The American Youth: From Child Stars to Overly Sexualized Young Adults

[My current events paper for my How The News Media Shape History class.]

After watching Miley Cyrus’ MTV documentary this week and following her highly publicized journey over the past few months, I felt compelled to examine how young celebrities are covered in the media, specifically child stars as they evolve into overly sexualized young adults. During the transition from childhood to adulthood, teenagers internally and externally struggle to find their authentic selves. Young celebrities are not exempt from this transition, but in the bright hot spotlight of the media they are forced to do this in an ever-watching public arena and consequently are branded the poster child for the corruption of youth. It is easy to pinpoint celebrities as they travel down this seemingly self-destructive path, but every teenager undergoes some version of a rite of passage; the transition from childhood to young adulthood. The juxtaposition of young adolescents portrayal in the media has been well documented even as early as the 1920s when society feared the rebellious teenager.  While society over the years has changed the judgment, frustration and fear for youth rebelliousness has not.

In Jane O’Connor’s book “The Cultural Significance of the Child Star,” O’Connor argues “the demonization of young celebrities stems from their contradictory relationship to both innocence and sexuality” (Wayne). For months, Miley Cyrus has been shedding her pure and wholesome Disney image for something that is more raw, real and controversial. During Cyrus’ documentary, “Miley: The Movement,” she says, “It’s not a transition. I’m the same human, I’ve got the same heart I did five years ago.” In response, the media is conflicted; some defend her sudden radical image change while others condemn her overtly sexual behavior. Both are correct. Cyrus is a 20-year-old adult and as such is legally entitled to do as she pleases, but as she is discovering, there are ramifications.

Everyone forgets that Cyrus has “been famous for half her young life and is astute about fame’s demands” (Caramanica). While Cyrus may make her own decisions regarding her life and her career, it is difficult not to wonder what is actually real and what is for show. In an article from The New York Times, author Teddy Wayne argued that “Highly paid, hard-working underage performers disrupt our sense of childhood as a period of all play and no work, liberated from adult responsibility. We cast child performers as doe-eyed angels, worshiping their idealized but, in fact, carefully constructed “goodness”.” However, the ethics of Cyrus’ public display of expression are debatable. Is she exploiting and promoting herself as an overly sexualized young adult or is she legitimately this sexually liberated? Only Cyrus and her team know for certain. Regardless, the media will continue to follow and report her every movement and the public will wait and watch with great anticipation and great distain.

While the media is more focused on condemning young female celebrities for their behavior and appearance, male celebrities do experience their fair share of public scrutiny as well. Justin Bieber began his career as a seemingly innocent young 16 year-old singer from Canada and has since evolved into a mega celebrity. Footage of Bieber “under the influence” and participating in reckless teen mischief continuously astound the public, but are his antics really such a shocker? He is 19 years old and is doing what many 19 year-olds do. The media wants it both ways. They want to display teen idols and preserve their role model image, but at the same time they relentlessly condemn them when they stray away from his image.

The media takes on the role of a parent who reprimands their child for misbehaving and punishes them for their wrongdoing, but this is done in a completely public forum without their consent or permission. In their not-so-constructive criticism, the media will assess how the teen idol has been raised and insist that they need to be protected and saved before things go too far. As history has shown, there is a sense of moral panic in society regarding the American youth culture. The media and press reacts when “a deviant social or cultural phenomenon is ‘out of proportion’ to the actual threat offered” (Valdivia).

In the novel A Companion to Media Studies,” Angharad N. Valdivia argues that childhood and youth are a social construct. The belief in maintaining innocence and naïveté in children did not occur until the late 19th and early 20th century. College students in the late 1920s were considered the first youth culture in the United States, and the idea of preserving all aspects of youth became a cultural phenomenon as they emerged.

“The moral panic [in the 1920s] arose out of the fact that adolescents were developing an autonomous peer-oriented leisure-time culture, a culture independent of adults, outside the home, unsupervised, and increasingly commercialized. Indeed, the late 1920s established a pattern of public concern about all children’s use of media for leisure time that would continue in succeeding decades” (Wartella and Mazzarella).

