On-Screen Child Exploitation: A Tale as Old as Time?

Written by PTC | Published January 4, 2023

There is growing public awareness around and concern for the sexualization of children. Former child stars, reflecting on their experiences in the entertainment industry as minors, are starting to recognize that what they were sometimes asked to do on screen was not only immoral, it was illegal.

Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, who starred in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when they were just 15 and 16, recently filed a lawsuit against Paramount Pictures, claiming they were filmed nude without their knowledge. The Academy Award-winning film included a bedroom scene which displayed Hussey’s breasts and Whiting’s buttocks.

Variety reports, “Now in their 70s, Hussey and Whiting filed a lawsuit in Santa Monica Superior Court on Friday, accusing Paramount of sexually exploiting them and distributing nude images of adolescent children.

“The suit alleges that Zeffirelli — who died in 2019 — assured both actors that there would be no nudity in the film, and that they would wear flesh-colored undergarments in the bedroom scene. But in the final days of filming, the director allegedly implored them to perform in the nude with body makeup, ‘or the Picture would fail.’”

Brooke Shields also recently spoke with her Blue Lagoon co-star Christopher Atkins on her podcast, Now What, about making the sexually-charged film as a teenager. Shields and Atkins were both naked for much of the film, with breasts and genitals exposed in certain scenes (although an adult body double was used for Shields’ sex scenes).

The actress, who was only 14 at the time the film was made, acknowledged that, “Never again will a movie be made like that… It wouldn’t be allowed.”

Shields’ statement may lack self-awareness – she doesn’t seem to recognize that she was being sexually exploited by the studio – but it does reflect awareness of changing attitudes in society around the sexualized depiction of minor-aged characters.

Although the public has grown increasingly uncomfortable with such depictions since the 1970s (as demonstrated by the public backlash against Cuties on Netflix in 2020), studios still haven’t gotten the message – they are firmly entrenched in the business of sexualizing children for entertainment.

Take, for instance, the Walt Disney Company – once synonymous with wholesome, family-friendly entertainment – that has climbed on the child exploitation bandwagon. Disney-owned Hulu has depicted a teenage girl masturbating in front of her laptop computer on an episode of PEN15, and a steamy, sordid “romance” between a high school teacher and one of her teenaged students on A Teacher.

Disney has also produced an explicit cartoon, Little Demon, and distributes it over one of its basic cable networks, about a teenager who is the love child from a fling her mother had with the devil.

As the PTC recently wrote to Disney CEO Bob Iger, “The one thing that made Disney the most trusted entertainment brand in the history of the world is that it manifested the precious magic and innocence of childhood. And the company did so while increasingly becoming more inclusive in its storytelling. But ‘inclusive’ has rocketed towards ‘indoctrination,’ with Disney executives even being recorded on video celebrating overt and intentional efforts push sexual themes into children’s programming.”

In this New Year, Hollywood must buck the trend of sexualizing children. It was wrong in 1968 and it is wrong in 2023.

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