Ethics of Authorship of Children Growing Up on Screen

So, the internet has said good night to Game of Thrones, finally, and someday the clickbait that seems to pollute the airwaves with all sorts of useless errata will eventually fade into the algorithms that birthed them. In the mean time, I am left wondering about the ethics of authorship in these circumstances. Hollywood is notoriously indifferent to the very real problems that it can cause to the millionaires it creates, but it also pays very well for those problems of fame and starvation, and mostly pays out to adults who chose the life as adults.

Child stars are a different matter. Sophie Turner, one of the clear and shining talents that emerged from the child actors in Game of Thrones, has spoken openly about her struggles with depression and an eating disorder. Maisie Williams, a fan favorite character, and a very promising young star, also struggled with depression on the show. Their work involved some pretty horrific things. For a significant portion of their time starring in the show, they were legally too young to watch the very scenes in which they perform. The actor who plays Bran now gets to spend the rest of his life being told how much everyone hates this show’s ending, where he became king unexpectedly. To say he was not a fan favorite pick for the role would be an understatement. Even Emilia Clarke, an adult when filming started, was pushed to limits so extreme, it’s hard to say if they contributed to her brain aneurysms or not, which nearly killed her. These characters had to go through horrors that no one would willingly play act in a state of strong mental health. That they were well-paid for it, to me, is a little beside the point when I consider our responsibilities as authors and creators of the work upon which these children bend their will and work to perform.

Writing books about children, knowing that they may become films, I wonder how much of the responsibility for how they struggle with their mental health and sense of well-being falls upon the author of the story.  J. K. Rowling’s very famous books that became very famous movies that created very famous child stars also leaves a trail of mental health issues in its wake. Emma Watson, in particular, grew up in public, and has talked openly about her issues with anxiety. It’s hard to imagine a world where lots and lots of grown men go about sneaking pictures of your panties while you’re getting out of cars and you are the victim of sexual assault by the internet, depersoned and depersonalized, and told over and over again that the fame you craved makes it okay for them to spread pictures that aren’t anyone’s business by people who seem otherwise rational… Well, let’s just say it’s hard to imagine any young woman growing up famous and unscathed. She’s not alone. The young men fare no better. They struggle with addiction and mental health issues. They struggle with eating disorders, too, though we don’t hear about it as much. They have suicidal thoughts, these young actors.

And, when you write books and you’re thinking about the next steps in the journey of the story, how much of the blame for the problems of fame and child actors and young women and men in the limelight falls to you, the writer? Yes, you want to write the best and most true stories that you can. Sure. These aren’t going to be rainbow and sunshine things. Terrible things happen in stories to people we are supposed to love, so the audience can feel the heartbreak. That’s the gig. That’s the game. And, when these stories move into new mediums, we ask young women to stand up and carry these horrors. We ask young men and women to bear the weight of story. So they volunteer for the gig. So what? Do any of the child actors actually comprehend what they are volunteering to live through? The writers and producers and creators should know, for them. How much of the mental health struggles of young, talented, amazing actors and actresses fall upon us? Do we even think about it when we tell the story? Fame is a corrosion that burns as deep and slow as rust, and makes the body and the idea of the self no longer merely your own. Suddenly, in fame, everyone else owns you more than you own yourself, and remind you of this constantly. Perhaps this is why royal stories still resonate in a democratic future: We want our famous people to be owned by the role they play, wholly, like how the crowns break the individual identities beneath them.

I cannot change how society sees the young women and men in my stories, and how the world of men treat these actors and actresses guilty only of carrying the weight of my stories upon their backs. I can only be aware in the back of my mind that if the time comes, and the story grows larger than the page, that people are going to carry that story, and they will have to live with that story, and maybe, some of these people will be too young to carry the story, yet. And everything is not okay. And it’s up to me to do better at telling the story, so that the young people who carry the story don’t carry more weight than they should. How much of the depression and anxiety and disorder is my fault? How much of it is yours?

We ask too much of our great, young actors and actresses. Let us cast only the old and elderly. Let our Sansas be played by Helen Mirren and Dame Judi Dench. Let our Harry Potters be played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellon. Let fame fall upon those who have spent a lifetime slowly rising into it, lest it be thrust upon the shoulders of someone whose talent outstrips their readiness for the grinding weight of fame.

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