Why Won't People Let Former Disney/Teen Idols Grow Up?

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It's always fascinating to me when something comes out and the reviews are immediately polarizing. As a life-long fan of both Josh Peck and Hilary Duff, I really wanted to see the new spin-off series "How I Met Your Father," in which they both star. I did my typical perusal of entertainment critic Twitter reactions to see how people were feeling, and regardless of positive or negative reviews, I kept seeing the same comments over and over again. Some phrasing of, "This isn't 'Lizzie McGuire' anymore," was made frequently in regard to Duff, and a non-zero amount of people brought up Josh Peck's former career as the go-to "fat kid" in Disney and Nickelodeon movies based on his trailer appearances alone. Both of these actors have been consistently working for years since their child-star heyday, but it seems that they are both part of an ugly trend where people can't seem to let former child stars and teen idols be seen as adults.

If you go to Twitter right now and type "Twilight Batman" in the search bar, you'll come across thousands of people immediately writing off Matt Reeves' upcoming "The Batman," based solely on the fact that star Robert Pattinson once played a sparkly vampire in his early 20s in a franchise that began almost 15 years ago. Forget the fact that Pattinson has gone on to star in films like "Cosmopolis," "Map to the Stars," and "The Lighthouse," to these whiny fools, he'll always be that "Twilight" guy, and therefore couldn't possibly be any good.

Spoiler Alert: Child Actors Grow Up Too

Despite being in my 30s, I have a grandparent that sees me as if I'm 15-years-old and treats me accordingly. Whenever someone uses a grown ass adult's former career as a working child or teen actor as a way to disparage the work they're doing now, this is exactly how it reads. Kristen Stewart gave one of the best performances of the year in "Spencer," and so many people felt it necessary to bring up her "Twilight" role, as if "Personal Shopper," "Lizzie," and "Seberg" magically don't exist. Stewart and Pattison are two of the most obvious victims of this mindset, but they are in no way the first, nor will they be the last.

When Heath Ledger was announced as playing the Joker in Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," the immediate response was negative. He was the dreamy love interest from "10 Things I Hate About You," how could he possibly handle arguably the greatest comic book villain ever created?! Uh, quite well, actually. Groundbreakingly and iconically so, if we're being honest. Christopher Nolan was smart enough to realize that Ledger was more than his teen heartthrob status, and was willing to let a gifted actor do what they do best, and act. You'd think people would have learned a thing or two since being proven wrong by their preconceived notions of a guy like Ledger, but it's clear that as a culture, we still can't get over these hangups.

Not Everyone Can Get Their Start in a Coen Bros. Movie

I've been thinking a lot about Hailee Steinfeld, a ridiculously talented actor in her mid-20s who got her start as a child in the film "True Grit." In the years since, she's become a crossover pop star with songs like "Let Me Go" reaching top 2 on the Billboard dance charts, and yet she's pretty much gone unscathed by the curse of being a teen idol. She's currently crushing it on both "Dickinson" and "Hawkeye," but seldom do people bring up her childhood or pop career when discussing her performance. Similarly, brothers Nat and Alex Wolff were seen as "breakout stars" in "Paper Towns" and "Hereditary" despite the fact they starred in the Nickelodeon series "The Naked Brothers Band." My theory? It's because none of them got their start on shows that were specifically popular with audiences of young girls.

As a culture, anything marketed specifically toward young women is immediately looked down upon and "othered." It's why films like "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" are considered classics, but films like "Clueless" are considered "teen girl movies." A lot of popular children's programming as well as big teen-geared franchises tend to attract audiences of young girls, which means society as a whole immediately dismisses its validity. And this isn't new. The Beatles, while now considered one of the most influential bands in history, were initially dismissed because they attracted a legion of screaming, female fans. This means if an actor becomes popular because they were a part of something that appealed to teen girls, they will spend the rest of their career fighting against that "tarnished" image.

The Tween Machine Produces Great Performers

At the 2020 Emmys, Zendaya became the youngest ever Best Actress in a Drama Series winner for her role in "Euphoria." Less than a decade before, she was starring alongside Bella Thorne on the Disney Channel dance show "Shake It Up" and the Disney Channel Original Movie "Frenemies." Actress and pop star Selena Gomez was one of the best parts of "Only Murders in the Building," something that came as no surprise to anyone who watched "Wizards of Waverly Place." Oscar winner and Captain Marvel herself, Brie Larson, got her start in the Disney Channel film "Right on Track," and just about everyone on the planet knows that Miley Cyrus, who has attained the most U.S. Billboard 200 top-five albums in the 21st century by a female artist, used to be "Hannah Montana."

I get it, it's easy to poke fun at shows meant for audiences who still have a bedtime, but acting like there is no inherent value in these properties or that the actors who got their start in the Tween Machine are somehow incapable of performing outside of it. Ethan Hawke, Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio, Natalie Portman, Jodie Foster, Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci, Scarlett Johansson, Ryan Gosling, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Drew Barrymore, Jason Bateman, Anna Paquin, Elijah Wood, and even Jeff Bridges all got their start as child actors. Relegating any of their careers to the roles they had as children is not just limiting, it's dismissive.

We Should Be Celebrating Their Successes

An unfortunate reality is that not everyone makes it out of the child star system in fighting shape. Former child star turned author Mara Wilson (of "Matilda," "Mrs. Doubtfire," and "Miracle on 34th Street" fame) wrote an unflinching explainer on why so many child stars have difficulty adjusting to adulthood, and it's a wonder how anyone gets out alive. Hollywood is a ruthless industry regardless of age, and for children it's even harder. If you Google the phrase "child stars who" the automatic search results are all bleak, to put it mildly.

Instead of wasting time dismissing the abilities of actors based on roles they took in their younger years, it should be a cause for celebration whenever they're able to branch out into more adult fare. Kenan Thompson is the longest-tenured cast member in "Saturday Night Live's" history, something that wouldn't have been possible if everyone in a position of power refused to see him as anything more than the kid from "Heavyweights," "All That," and "D2: The Mighty Ducks." Every actor gets their start somewhere, and the reality is that there are infinitely more opportunities for young performers in projects targeting young audiences. Growing up is hard enough without the stress of the entire world refusing to let it go no matter how many years have passed. To put it into perspective: "High School Musical" is only three years younger than Zac Efron was when he starred in it. It's time to let it go.