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Exploitation Amongst The Youth

Shirley Temple

Netflix released Andrew Dominik’s Marilyn Monroe biopic, Blonde, with the lead being played by Ana de Armas. From the moment the film hit the festival scene, it had audiences talking about Monroe’s mistreatment in Hollywood and her celebrated yet tragic legacy. All of this talk about the women of old Hollywood got me thinking about another star like Monroe, one that everyone has heard of, yet nobody knows anything about…I’m of course talking about the legacy of Ms. Shirley Jane Temple.

The sexual exploitation of Shirley Temple might have been horrific on screen, but things were so much worse behind the scenes. During the production of her many films, Temple and her fellow child actors endured an abundance of both physical and sexual abuse. In her 1988 book: Child Star: An Autobiography, Temple described the Baby Burlesks series as “a cynical exploitation of our childish innocence.” She also explained that if any of the preschool age children misbehaved on set, they were locked in a windowless booth called the “punishment box” and be forced to sit on a solid block of ice for extended periods of time. Temple was sent to the “punishment box” several times but claimed it did “no lasting damage” to her psyche. Temple described these production sets having a very strong, present, “time is money” attitude. This led to her being forced to work while injured on multiple occasions, one time working a single day after a serious eardrum operation.

In 1940, at the age of 12, Shirley Temple had a meeting with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producer, Arthur Freed, where he exposed himself to her. After seeing her nervously giggle, Freed threw Temple out of his office. This deplorable man would go on to produce wildly successful films such as Singin’ In The Rain, The Wizard of Oz, An American in Paris, and Annie Get Your Gun. Being a known, bold pedophile did little to lessen your reputation or professional success in early Hollywood. Years later, at the age of 17, Temple was made a victim again when producer David O. Selznik of Selznik International Pictures, attempted to sexually assault her. She was fortunately able to escape this ordeal unscathed, but this was not the last time she would have to deal with the pigs of Hollywood.

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Temple found herself being a victim to men’s twisted fantasies in reviews for her movies as well. Famous British novalist, Graham Greene ended up becoming the most infamous of these critics. Referring to her 1936 film, Captain January, Greene wrote “Her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance.” It’s important to note that Temple was eight years old at the time. In a review for the 1937 film Wee Wee Winkie, he referred to the child as “Wearing short kilts, she is a complete totsy… watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity.” Fortunately, Temple and Twentieth Century Fox were able to successfully sue Greene for libel. However, there is no telling the damage this must have done to that little girl’s mind and self image at the time.

But the abuse didn’t stop there, Shirley Temple was also made a victim of abuse by her viewers. Rumors spread around that she was not in fact, a child but a thirty year old woman posing as a young girl. Her critics would point out her “stocky build” and adult-like teeth that were actually due to a dental plate that she would wear on set to conceal her tooth gaps. This rumor became so prevalent that when Temple was ten years old, the Vatican sent over Father Silvio Massante to investigate the claims of her being an adult. Vicious “fans” would also claim that her famous trademark blonde curls was a wig, she would often get her hair yanked and pulled on by strangers, trying to prove the rumor true. In reality, her ringlet curls were maintained by a torturous nightly process and a weekly vinegar soak that would burn and sting her eyes.

Shirley Temple officially retired from acting in 1950 at the age of 22. She starred in 29 films from the ages of 3 to 10 but only ended up appearing in 10 from the ages of 14-21. In 1967, Temple began her career as a politician and served as a public servant until 1992.

The legacy of Shirley Temple is important to the film world and still remains a staple of Hollywood culture, but it’s important that we do not look back on these times with rose-colored glasses. Recently, luxury retail giant Balenciaga released a campaign featuring very young children holding leather-clad fetish teddy bears, and it is a little too reminiscent of a time where this blatant sexualization of children was the norm, a time that unfortunately Shirley Temple grew up in. It is crucial that we do not let this behavior flourish anymore in our society.

Quiet On Set

The film industry rakes in millions of dollars a year by producing TV shows and movies geared to excite and entertain kids. Unfortunately, major film companies have been turning out victims as fast as they air TV shows, but such crimes have not stopped those who endured them from coming forward. 

Companies such as Nickelodeon have created a myriad of shows in partnership with child actors, such as “iCarly”, “Victorious” and “Drake and Josh”. Kids have always been easy to fool, and it is no wonder Nickelodeon used this to their benefit. Through manipulation, non-disclosure agreements and ostracism, production companies tried to keep their victims quiet, but despite the obstacles on the path towards awareness, some have still made efforts to be heard.

One would think a massive entertainment company would care of the kids working so many of their shows, but they’d be wrong, as scenarios of sexual harassment, inappropriate physical touch and overly sexualized scenes of minors continue to come fort. Still, their testaments of abuse mean nothing to companies such as Nickelodeon, Disney or Universal Studios.

Dan Schneider, one of Nickelodeon’s most famous producers due to shows such as “iCarly”, “Sam and Cat”, and “Drake and Josh”, has time and time again been accused of engaging in inappropriate acts with minors working on his sets. Allegedly, Schneider has asked them for massages, made comments about their bodies and depicted them in extremely sexual scenes on national television. One would think that Nickelodeon would take steps to ensure the safety of their child actors, but, instead, they protect their abusers for years on end. Other producers such as Schneider that have net worths in the millions are instantly rewarded with an immense amount of control in the industry. People in powerful positions often match their status with their exigence of obedience from others; expecting the naïve to sit quiet and keep their mouth shut. 

