Monday, January 31, 2011

Are the kids alright?

You might not guess this at a glance, but somewhere underneath the Hollywood styling, designer accessories and buoyant coiffing is a little girl of ten years old.

... And if that's not scary enough, this photo was actually taken when she was nine. Her name is Willow Smith, and she's widely touted as the Next Big Thing on the pop music scene after the success of her first single, Whip My Hair. She's not the first child in her family to hit the entertainment scene in a big way before she even hits her teens;

Recognise him? That's Jaden Smith, as he appeared opposite Jackie Chan in the remake of The Karate Kid. If the parental penny hasn't dropped yet, here's a family portrait to jog your memory:

Yep, Will Smith's kids are looking to end up as famous and successful as their Mum and Dad. And not everyone's happy about it.

Author Terry McMillan recently tweeted that:

The Smith children already act like child stars. There's an arrogance in their demeanor and behavior. I find it incredibly sad. It feels like the Smith children are being pimped and exploited. Or, they're hungry for fame. What about 4th grade?

She further hit out against the gushing descriptions of the children in public media - often from the children's parents - describing their prodigal talent and enthusiasm:

These kids don't already know what they "love". Total bullshit. They're not prodigies. They think Hollywood is real.

And it was in this comment that she tapped the vein of the issue. The coverage of the Smith children has always been carried out with a considered, kid-glove professionalism that ensures a message of their empowerment and stomps upon the merest suggestion of exploitation. The army of managers, choreographers, songwriters, agents, stylists and make-up artists behind the scenes are played down as far as possible, and the resulting efforts touted merely as each child's "individual style", as though it was arrived at in the usual course of nine year-old experimentation, during an afternoon with Mum's pilfered makeup and jewellery.

Not pictured: realistic styling by a 9 year old.

In September 2009, then aged 9, Willow Smith told radio host Ryan Seacrest, "just be an individual, you can't be afraid to be yourself... and you can't let anybody tell you that's wrong". Neat, both in the sense that it would seem to both prove the child's utter commitment to their public image, and absolve any adult stakeholders in Willow's career should things go down the proverbial shitter. Listen to the child, people! She's not being exploited or marketed, she's a talented child, expressing her individuality!

Now, naturally the world is full of little girls and boys who would love to be actors, singers, rappers or the like. In fact, this trend is so common that in a recent survey of British schoolchildren, the most frequent answer to "what do you want to be when you grow up?" was simply; "Famous". Many of us remember our abortive childhood fantasies of rock stardom or Oscar acceptance speeches, and dreamed feverishly of "real" parents who would pick us up one day and turn out to be rich and famous, paving our way to the red carpets and superdomes of the glamorous people.

No doubt, offered the deal that the Smith children have been born into (mega-star parents, unlimited access to the gears of fame creation) we would have jumped at the chance as well. We would have recorded the singles, we would have starred in the movies. We would probably have loved it - and we probably would have said so just as enthusiastically as Willow and Jaden.

We probably would have thought pretty highly of ourselves, too. Not in our scene, the busboy actors and taxi-driving musicians looking for a break in an industry where it's always been about who you know. Not for us, the cattle-call auditions where children are seen and dismissed in their hundreds per hour. Not for us, the agony of forging a new brand in an industry already splitting at the seams; the talented rubbing elbows with the mediocre, the beautiful frantically exercising their advantage over the ordinary, the rejects by their thousands lining the exit corridor, bitterly stroking the fantasy of a big break that never came.

I can imagine any of us, styled to perfection and adopting our image as our individual style, sitting on a couch with Jay Leno, saying how we were "born to do this", speaking of our love and passion for our work. I can imagine us believing in the adoration, in the money, in the fame, perhaps even until it became integral to who we were. Would we ever be able to be happy without the flash of the cameras and screams of the fans? Would we ever know another desire for our future lives?

So is this exploitation? Or, as McMillan would have it, pimping? Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith didn't respond publicly to McMillan's tweet, but it's clear that their intention is to give their children the best possible foothold in the slippery Hollywood market. Talented though the children undoubtedly are, it is understandable to criticize the way that coveted movie roles and recording contracts have fallen to them as a birthright, and at an age where they will be more likely to internalise their success as the deserved recognition of serious talent than to recognise it as a lucky side effect of their parentage.

But yet, the sheer volume of tickets and albums sold seems to speak for itself in that, for now, the Smith children are at the top of their games, and we are happily spending plenty of money to see them play. Perhaps someone is being exploited, and perhaps it is us.

What do you think?