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  • The Cultural Significance of the Child Star
  • Shauna Vey
The Cultural Significance of the Child Star. Jane Catherine O'Connor. Routledge Advances in Sociology Series, no. 39. New York: Routledge, 2008; pp. xiii + 176. $95.00 cloth.

The primary contribution of The Cultural Significance of the Child Star is to insert consideration of the child star into the discussion about the current status of Western childhood. O'Connor is not concerned with individual actors, but with "the category 'child star''' (2); she uses the category "as an analytic tool with which to examine some of the tensions and power struggles which are inherent in our current construction of childhood" (4). This is a worthwhile undertaking at which O'Connor succeeds, along the way unearthing fascinating connections by applying theories from a broad spectrum of inquiry.

Most of O'Connor's book centers on the question: "Why are child stars and former child stars frequently ridiculed and denigrated in the media?" (8, emphasis in original). While never fully justifying her underlying assumption, O'Connor does present some interesting explanations for what she terms the "powerlessness of child stars" (66). Near the end of the book, she turns to the question of why child stars exist. In her analysis, the "power of child stars" derives from their status as a "modern-day manifestation of [an] ancient archetype" (100). This paired discussion of power and powerlessness is intriguing, although it never quite coalesces into an integrated theory.

O'Connor limits her topic to the twentieth century and defines "child star" as anyone who was "described as such in the media" (6). In chapter 2, "The Normal Child and the Exceptional Child," O'Connor draws upon a cross-section of research, including classic anthropology and psychology as well as more recent work in media and children's studies, to contextualize effectively definitions of "normal," "extraordinary," and "deviant children." She adeptly places child stars within the context of other categories of extraordinary children, such as child geniuses, feral children, and children who commit violent crimes, and demonstrates that a categorization of nonnormal "justifies their exclusion from the usual protections and privileges that Western childhood offers" (146).

Chapter 4 begins by arguing that the media characterization of former child stars is "overwhelmingly negative" (140). O'Connor applies principles of discourse analysis to a number of media statements about child stars, concluding that they "facilitate and perpetuate a certain image of the child star as powerless, pitiful and cursed" (72). If one can ignore the counterexamples that come to [End Page 340] mind (such as Ron Howard and Jodie Foster in the twentieth century, and Cordelia Howard and Caroline Fox in the nineteenth) and accept her premise, the rest of the chapter is intriguing and the real heart of O'Connor's study. Citing such scholars as Mary Douglas, Victor Turner, Arnold Van Gennep, and Erving Goffman, O'Connor draws on structuralist anthropological fieldwork and theories on stigmatization, transgression, and punishment. In primitive societies, transgressors are seen to threaten the culturally hegemonic standards: O'Connor demonstrates that child stars transgress the culturally dominant construction of childhood in several ways. Their experiences deviate from those of "normal" children, and they subvert the authority of adults by their celebrity and economic agency. As adults, former child stars embrace sexuality and abandon innocence, the trait by which we define and sacralize childhood. By maturing, they disfigure their ideal selves: "[t]hat which they were celebrated for, in a very real sense, no longer exists, exposing not only their shortcomings in growing up and away from their child selves, but the shortcomings of the whole idea of childhood perfection" (87). For this, former child stars are "punished" by a media they cannot control—thus the "powerlessness of child stars."

In chapter 5, "The Power of Child Stars," O'Connor asks why we need child stars. Again, her strength is the innovative application of theoretical sources. O'Connor cites ideas by Carl Jung and Carl Kerenyi on archetypes and the wonder-child motif in myth, religion, and literature. She identifies special qualities repeatedly attributed to the child star: physical perfection, absolute purity, extreme sensitivity, and the desire and ability to...


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