What Britney Spears Tells Us About the Exploitation of Hollywood Child Actors
When Britney Spears attorney Matthew Rosengart appears in Los Angeles probate court September 29 before Judge Brenda Penny and argues for his client’s release from a 13-year conservatorship overseen by her estranged father, the motion stands to correct a wrong that began long before #freebritney, or Chris Crocker’s plea 14 years ago to “Leave Britney alone!,” or even her 1993 debut on the Mickey Mouse Club.
The abuse of Spears’ conservatorship, which rendered her the legal equivalent of a child, also speaks to an abuse that threatens many child performers — kidfluencers, TikTok and reality stars, and anyone who lives in the 44 states that don’t embrace the Coogan Act. Child labor laws have not kept up with the entertainment landscape, and it’s the kids who stand to suffer from it
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As a former child actor who later became a homeless teenager, I think about stage parents and our inadequate child labor laws a lot. My father was a violent criminal who stole my identity; my mom gave birth to me while working on the set of the Coen Brothers’ “Raising Arizona.” When my parents no longer viewed me as a valued asset, my mother kicked me out at age 14 for being gay. Homelessness freed me from my parents’ exploitation.
“There is the old-school ‘children as property’ mindset, which we all say we’ve gotten away from,” said actress Alison Arngrim, who was cast as Nellie in “Little House on the Prairie” at age 12. “But when push comes to shove, and there’s money at stake, people will refer to it very quickly.”
Arngrim is now the California chair, national spokesperson, and founding board member of the National Association to Protect Children. “When you say ‘children in entertainment,’ most people think of wealthy children,” she said. “They’re not thinking about the journeyman working-kid actor who’s not rich and who was hoping for money to go to school when they turned 18. They’re not seeing the kids, toddlers, and infants on reality shows, who don’t even have health and safety protection.”
To protect child entertainers, California, New Mexico, Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and New York passed versions of the Coogan Act, named for child actor Jackie Coogan who discovered his mother and stepfather stole millions he had earned. Penniless after barely surviving the car accident that killed his father and best friend, Coogan borrowed money from his childhood co-star, Charlie Chaplin, and resorted to suing his mother in 1938 at age 23 for a fraction of what remained.
A century later, parental lawsuits remain the most common tool of Coogan Act enforcement, but many entertainers can’t afford the legal costs to pursue a case. In 2000, California passed an amendment requiring stage parents to open a trust and save 15 percent of their children’s earnings.
According to entertainment attorney Brian J. Murphy, “Unless there is new legislation enacted, the only legal recourse for the child actor is to wait until the age of 18 to file a petition in a California Superior Court for the release of Coogan account funds, assuming the parents opened a Coogan Account to begin with.”
Arngrim said many people in the business mistakenly believe the Coogan Act is already a federal law and opt to follow its standards voluntarily, even when shooting in a state without legal protections — but in truth, child performers are unprotected if they live and work in a state without the labor laws to protect them. Atlanta is a genuine Hollywood hub: Marvel shoots there, UTA just opened an office, and it’s home to the massive Tyler Perry Studios — but the state of Georgia offers no version of the Coogan Act.
As the entertainment landscape expands, our labor laws have become dangerously outdated. The last Coogan Act amendment predates even MySpace; Murphy said, to his knowledge, social media “kidfluencers” aren’t protected by the law.
Antiquated child labor laws do little to protect kids from exploitation on social media platforms, especially when you no longer need a parent to ferry you to auditions in LA or New York. Today, you can get endorsement deals and become internet famous anywhere with WiFi and decent lighting. YouTube stars like Ryan Kaji from Texas, Instagram’s vlogging Stauffer family from Ohio, and rising TikTok stars live in states without a version of the Coogan Act to protect kids from working too many hours and potentially falling prey to predatory parents who see their children as money-generating resources from which to extract content.
SAG-AFTRA began inviting influencers to join the union in February 2021, but there is little incentive for exploitative parents to sign up their kids when that means more scrutiny and oversight. If you’re relying on likes and clicks on your child’s face for revenue, it’s hard to know when they’re off the clock — playing just for fun, not income. If your child makes unboxing videos, but throws a tantrum on the day they need to perform for the corporate endorsement deal, will you let them take a nap instead?
Reality television is another realm of entertainment that lacks legal checks and balances for kids. Pennsylvania’s version of the Coogan Act was passed only when State Rep. Thomas Murt became concerned that the animals on Discovery Channel’s “Kate Plus 8” had more protections than the children. Because children are not included in most reality TV contracts, “They’re not being treated as employees,” said Arngrim. “The parents are treating them, in many instances, as props.”
Agriculture and entertainment are the two main industries in the U.S. exempt from federal restrictions on child labor, with regulations largely left to individual states. If social media influencers and their children are any indication, this is a national concern. If people can commodify someone’s childhood and sell it as content, film, or advertisements, and if we revoke their privacy before they can even consent, then we are all complicit in doing to child entertainers what is being done to Britney Spears.
“We don’t have Coogan laws for wonderful parents who are putting all their children’s money aside for college. It’s not written for them,” Arngrim says. “Unfortunately, a small number of terrible people ruin everything and we absolutely have to legislate stuff.”
Arngrim offers some optimism. The Actors Fund program Looking Ahead, which supports minors working in the business, was made possible in 2003 with the concerted efforts of The Actors Fund, SAG-AFTRA, and actor Paul Petersen’s organization A Minor Consideration. Arngrim also recommends that young performers use the SAG-AFTRA hotlines for assistance.
Few child performers have Spears’ money, fame, and resources; even fewer will have the momentum of the #FreeBritney movement championing the legal system on their behalf. The money I earned as a child actor is long gone, but sometimes I regret not suing my parents. My first job was at six months old. Ironically, I was cast as a naked baby wearing a graduation cap, toothlessly gnawing on a diploma to advertise a bank’s college savings account that I would never have. A trust with the money I earned would have helped pay for my never-ending student loans’ interest — or for the therapy I needed.
Sabra Boyd is a freelance writer and “retired” child actor working on a memoir about surviving child sex trafficking, teen homelessness, and being born on the set of the Coen brothers movie Raising Arizona. She lives in Seattle where she writes about exploitation, healthcare, food and agriculture, homelessness, human trafficking, tech, and cults. Her work will be included in the anthology The Women of Jenji Kohan, coming out in March 2022.
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