But What About the Children?

Now I promised myself I wouldn’t use my blog to spiel on topics pertaining solely to applied ethics, but this idea struck me a few days ago, and I’ve a ton of browser tabs open that I need to get closed. In this post I want to challenge our societal conceptions of entertainment, and our collective inability to consider the moral costs we subsequently incur by engaging in said entertainment. Now I could look at all sorts of disturbing or obviously ethically flawed forms of entertainment, and many already find themselves in very dire straights in regards to public perception (take bullfighting for instance!). I won’t deny that our general moral sentiments regarding entertainment have improved immensely since antiquity, but that is not to say that there isn’t work to be done. No, what I seek to challenge is the exploitation of children in the film industry, particularly in television. A lot of this discussion hinges on a wider cultural critique that seeks to highlight widespread exploitation, hypocrisy, and perhaps denial of the extents to which our entertainment industry furthers their own profit motivated aims. Likewise, it’s important to remember that I’m restricting this criticism to our societal conceptions of entertainment, and entertainment in and of itself is a highly expansive term when considering its history and esoteric subdivisions.

First, it is important to remember that the means used to retain the attention of an audience (Wikipedia’s oh-so-reliable definition) more often than not come at some cost to a provider. If I for instance sold you a board game I myself invented, it would have cost me the time and effort to produce said game, which when stacked against the average price of a board game to the average consumer, usually pales in comparison. More elaborate forms of entertainment are examples of mass collaboration, and require a great deal of time, effort, and energy in order to both retain and appease the attentions of a mass audience. Yet, the structure of a society determines to a very large degree, the cost, type, and appeal of certain forms of entertainment. Gladiatorial combat in Ancient Rome is an excellent example of how the pursuit of entertainment often came a great cost in an ethical sense, but provided a very strong stream of revenue, both in terms of political and public appeal. However, distinct from a pure capitalist motivation, gladiatorial combat in Rome was much more politically motivated, as rulers needed to provide tangible and lavish spectacles in order to demonstrate their ability to appease and rule over the masses (Commodus even went as far as to call himself “Hercules Reborn” while performing staged battles in the Amphitheater fighting ostriches). The point though, is that despite some ethical concerns by philosophers and thinkers of the time (Cicero in particular), the public as a whole largely fascinated and amused by the brutal blood-sport. The average person today would likely reel in disgust at the notion of watching slaves kill and maim each other in an arena for amusement (although millions of viewers tune in to watch fighters beat each other).  The overarching theme I’m trying to tease out of this, and eventually connect to modernity, is the systematic exploitation that is required in order to maintain these sorts of entertainment spectacles.

Modern society on the other hand has largely avoided “Thunderdome” style amphitheater battles, we still retain forms of entertainment that come at a cost to the performer– the very definition of exploitation. In this particular case, I want to briefly tackle the issue of child actors, and how putting them on industry treadmills leaves them more often than not deprived of the essential rights and benefits we as a society agree all children ought to have. Many child stars in the last few decades have committed crimes, engaged in illicit hard drug use, and ended up leaving their short acting careers inexperienced, uneducated, and unfulfilled. What’s more is that the United States in particular lacks any thorough legal barrier that prevents studios from essentially evading labor laws, forcing their child-stars to work long hours and face harsh psychological conditions. Despite this, we as a society have already determined that all children regardless of class, race, intelligence, and talent deserve an equal opportunity to attain an education, and through that experience an actual childhood. Prior to this standard, lower class children were often employed in factories and farms, working long hours and with little to no pay– their only reward being the minuscule wage they brought home to help feed their impoverished families (Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist comes to mind).  One however might object and say that child-stars are well compensated for their efforts, and that their talent is duly rewarded. To that, I would only remind them again of the objective and serious psychological damage inflicted by being both deprived of the aforementioned universal education and labor rights, and of the mass scrutiny and stress imposed by having an entire nation of viewers judging their every move. Mara Wilson (Ms. Doubtfire, Matilda) points out a lot of these pressures and expectations studios impose on children, and quite frankly, it’s hard to justify it beyond the financial gain a studio gets from exploiting their young talents. What’s worse is that we as a consumer culture largely drive this demand for child talent, and demand it to the point where it often becomes detrimental and deleterious to the child in question. Again, this doesn’t apply to all child actors, and many are lucky to escape it, but it certainly doesn’t mean that it isn’t common or likely given the circumstances they’re subjected to.

Again, it seems likes the blame falls back on the viewers though, if we all collectively wanted to reinstate gladiatorial combat as it was in Ancient Rome, and likewise lacked the moral fortitude to reject it, it would be commonplace on both television and in the general public. We however, have rejected this form of exploitation and violence largely; most people don’t wish to watch two men kill each other for sport in an arena, and it’s morally correct to not want to do so. But in light of the moral and personal costs to the many children who have fallen victim to an entertainment industry that has deprived them of any opportunity to seek out education and personal development, what does our moral compass tell us here? Is it really worth it? The bigger question I think is how do we solve it?