During the 1950s, American periodicals primarily consisted of warnings about monitoring juvenile activity. At this time, society’s morals and values stemmed from the authority of church, family and the nation. “J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, issued frequent emotional warnings about a children’s crime wave and rhapsodized about the virtues of strong family discipline and stern punishment for offenders” (Gilbert). The experience of growing up in the ‘50s came with “the demands of staking out work to do as adults, and the demands of the body” (Epstein). Teenagers were pressured to be mature and grow up as soon as possible, but not in terms of their sexuality. As a result, this generation became known as the Silent Generation, “the last generation to smart under the lash of official sexual repression” (Epstein). From there, the next step was marriage and then children. This was the way it had always been; this was what society expected from every generation that followed. While the youth followed the path that was outlined for them, they started to do so with criticism. For the first time, they grew skeptical of their surroundings and expressed doubts about the validity of everything they had ever known. The youth was becoming aware. In order to reinforce the traditional values that had previously been established, the media projected society’s fears about this rebellious youth culture and sought to provide solutions to fixing the problem.

In an article from the Chicago Tribune in 1970, Dr. Rolf A. Well explained how to deal with youth culture, concluding that society needed to essentially mean what they preach or stop preaching. While he believed that adults should be firm in the commitment to freedom of expression, he also insisted on suppressing the will of people who attempt to accomplish their goals through coercive techniques. In fact, he commended the youth of that time for “its questioning of authority, its commitment to tolerance and its genuine idealism” (Chicago Tribune). Though institutions were losing their authority, Well argued that they simply needed to reexamine their rules and regulations. Society was not doomed because this crop of youth was bright, and their futures seemed promising.

These same concerns have filtered into the late 20th century, and are still present even more so in the 21st century with all of the technological advances in society today. While teenagers experience more freedom than those in the past and have the luxury of anonymity young celebrities have more money, more power and enjoy unlimited access to excess than ever before and they have control over all three. A great number of these celebrities are no longer under the control of their parents; just the opposite, their parents are under the control of their children especially financially.

Young celebrities are also granted unlimited access to almost everything and anything they want with no restrictions or repercussions. However, the second they make a poor decision or misstep in any way everyone everywhere knows about it instantly because the press or a random person with a smart phone is watching and ready to document their every move. While young celebrities revel in all of their freedom, money, power and access, they do so without the veil of anonymity.


“They pay attention to what I do, what I wear— I’m getting judged on every aspect. I think that also made it really hard because I started so young and wasn’t like a cookie cutter type… I have this reputation of being like a party girl or on drugs or whatever, and even though things aren’t really what they seem and people don’t really know anything about me… There’s this whole perception of me and it’s partially my fault. I don’t go out of my way to change it,” said Sky Ferreira (Ugwu).

Everyone starts jumping to their own conclusions— experts weigh in on the incident on national television, and the public voices their own opinions on whether the situation is a genuine cry for help or another desperate attempt to get attention. The celebrity is studied, analyzed and dissected before they are even asked about the details of the incident, and sometimes the media blows these incidents out of proportion before all of the facts are in.

The press has a tendency to distort or exaggerate the facts regarding youth in order to frame them a certain way. Sky Ferreira’s recent arrest is a prime example. Recently, the 21 year-old singer/model was arrested with her boyfriend in New York on misdemeanor charges of criminal possession of a controlled substance (ecstasy) and resisting arrest. While rumors spread all over the web about the incident being a publicity stunt, many were quick to accuse and label Ferreira as a drug addict before anything was validated by credible publications. The public openly joked about how funny her mug shot was, and several users claimed that they could tell she was on drugs long before the incident had even occurred. Complete strangers suddenly had her whole life figured out, and they probably never breathed a single breath in front of her.

“When we laugh at his “meltdown” — one that many of us would have suffered much sooner in our teenage years had the global press hounded us, had we put in 16-hour workdays, had millions of dollars rested on our shoulders — we are doing more than merely relishing the downfall of a formerly squeaky-clean (Tiger Woods) moral crusader (Eliot Spitzer) who has a few irksome personality traits (Anthony Weiner). We are channeling our cultural anxiety over the ways we have corrupted and effaced childhood” (Wayne).

