Twelve year old Dakota Fanning's new film Hounddog is causing controversy, not because it contains a rape scene, but because it is Lewellen, Dakota's character, who is raped. The little girl out of Charlotte's Web!
Either she is too young to be able to handle such material, or she isn't.
Either she should never have signed up for this project, and her family and agent have failed to protect this child from commercial exploitation, emotional trauma and moral corruption, and are guilty of setting an arbitrary closing date to her childhood; or she is perfectly able to deal with this material, and her family and agent have thoughtfully and courageously given her the opportunity and support to do work of this nature and standard.
Just as Venus and Serena Williams' father recognised and coached their talent.
And Wolfie Mozart's supported his.
If you have an extraordinary talent amounting to a vocation, an unquenchable desire to play tennis or the violin, to act, swim, compose, paint or write for hours and hours, day after day, for years, because that is when you are most alive, then perhaps you would find what the rest of us think of as a normal childhood confining, frustrating and unnatural?
Is Dakota simply exceptionally gifted, a very young and dedicated actress, with a wisdom beyond her years? Or is she an exceptionally gifted young actress who has been fast-tracked out of childhood by the projects she has been allowed to take on? And if the latter, is this good, bad, or just another variation on real life, so if she's fine, then the rest of us should get off her case?..!
One of her previous directors described Dakota Fanning as 'seven going on forty'. Hounddog director Deborah Kampmeier, whose personal history forms the basis of this film, calls her an 'old soul'. I am almost persuaded that she is indeed just fine with this project. What kind of reaction she may face from her peers remains to be seen. And the press are all over her, with judgements and headlines about her family and her agent.
Other girls have been here before. Eleven-year-old Brooke Shields played a child living in a brothel in Louis Malle's Pretty Baby. At fourteen, Jodie Foster was nominated for an Oscar for her role as a pre-pubescent prostitute in Taxi Driver. Both coped with their roles and the fall-out therefrom, and have grown into well-balanced, creative professionals. Dakota's parents seem very caring and careful of both of their daughters - though I imagine many people will revise that opinion now. Fingers crossed for this extraordinary young actress who comes across in interviews as a wise child, a real professional, and a lovely kid.
This article in Slate raises some questions beyond the immediate 'Should she/they or shouldn't she/they?
How about this: But the truth, as anyone who has recently been to the cinema knows, is that Dakota Fanning has been making dark and creepy movies for years. Over her seven-year career, she has become a small, blond embodiment of America's fond hope that scarred children can be restored to childish innocence. It was only a matter of time before the trauma she faced would be rape.
.,...... In the intensely violent Man on Fire (2004), she is a neglected, love-starved child who is kidnapped for ransom money, and watches her beloved bodyguard (and only true friend) get brutally shot in front of her as she cries his name. She is later rescued, but he dies for her. In Hide and Seek (2005) she plays a troubled 9-year-old whose mother has recently died; terrible things happen, but in the end, she appears to find some relief from her emotional suffering. ... In The War of the Worlds (2005), she watches as aliens destroy her world, transforming it into a landscape literally flowing with blood, and her father kills a man in order to save her life, while she sits nearby. She is brutalized and subdued, but by the film's end—when she reaches the cozy brownstone where her mother is—she appears ready to be absorbed again by the consoling rhythms of domesticity; one feels that even her toys are intact.
Of course, she's also done Dreamer and Charlotte's Web.
However, watching Man on Fire, I could not separate my response to the trauma faced by the character Pita, from my awareness of the 10 year-old handling those scenes, that dialogue. Whenever I see a film, or an episode in a drama series, where child actors are involved in scenes of great violence, cruelty or distress, it troubles me. Occasionally there will be a baby crying in its cot, scarlet and tear-streaked: how do they film this? Who explains motivation to a six-month-old? Is colic a useful quality in the neo-natal actor?
Do parents simply stand back until the shot has been completed satisfactorily, before giving baby a cuddle and singing him a lullaby about his college fund?
What about the toddler standing crying its heart out? Or standing there on the verge of tears. An eighteen-month-old faking heartbreak to order? (Not to be confused with emotional blackmail which is a learnt skill!)
