Do Tween Show Stars Have a Responsibility?

Jennette McCurdy, Sam & CatNickelodeon

The recent dustup between Jennette McCurdy — star of the current Nickelodeon series Sam & Cat and former costar of the hit iCarly — and her employer brings up an on-going question: what, if any, responsibilities do actors in shows aimed at children have?

While there has yet to be clarification on why McCurdy, 21, has started to boycott Nickelodeon events — and there is a plausible explanation involves the discrepancy between the salaries of the actress and her costar Ariana Grande — there was plenty of speculation that one of the factors was the network’s reaction to pictures that were posted online of McCurdy in her underwear.

Nickelodeon has had relatively few issues with its young stars, but the viral explosion over the leaked photos is something that rival Disney is well acquainted with. The media giant has worried over the public images of a series of young actresses — Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens — while they were working for Disney.  (Lest they be accused of gender bias, the Mouse suits also fretted over Zac Efron’s behavior as well.) While she was between movies in the High School Musical series, a nude photo of Hudgens emerged online and put Disney into spin control. While McCurdy’s pictures were tame by comparison, the reaction to the seeming transgression was about the same: low-key generic support for the star mixed with an undercurrent of disapproval to appease the parents of young fans.

Trying to sell Hollywood products as “family friendly” is a tricky situation. Both Nickelodeon and Disney have to protect their respective brands and assure parents that their children can safely watch the content being put on the air. During her Hannah Montana days, it wouldn’t have been acceptable for Cyrus to go on stage in Europe and light a joint the way that she did earlier this year. There are certain boundaries that are just part of the price of being involved in children’s programming.

The problematic area, however, is two-fold. First, criticizing young performers for capitalizing on their sex appeal is hypocritical, especially when it comes from studios that continuously market the attractiveness of those same stars. Neither Nickelodeon nor Disney shies away from capitalizing on the fresh-faced good looks of the young actresses (and actors) that they employ. The companies have produced music videos for in-house stars like Victoria Justice and Bridgit Mendler that show them seductively singing to the camera and partying into the night. While it’s all fairly chaste, in reality it’s also not much of a ideological leap from doing a Maxim cover. If a studio can use someone’s looks for their advantage, they can’t then be concerned if that person uses it for their own.

The other part has more to do with the oftentimes unrealistic expectations of the public. Just because someone was on a show aimed at youngsters, that doesn’t mean that they have to continue to live up to some arbitrary standard of “purity.” The outcry over Cyrus’ more recent behavior — which has included showing far more skin than McCurdy — was ridiculous whenever it veered into concern over the impact it may have on the young people that used to watch her Disney show. Once they’re no longer directly working on products being marketed to tweens, then the choices that actors make stop being tied to that. Hudgens and Gomez starring as bikini clad thrill seekers in Spring Breakers has no bearing on the TV shows and movies that they did as teenagers.

Both Nickelodeon and Disney have become launching pads for actors to break into the business, but it’s hard to bemoan young adults from acting like… well, young adults.