We all know how predatory Hollywood can be towards women. Is it time now to take a hard look at how the film and TV industries have historically exploited children?
On Monday, Canadian actress, writer and director Sarah Polley brought focus to some of her experiences as a former child star. She started acting at age four, and became a series lead on “Road to Avonlea” when she was just 11. The show ran from 1990 to 1996, though Polley wasn’t on the last two seasons.
In a series of now-deleted tweets, Polley pointed out that as a 14-year-old actor, she had a kissing scene with actor Jaimz Woolvett, who was 26 at the time. She hadn’t thought about it in years, she said, but reflecting on it now, she realized it was “super creepy.”
“Was this legal?” she asked.
She added that the incident “would still rank very low on my list of the many damaging and inappropriate things that happened while making that show.”
Polley declined an interview request with HuffPost Canada.
In the early 1990s, the time Polley was working on “Road to Avonlea,” Theresa Tova — now the president of the Toronto branch of the Canadian actors’ union ACTRA — was advocating for children in the industry. Back then, “it wasn’t the world it is now,” she told HuffPost Canada.
From 1992 until 2010, Tova was the union’s child advocate, a role she came to after her own young children were mistreated on film and TV sets.
Her son was once in a commercial that involved him sitting on the rooftop of a building for hours on a particularly hot day, with no concern for his health. “He was seven years old, sitting for hours in the blazing sun,” Tova said.
A big part of her job was updating the section of the agreement ACTRA has with the Canadian Media Producers’ Association that protects child actors. It was renegotiated in the mid-90s, a few years into Tova’s tenure, and Polley and some of her fellow child actors were instrumental in making those changes happen, Tova said, by sharing the experiences they had on set.
“Sarah gave me 60 pages of examples,” Tova said. “When we went to bat with Sarah’s help, she was really instrumental in us getting most of these improvements.”
Today, parents must accompany actors under the age of 16 on set. They’re given scripts in advance and provided with information about the working conditions. If there are any scenes involving “child abuse, disturbing violence or carnal acts,” producers will consult with parents and hire a psychologist to provide recommendations if the parent thinks it’s necessary.
“A Minor shall not be present during such scenes unless it is essential for the Child to be on camera,” the agreement says.
Good filmmakers can come up with creative solutions to tell stories, even disturbing stories involving children, in ways that don’t harm the real child involved, Tova explained.
“If there’s nudity, if there’s anything of a sexual nature, you can be very, very creative,” she said. She points to the 1992 National Film Board production of “Boys of St. Vincent” as an example. It’s based on a true story about horrific physical and sexual abuse visited on young boys at a Catholic orphanage, but manages to tell that story through implication rather than anything explicit.
“The most [the actor playing an abuser] would do was a hand on a cheek,” she said. “It was so beautifully shot, and not one child was mishandled.”
Today, a parent whose child was performing a kissing scene, for instance, would be given that information in advance. They could talk to producers about how to handle it, and potentially bring in experts to talk to the child actor.
The power imbalances between a movie producer and a young actor’s parent could make it difficult for some parents, Tova acknowledged. While she said there are always improvements that could be made to any agreement, she thinks there are enough safeguards to avoid major problems. And In Ontario, ACTRA worked on a provincial bill to legally protect child performers, which became law in 2105.
In a case like the one Polley described, the scene itself might not read as problematic: her character and the character of the boy she kissed were written as about the same age, even though the actor cast in that role was much older than she was. But Tova said any kissing scene would likely be identified as a potential issue, and protocols would be followed regardless.
“It’s a kiss,” she said. “It’s getting flagged.”
Polley has since deleted her initial tweet, in which she confused the on-screen kiss with 26-year Woolvett with one she had with Treat Williams, who was 41 when he appeared on an episode of “Avonlea.” While Polley’s character did have a romantic storyline with Williams’ character, a visiting U.S. marshall on whom she had a crush, she didn’t actually have a kissing scene with him beyond giving him a peck on the cheek.
She also wrote a tongue-in-cheek apology to the producers of the show “for confusing a creepy scene without a kiss for a creepier scene with a kiss.”
HuffPost Canada attempted to reach Woolvett for comment, but he doesn’t appear to have current representation. He told the Calgary Herald in 2007 he was dealing with health problems and hasn’t acted since 2008.
Polley has previously criticized “Road to Avonlea,” and the behind-the-scenes decision-making that went into the show. In 2003, she told The Guardian that it was “the most sugar-coated, unrealistic depiction of Canadian history ever. It was like the white man’s fantasy of what it was like at the turn of the century on Prince Edward Island.”
She had hoped the show could address some of the issues that existed in early 20th-century Canada, she said, but those hopes were dashed after Disney got involved.
“In the first couple of seasons we did things like an episode on a strike,” she told The Guardian. “Then as soon as the Disney Channel got really involved, all that went away and it became, literally, a show about family values.”
In 2017, at the height of the Me Too movement, Polley wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about how she didn’t realize how badly she and other actresses were treated until she made the switch to writing and directing.
Like many others, she knew how coercive and exploitative Harvey Weinstein and some other senior male Hollywood figures were, but didn’t feel it was possible to change anything about the system that let him prevail.
“I didn’t know what to do with all of it.” she wrote. “I’ve grown up in this industry, surrounded by predatory behaviour, and the idea of making people care about it seemed as distant an ambition as pulling the sun out of the sky.”
She didn’t name any of the other male directors or producers she had bad experiences with. “I’m not naming names in all of these instances. And that invites criticism for some reason,” she wrote.
“Which is funny, because when women do name names, they are criticized for that, too. There’s no one right way to do any of this.”