Nickelodeon actress, Jeanette McCurdy, disproved these expectations of silence by vocalizing the abuse she received on the “iCarly” and “Sam and Cat” sets. She tells her story in her book “I’m Glad My Mom Died”. Prior to writing her book, she was offered a $300,000 non-disclosure agreement from Nickelodeon to buy her silence, detailed in her memoir. McCurdy did not take this money and instead chose to speak out, detailing the unsettling story of her abuse. 

McCurdy may have not taken the money, but others that find themselves in her position will. Companies with large assets know they can bend people’s boundaries to their will by paying them off, furthering their ability to abuse actors. As their revenues increase, so do their victims. Hollywood has its fair share of people willing to buy silence from victims, as money can quickly sway what one has to say. As they continue to offer hush-money to kids, their actions only continue to demonstrate the lack of care and responsibility that runs rampant in their company and the entirety of the industry.

Page Six interviewed Daniella Monet, who played Trina Vega on Nickelodeon’s “Victorious”, asking her questions regarding her experiences working on the show. She said, ¨Do I wish certain things, like, didn’t have to be so sexualized? Yeah, 100 percent,” referencing a scene aired of her putting on lip gloss before eating a pickle. She described feeling uncomfortable and even asked Nickelodeon not to air it, but they did it anyway. This was a clear disregard of Monet’s boundaries, despite her age-gap compared to the other actors. If an adult’s boundaries were disregarded, one can only imagine what would happen to minors and teenagers in the same circumstance. It is shameful that producers and full grown adults decided to disregard the feelings of one of their actors and instead chose to continue their abuse and share it with the world.

More recently, “iCarly” has been questioned for its content as consumers realized how vile some scenes of these kids were depicted as. People who re-watched the show started to see darker themes due to the amount of screen time dedicated to showing inappropriate content such as the casts’ feet. This is yet another example of Dan Schneider coming under fire for alleged inappropriate comments towards those working below him. Though he has not been convicted, the claims his victims have made are disturbing and hard for the public to ignore.

Disney is another culprit of this unjust practice. In 2006, Disney hired Brian Peck to produce “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody”. They hired him a year after he was released from prison for charges including oral copulation with a child, lewd acts, as well as sodomy and attempted sodomy with a minor. The fact that Disney would hire someone with such a disgusting history goes to show how little they care about their actors’ environment. 

Many believe that being a child-actor is an honor because it has cemented some of the most popular figures in Hollywood. However, the profession comes with dangerous downsides, and the risk of exploitation is ever present in the culture. The film industry is well known for its habits of breaking down boundaries set by cast members, especially young children. As long as that risk prevails, children should not be placed in such a risky environment. A contract for a show can end, but trauma will not leave their lives as easily.

Child actors bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars for production companies for shows and they help solidify the actor’s platform and standing in the industry. It can be easy to ignore what is going on behind the scenes when there is so much glamor in being a child actor, but it is essential that these flaws and exploitation in the film industry are acknowledged so that we can move forward towards the goal of protecting these children.

 Edit: As of Mar. 17, Max and Discovery+ released the documentary “Quiet On Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV”, further investigating the allegations from cast members of Disney shows of Dan Schneider’s abuse. The show contained new information surrounding rape and other violations committed against Drake Bell, child actor of the popular “Drake & Josh” series.

It was revealed that the child involved in Brian Peck’s lawsuit was none other than Drake Bell, one of the stars of “Drake & Josh”. According to Bell, Peck committed the crimes many times and forced his way into a parental role, which further involved him into Bell’s life. This constant involvement with Peck left Bell in a vulnerable position, which Peck used against him to get him to sleep over at his place.

During the trial, the support was aimed at Brian Peck, and major Hollywood actors mailed letters to the judge to claim Peck’s actions were due to temptations and immense pressure.

Bell, however, made it clear that Dan Schneider supported him through this as he was the only one to correlate Bell with his identity as John Doe in the lawsuit.

As the documentary continues to uncover what happened to the victims behind the cameras, Dan Schneider quickly made a public apology for his behavior and the promotion of toxicity on set. His apology, however, did not seem to stop the growing backlash he faced as the show grew in popularity, some taking to social media to claim his apology was another way of saving face when confronted.

Regardless of his apology, the crimes committed against the children behind the scenes of the Disney sets remain inexcusable, but the continued reports of the incidents ensure that those actions are never committed again. As the show continues, many are left in shock of what their favorite childhood stars endured, giving up their own childhood to give others theirs. But their continued push for new information and allegations ensures more awareness, in hopes it may not happen again.

Alleged Abusers

Daniel Schneider

Quincy Jones

Andi Mack

Norman Buckley and more


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Teisha Wilson
Teisha Wilson is a senior at the Urban Assembly for Media Studies. She loves to play basketball, exploring controversial topics, and enjoys listening to music.
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