Dear Hollywood: A media review of a podcast centered on advocating for children in the industry

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Child stardom has been at the forefront of public consciousness in the past few years. From Miley Cyrus evoking her “Wrecking Ball” days with the song “Used To Be Young” to Jennette McCurdy’s memoir “I’m Glad My Mom Died, we have been reminded of a generation of stars now reaching their thirties who burned hot and bright, before fizzling out. Money troubles, drug-abuse scandals, eating disorders and sexual abuse are just a few difficulties created by the culture of child stardom. We witness adolescents emerging into catastrophes, yet despite how public these stars’ lives are, there is still much below the surface. 

Alyson Stoner, actor and former child star, addresses all these and more on their podcast “Dear Hollywood.” The prologue to “Dear Hollywood” came in the form of a YouTube video published on April 7, 2021. They discuss how the film and television industry is an environment destined to produce maladjusted adults, a concept Stoner calls the Toddler-to-Trainwreck pipeline. This video is seen by over 1.6 million viewers, including me at the time. Almost two and a half years later, the first episode of “Dear Hollywood”– “Why Child Stars are Set Up To Fail”– made its debut.

“Dear Hollywood” is a subdued production, shot simply and edited simply. The goal is not to create a flashy production, to capitalize on the scandal surrounding stardom or even to seek to tell a single story. “These experiences have defined my peers’ and my realities, and I’ve spent the past ten years investigating why this tragedy persists in plain sight with little to no intervention or prevention,” Stoner says in their inaugural episode. Part informative deep-dive into the inner workings of stardom, part critical indictment of the industry and part cheeky memoir, “Dear Hollywood” is ultimately a show that aims to advocate for the rights of current and future child stars, creating an industry set up for success. 

Alyson Stoner’s demeanor is calm and collected. Though they speak with genuine passion, they do not yell or lecture. Moments of levity come through Stoner’s presentation as both laid-back and quirky. The structure of the show–from the simple format of the episode, to the cozy set bathed in warm lighting, to the minimalist sound design–create an atmosphere that is conducive to healing. There is a quiet power in advocacy that doesn’t need to shout to be heard. Throughout production, Stoner aims to be trauma-informed in their presentation of information. They discuss Piaget’s developmental stages and childhood identity formation in ways that are approachable to an audience inexperienced with psychology. Stoner refuses a simple picture that would place the sole blame on a star’s personality, a negligent parent, or a greedy agent. They also refuse to blame the concept of children in the media entirely. Instead, Stoner ruthlessly pursues nuance in their depiction of child stardom, insisting that we not boil a complicated subject down to a headline. 

The first driving question of the podcast is “What does an environment like this do to a child?” Episode topics include the effects of losing bodily autonomy to a corporation, how narcissistic mindsets can form if left unchecked and how access to child stars causes adults with boundary issues. What does it do to a child to be the primary breadwinner of their family? How does having dolls with your likeness sold without your knowledge or permission impact a child’s understanding of their body? How can being typecast shape a child’s self-identity into a predetermined mold? These questions are illustrated.

The second driving question is “How can we make it better?” Stoner centers their discussion of child exploitation in the film and TV industry, but they don’t stop with their own experience. The podcast moves from discussions of the film and television industry into child entertainment on social media, aptly called “kidfluencers.” Stoner calls to attention questions of autonomy over public image, safety and child exploitation. As “Dear Hollywood” was being produced, the first law protecting children working as social media influencers was passed in Illinois, a touchstone of progress Stoner championed. And more progress is to come. As this article was being written, Stoner spoke at a hearing in Ohio regarding the right to digital privacy of former child influencers. Not all pieces of this podcast are rosy. Though Stoner’s continued advocacy is admirable, it leaves a sour taste in my mouth to see them advertising their own curriculum as a piece of the solution. Paid partnerships, too, were a tricky piece of “Dear Hollywood’s” puzzle. Yet, the podcast as a whole, though imperfect, brings together a view of the future of entertainment that creates a safe environment for performers of all ages. It is informative without being dry, personal without veering into spectacle, and presented with the grace and respect this topic deserves.

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