematic Responsibility

Girls on Film: Lindsay Lohan, Child Stars, and Cinematic Responsibility

Nov 03, 2011

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.


Mean Girls Promo Still

Another day, another new Lindsay Lohan drama…

When Lohan first stepped into the spotlight, she was a charismatic bundle destined for great things. Her red hair, freckled cheeks, and bright blue eyes contrasted the usual Hollywood kid machine, and her talent set her even further apart. She handled the dual roles of The Parent Trap with ease and quickly became a Disney star. Her specialty – the remakes, whether it be classic Hayley Mills comedy, taking on a little Freaky Friday, or dealing with Herbie Fully Loaded.

But just as she began to rise, she began to fall. It happened well before her well-publicized run-ins with the law. Like many other child stars, her stardom became intermingled with all the typical tabloid fodder. Lohan struggled with sickness, drugs, partying, bulimia, plastic surgery, and the ever-present ridiculousness offered up by her unstable parents.

In early 2006 she tried to change the tide, opening her closet of demons for a comprehensive interview with Vanity Fair. Just My Luck was about to come out, she had A Prairie Home Companion and Bobby on the pipeline, and was working on a new and highly personal album.  She admitted to doing drugs “a little,” and that she was making herself “sick” (bulimia). She recalled how her second hosting gig at Saturday Night Live came with a number of interventions on her behalf. Their concerns also made it into the show, as the ghost of Lindsay Future, played by Amy Poehler, asked her to “slow down.”

Lohan and Poehler, SNLIn fact, the writers were much more aware of Lohan’s future than the actress herself. She told Vanity Fair: “My arms were disgusting. I had no arms,” when she watched her appearance, but it was more than that. In her opening monologue, Future Lindsay talked about her future Cinemax porn show, “Night Passions,” which Future Lindsay swears she only introduces (flash forward to the announcement that her upcoming jail stint was postponed so she could pose for Playboy), and then the zinger, when Lindsay asked if she is happy 30 years from now, Future Lindsay replied: “I don’t know. I’m from 2007.”

Ah, 2007. Lindsay was already attending AA, and her professional work was falling into the same hole as her inner demons. Georgia Rule was shrouded in bad press; films were canceled and postponed. On May 26, she was arrested for DUI and sent to rehab. On July 24, she was arrested for DUI again and subsequently booked on possession of cocaine. On November 15, she spent 84 minutes in jail. She missed substance abuse classes and found her probation extended. In 2010, she missed more appearances and narrowly missed another arrest, back to jail in July, failed drug test in September. This year, she added theft to her list of wrongdoings, failed another drug test while under house arrest, found her probation revoked, and now must do “30 days” in jail (who knows what overcrowding will make it) and 400 hours of community service, which if not completed, will send her back to the slammer for 270 days.

It’s a cornucopia of drama for the tabloid fiends and child-star fanatics, and it’s easy to question her judgment and mental state, but each time Lohan falls a bit deeper into her tabloid hell of addiction, body issues, and problems with the law, I wonder if it is time to turn the mirror on ourselves and the Hollywood system.

Lohan is responsible for her actions, but we are partially responsible for the mental state that led to these issues. Sure, between uber-parents Michael and Dina, there’s a lot of dysfunction that swarmed Lohan’s head from the very beginning. Her father has a parade of unbalanced behavior while mom has been notoriously dismissive. While Lindsay was critical of herself in that Vanity Fair interview, admitting to losing too much weight and partying too much, mom was there to say “no, it wasn’t as bad as it looked … When people would interview me and say, ‘Oh, she’s out at clubs,’ I’m like, ‘What did you do when you were a teenager? You go to clubs, or you go to parties.’” In 2009, parent-child psychologist Dr. Jenn Berman boiled it down to Dina being “so busy trying to create a brand that she overlooked her child’s well-being.”

But we’re the ones who support a Hollywood system that we fully know destroys many young talents, that uses children to make money, that puts success ahead of a child’s well-being. Is it right to allow the star machine into a child’s world? To shrug at the ever-present outcome so that we may be entertained, both by the kid’s work and their almost-inevitable downfall?

Getting occasional work as a child actor is one thing, but when Hollywood replaces reality (school, dances, real life), we cannot expect these actors to turn out balanced. Harry Potter producer David Barron noted earlier this year, “To have children grow up in that kind of maelstrom of affection and general applause for everything they do, it’s not normal.” They don’t learn the basics in the school yard. They aren’t surrounded by loving family, teachers, and friends. These child stars are surrounded by people concerned only with how this child can help their bottom line. They are spoiled and reality-checked continually; they live outside our “real world.” They’re so busy acting, PR-ing, performing, that many don’t have time to really start to foster their own identity.

Lohan MugshotIn a piece about child actors for The Hollywood Reporter, those in Hollywood seem to agree that it comes down to family. Trilogy Talent’s Susie Mains expands, “Just because you have an agent and a publicist and a manager doesn’t mean you need less parental guidance: It means you need more. Kids get their self-esteem and their sense of what is real and appropriate from significant others in their lives, not the strangers asking for autographs.”

It might be easy to then just blame the parents, but in a world where Toddlers and Tiaras is a reality, that’s just not entirely valid. At some point the system must change. As fun as it is to see cute little kids act their hearts out, especially when they’re as charismatic as Lohan was, our entertainment shouldn’t be at the expense of innocent kids. If we walk down the street and see a child in danger, we don’t shrug and walk away stating that it’s the parent’s responsibility. We help them. We don’t just turn on our phone cameras and film it. We’re not angels with no hand in this mess.

This child-suckage happens again and again in many guises. It’s been three years since the Slumdog Millionaire kids catapulted to superstardom and started their wait for real homes, as promised to them by those behind the film. As of spring of this year, Rubina Ali was still waiting, and had lost all her awards, clothes, and jewelry in a blaze at her current home. Tatum O’Neal is practically a roadmap for the young child star, winning an Oscar at 10, smoking pot by 12, and suffering a lifelong battle with addiction. Not every actress turns out like Drew Barrymore, who went through the darkness and crazy ways, and came out the other side to become a continuing Hollywood success.

The well-being of the child has to come first. I loved watching Diff’rent Strokes growing up, but not at the expense of Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges, and Dana Plato. Brad Renfro’s talent is a bittersweet aura that rests in front of a young man who died by 25. I find it hard to look at the young, talented, full-of-potential little girl from The Parent Trap and not wonder how far she would be right now if she’d waited, lived a real life for a while (as much as she could in her family), and got into acting later.

Women already have it tough in this business, jockeying for the few great roles, continually having to prove their financial worth and talents beyond sexiness and skin. Just as it’s important to foster established female talent, we must help the youth who have to overcome great obstacles for even basics of life like a drug-free and centered world.

There’s no easy answer. Maybe it’s limiting the work a child can do more. Maybe it’s teaching the parents solid skills for keeping their kids happy and balanced. Maybe it’s mandatory real-world schooling. Maybe it’s visits to psychologists and child actor “normalizers” skilled at helping these kids have more “real” lives. It could be any or none of these things, but something has to be done.

It’s not entertaining to see actual talent wither away.

Lohan on Letterman: 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007

Lohan in 2008

Lohan in court: 2009 | 2010 | 2011

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