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What TikTok tells us about our toxic relationship with celebrities

Poppy Atkinson Gibson discusses the sexualisation of young stars on TikTok and reflects on our broken relationship with the media and celebrities.

Child stars have always been a feature of the modern celebrity world. This status, held by the likes of Shirley Temple, Lindsey Lohan, and more recently by Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard, is a heavier burden than one might think. In addition to these traditional silver screen stars, notable TikTok influencers such as Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae have also been welcomed into the fold of early fame which includes its sexualisation of their lives, primarily through their highly-publicised relationships. Whilst the child stars of the early 20th century certainly faced immense pressure and difficulties, social media now adds a perverse layer to the intense scrutiny these children and young adults face. Stars can now make successful careers out of being watched 24/7 – in fact, Addison Rae is reported to have made $5 million this year, making her the current highest earning Tik Tok-er. The job of such celebrities is in no way a 9-5. They are expected to always be on show. And as these individuals dance, joke and show us round their homes and lives, weaving through their friends and relationships, their every move is picked over by vultures, eventually harming these stars. 

For TikTok stars, fame means that their lives are laid bare for all to see. No part of their lives is too insignificant for their audiences to unpick. For example, Charlie D’Amelio recently documented her nose operation (reportedly to help with some breathing difficulties) and in true influencer style condensed the whole procedure into a 16 minute documentary-style clip. This highlights how TikTok-ers feel that they must give their fans an insight into their private lives. Even personal facets of their lives like their dating history are widely reported on by major media outlets including the Daily Mail. Such outlets prey on the average teenage foray into adult relationships and blow it up in size, splashing it across front pages. Whilst this is not overt sexualisation per se, it is nonetheless a sinister force. Such journalism seeks to make these stars adults before their time, treating their personal lives as they would treat hardened celebrities’. These child stars are denied a support system which allows them to flourish as adolescents first and celebrities second. It forces them into the lion’s den, attaching sexual and adult themes to their lives.

The issue is that these TikTok-ers, many under 18, are exposed to the full force of the idea of the internet celebrity. They are, possibly without realising it, expected to fulfil a set of behavioural conditions to qualify them as a ‘celebrity’. They are, without consent, adultified by mainstream media; the expectation of these stars to conform to adult behaviours stunts their development as children and young people and will ultimately detrimentally affect their development and mental health. The problem is that sex sells and the media knows it. So the media sexualises one and all and enables them to rise to celebrity status through notoriety. Young stars see this, and are unable to object to it, instead playing to the media. Stories published by papers such as The Sun detail activities of stars including Addison Rae and Bryce Hall, chronicling the “PDA-filled clip of the couple kissing over the weekend” whilst describing Rae as “flaunt[ing] her toned stomach in a red crop top and distressed denim jeans”. Not only do the tabloids sexualise these young adults’ relationships but sexualise their images and bodies too.

Amongst the elite of the TikTok community there have been public Twitter spats, relationships bust ups, and accusations of cheating from individuals ranging from 14 to 18. Such behaviour is not the norm for most teenagers, but is encouraged by mainstream media and its audience as a way to remain ‘relevant’. These stars play at relationships and adult scenarios in the highly stressful and intense world of social media where they are constantly asked to live up to unrealistic expectations. We, the audience, also play into this cycle despite being aware at some level that sex is a powerful tool used by the media.        

I am not suggesting these stars should hide themselves away at all. They are perfectly entitled to showcase as much of their lives as they want, but it is important to consider why they do it. It seems that what starts out as the extra-curricular use of a social media platforms is manipulated to view these teenagers through an adult lens without their permission.  How much autonomy do these young stars really have in a celebrity culture where paths have already been carved out and there already exist moulds to fit? 

One could very well ask why the parents or management (they are so often one and the same) do not do more to protect these stars. But these people are operating in a fully formed system, where the roads to stardom are firmly established. There are only two choices: follow the rules and get rich, or refuse and fade out of fame. And we support these unspoken laws. As we sit at the dentist, we pick up the gossip magazine and flick though to find out who is having an affair with whom. We feed off that information and in our own small ways perpetuate the narrative that monetary success should be based on sex and conforming to adult behavioural codes that are simply unsuitable for child stars. Articles run stories recounting the timeline of high profile relationships such as Cosmopolitan’s “Official Timeline” of Charli D’Amelio and Chase Hudson’s relationship, which includes statements made by D’Amelio’s mother asking the media to stop commenting on her daughter’s teenage relationship. The problem with such media coverage lies in our idea of celebrity and its connection with the media.

We expect actors, singers, influencers etc to make a contract with us, the audience, when they enter into the spotlight. Their privacy is no longer valid, their lives are our lives. We hold them, so often, to a higher moral standard whilst simultaneously gorging on their failures and insecurities. Ultimately, we make them our role models whilst never telling them quite what we want from them. TikTok stars are attempting to fit into this traditional celebrity institution. They strive to give their followers what they think they want based on that model. And so, the content they produce covers their relationships, insecurities, and cosmetic procedures in an attempt to remain relevant. Social media accounts are filled with loved-up videos and posts honouring their ex-partners who “will always hold a special place in my heart for the rest of my life”. Such hyperbolic language and public testimony is expected of adult celebrities, and similar statements can be found on social media and in tabloids following their divorces. It seems odd that that same expectation is applied to teenagers’ short lived, experimental high school relationships. This is a prime example of teenagers feeling pressured to behave publicly like adults, simply because there are no other apparent alternatives.

Problematically, this means they try to force themselves into a mould not created for them as essentially child stars. As an audience, we have not provided them with a different mould to fit into or a space to inhabit. Instead we have presented them with the same pervasive and lecherous identity as we have for adult celebrities. But these younger stars are not equipped to manage it – everything is magnified and so we are left with the ‘child star burnouts’ all too familiar to us. It appears that Tik Tok stars themselves have begun recognising this burn-out, with Griffin Johnson recently commenting that “[o]ur [his and Dixie D’Amelio’s] relationship was put out into the public out of our control and I have been taking heat ever since.” Johnson’s experience shows us that such teenage forays into relationships and other milestones should not be splashed across tabloids which enable the public to relive every gory detail.

Yet, when we see this burn-out play out, we shake our heads at the headlines and sigh “what a shame, they had so much potential,” before scrolling on in search for the next up-and-coming star to devour. These TikTok stars are what we have made them through our gluttonous appetite for celebrity. Their crash back down to earth will be a product of that same greed, but instead of fixing it we continue condemning future generations to the thrall of social media stardom and the mental and emotional toil it takes. I fear for the exploitation of young adults, and children who in their desire for fame play into a role not built and not fit for them. Ultimately the behaviour of TikTok stars is a symptom of our broken relationship with fame, celebrity, and the media.

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