On the other hand, sometimes celebrities set themselves up for failure. There is no one to blame for how they are depicted to the public— not even the media and the press. In an interview with Billboard, Ferreira said,

“I don’t think anyone can possibly know how it is until they experience it. I don’t like being exploited and I don’t like people lying about me, but I put myself in this position and that’s part of my job. That’s part of what I have to deal with and people have to deal with worse things in the world. So it’s not like “Oh feel sorry for me,” because I don’t feel sorry for myself at all. I wish things were different, but it’s just what it is and I don’t think some people can understand how it feels to be judged and told you’re something that you’re not” (Ugwu).

While some child stars like Cyrus and Ferreira simply do not appear to care about their bad reputation and relish in their new found “sexualized sex symbol” image, others like Luke Edwards are reluctant to embrace the title. In an interview with The Gazette in 1994, a 14-year-old Edwards said, “It seems like once you get into teen magazines, that’s exactly what they want to make you, a junior sex symbol…I just don’t like to be put in that position. It’s not me” (Rice). When Seventeen Magazine was founded in 1944, it was viewed as a publication that exploited and capitalized on the “newly-emergent, postwar, middle-class youth culture and their vast disposable income” (Valdivia). Some celebrities do not want to be portrayed in this light, but the media will label them as “they” see fit. On both ends, the media becomes a part of the youth’s social identity.

As my generation has grown up, technology has advanced in the blink of an eye. We are not afraid of our sexuality and what is out in the real world. We live in the Internet and have the false illusion that we can express our thoughts and feelings without consequences. This isn’t the 1950s— girls can express their sexual desires without “being banished from the roles of female decency forever,” though they might experience peer slut-shaming (Epstein). And we have access to everything with the click of a button. Similar to the child stars, young people today are also over exposed. Whether on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, today’s youth are self-absorbed knock-off celebrities who put their lives and reputations on display for the entire world to see. The difference between the average teenager and a young celebrity is money and power. Child stars go through this change in the spotlight, and sometimes it is not so ideal. “Like other under-the-thumb teenagers, child stars eventually rebel: they take drugs, dress provocatively, shave their golden locks” (Wayne).

We say that these celebrities are too young to be caught up in sex, drugs and rock and roll; that they are setting a poor example and a bad stereotype for the rest of us when they rebel against society’s expectations. How can we act so disappointed in them and judge them so harshly when we may have done some of the same things that they are guilty of? We don’t want them to represent us, but we can relate to what they’re going through in some regard. In comparison, a celebrity’s “rebellious” behavior is not much different than those of their non-celebrity peers— it is just on a larger scale. In no way is this an excuse for their actions or destructive behavior, but child stars do not belong on a pedestal. While they are constantly objects of attention in the public eye, the media often forgets that these celebrities are still teenagers trying to discover who they are, where they are going and who they want to be. We all want a slice of the American dream.

Works Cited


Carmanica, Jon. “Get Back, and Just Let Miley Cyrus Grow Up.” The New York

Times. N.p., 2 Oct. 2013. Web. 5 Oct. 2013. <;

Epstein, Joseph. “Coming of Age in the ’50s.” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file): 44.

Nov 26 1972. ProQuest. Web. 5 Oct. 2013    <;

Rice, Lynette. “For Teenage Star, Acting Job’s OK, but Junior Sex Symbol Status Isn’t.”

The Gazette: 0. Jul 02 1994. ProQuest. Web. 5 Oct. 2013 <


Wayne, Teddy. “Justin Bieber and Youth’s New Wilderness.” The New York

Times. N.p., 29 Mar. 2013. Web. 5 Oct. 2013. <;

Ugwu, Reggie. “Sky Ferreira Talks Drug Arrest, Perils of Pop Stardom: ‘I Know

I’m Not a Drug Addict.'” Billboard. N.p., 30 Sept. 2013. Web. 5 Oct. 2013.



“Explains how to Deal with Youth Culture.” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file): 5. Sep

10 1970. ProQuest. Web. 5 Oct. 2013 <;


Gilbert, James G. “Confusing Young Rebels with their Cause As in the 1950s, Today’s

Crackdown on Young People is Taking Aim At their Culture, Not their Actual Crimes.” Newsday: 65. Jun 17 1986. ProQuest. Web. 5 Oct. 2013 <;

Valdivia, Angharad N., ed. A Companion to Media Studies. Wiley-Blackwell, 2005.

Google eBook file. <;

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