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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Tok the Talk: The plight of child stars

Mckenna Grace, JoJo Siwa and other child stars struggle to redefine themselves as they enter adulthood.

Tok the Talk Column Graphic

Graphic by Molly Sullivan

“I feel like people just have a consensus that I’m still nine years old, and it’s crazy because I’m turning 18 this year. I feel like people still think of me [as that age] because I’ve been so young for most of my career,” actor Mckenna Grace said, referring to her growth as an actor in the public eye. Grace, who has been acting since she was five years old, starred in several prominent movies and TV shows in her youth — including “Gifted,” “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” and “Young Sheldon.” Grace frequently plays younger versions of other characters, which is perhaps part of the reason many find it difficult to grasp the concept that she is growing up. But beyond that, she is a victim of the difficult pipeline of transitioning from a child star to an adult personality.

In December 2022, a video of Skai Jackson’s audition tape for the recent “Gossip Girl” revival resurfaced. Jackson, best known for her role as Zuri in the Disney Channel show “Jessie,” received heaping backlash, with many mocking and criticizing her acting skills. One particular TikTok user commented that “her acting is just stuck to her disney days.” Meg Donnelly, another Disney actor who gained popularity through her role in the “Zombies” movie trilogy, recently reflected on her career after Disney in an interview with podcaster Zach Sang. Donnelly noted that “the general public [puts] you in a box.” Describing how often the public comes to a consensus that child stars cannot act, or can only act in a Disney setting, she expanded, “You kind of have to break out … for people to take you seriously.”

Grace, Jackson and Donnelly highlight the challenges of being a child star, or simply a Disney or Nickelodeon actor. Transitioning to an adult personality is difficult, and, at times, the public will refuse to see beyond child stardom. Perhaps the most recent case of this can be seen in another example of child stardom — JoJo Siwa. 

Siwa gained popularity through her appearance on the Lifetime reality TV show “Dance Moms.” Following this stint, she continued to grow her online presence through her YouTube channel and other social media platforms, amassing over 65 million followers across all platforms by 2022. Despite her growing age, however, her YouTube channel remained relatively kid-friendly up until this year. She was known for wearing bright, glittery outfits and large bows — in 2020, Forbes estimated that she made over $400 million on bow sales in four years. Now, at 20, Siwa is attempting to break out of this child-friendly personality that she has cultivated for years. She has slowly transitioned away from her bright wardrobe, donning more mature fashion. Most drastically, she released the song “Karma,” which (according to the video’s content warning) contains “sexual themes, violence [and] strong language.” To promote this, Siwa has shifted her wardrobe to more daring, dark and less child-friendly clothing. In a recent interview with People, Siwa said “I think [the transition] definitely makes a massive statement.”  

But Siwa’s rebrand and transition into “adulthood” has garnered mixed support — some find her cringe, and others simply miss “the old JoJo.” It remains to be seen whether this transition will prove to be successful. However, if anything, it does highlight the problematic pipeline of child stars — and, more specifically, the cage of youth stardom that they must break out of.