Just one more thing. Remember when Haley Joel Osment cornered the market in the melancholy and the downright miserable (Sixth Sense, AI, Pay It Forward)? In addition to wondering how he coped and, after a while, anticipating the likely mood of any film he appeared in, I remember thinking that he had been cast as much for his vulnerable look as anything else.
I have since become convinced that for a child actor to have a megabucks Hollywood career, as opposed to being cast as Lost Boy 3 or Bad News Bear 17, it helps to have a particular face shape - heartshaped, or with a fine jaw/pointy chin; pale, pale skin; and almost preternaturally wide-spaced eyes. Fey. Elfin. Vulnerable. The sort of face that conveys desolation, fear, pain and grief well, i.e. truthfully (cos the kid does have talent) and attractively, i.e. without doing anything unappealing like turning scarlet and producing noxous fluids from various orifices.
Because Dakota Fanning is not the only child working with dark material: children's movies inhabit a safe world, but in many adult films, children are victims, part of the 'everything' which has to be destroyed so that Hero will take on Villain in a good old-fashioned 97 minute orgy of bullets, car/helicopter/motorbike/roller skate chases and explosions. Our modern fairy tales.
I had a little gallery by way of illustration, but it seems to have e-vaporated. The faces belonged to Dakota Fanning, Haley Joel Osment, Elijah Wood, Christina Ricci and Winona Ryder. Some of them could be siblings, depending on the angle of the photo. I don't mean that the children themselves are gloomy and prone to depression. There are plenty of happy smiling pics. In fact, Dakota Fanning gets my award for World's Best Smile. She's absolutely beaming in most photographs.
But - if it's ok for these children to play roles in films about domestic abuse, violent crime, cruelty and ignorance, how can we draw the line at sexual violence? Surely, to return to Dakota Fanning's latest film, it's a little late to start worrying about the erosion of her childhood innocence?
To be honest, I'm more concerned with the implications of the Vanity Fair (March 06) Tom Ford photograph of the then 12-year-old in Chanel frock, styled in glam-grunge with those direct, worldly-wise eyes. (Pity Scarlett Johannsson & Keira Knightly, who probably wish they hadn't done that cover!)
This is the age of Manga, and the big-eyed innocent adult child. Of androgynously alluring 'ageless' fairy art. Of three, four and six year-old girls in scaled down adult fashions, with bare shoulders and belly buttons; and teenage girls and young women attempting to live on 3 calories a day to achieve a boyish - androgynous - Size 00. Of children in First World countries being surrounded by images of sexuality, and being sexualised younger and younger, while Third World countries are fighting to eradicate child marriage and enforce a minimum age of consent. Of international paedophile rings and Internet porn, anxiety in the vestry, and front page 'candid' tabloid photographs of knickers straining over celebrity crotches on the lowest shelf at the newsagent's, next to the children's comics. It all adds up to a dangerous blurring of the border territory between childhood and adulthood.
People have always been fascinated by sex. Of course! Sex is a natural part of life, no more nor less, but it has become a dominant, perhaps the dominant cultural theme in the west. Between consenting adults please. There have always been teenage preganancies, often the result of consensual sex, despite minimum legal ages and statutory rape laws. Rates have been falling, as a result of better sex-education and realistic public health attitudes to contraception. Nowadays, though, our healthy, well-nourished children reach puberty younger and younger, with 9 year-olds sprouting in all directions. But they're still children. Mentally and emotionally.
However, with this blurring - insidious and blatant at the same time - of what constitutes childhood, childlike behaviour, interests and activities; and what is unmistakeably the preserve of the adult, we put our children in danger. If magazines, films and fashion houses are making children sexually self-aware earlier and earlier, some of our sprouting nine-year-olds may find themselves in very dangerous territory by the time they are eleven. And it may only be a matter of time before some cretin stands up in court and says of his young victim, 'She asked for it.' and genuinely thinks he has a case, because she walked the walk, and talked the talk. Never mind that she was just copying behaviour she'd seen in a film, or in her big sister.
Never mind that she was at least five years away from the age of consent.