On 20th January, just one day before 13-year-old Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown walked the SAG Awards red carpet wearing pink Converse and ribboned buns in her hair, one of our weekend editors assigned a story about the actress’s new boyfriend: “Are Millie Bobby Brown and Jacob Sartorius Dating Or Are They Just Trolling Us?” we asked in the piece, which analysed the hidden meaning behind a series of Instagram posts, which appeared alongside a series of stories Refinery29 wrote about the historic Women’s March.
We weren’t the only ones to cover the story over the past week: Buzzfeed told its readers that “Millie Bobby Brown and Jacob Sartorius Fuel Dating Rumors With Adorable Pic;” Teen Vogue mentioned that “Fans Think Millie Bobby Brown and Jacob Sartorius Are Dating.” Over at the Cut: “Millie Bobby Brown Is Dating a Music.ly Star.” These are just a handful of publications that covered the gossip — plain and simple — initially broken by the tabloids.
Buzzfeed and Teen Vogue declined to comment on the feedback they’d received from their stories on Brown, but a representative for The Cut told us: “Our post was gently poking fun at the celebrity magazines for reporting on Gen Z romance.”
Publications in the digital and newspaper worlds move fast, and a quick story about young love seemed at once rote and relatively harmless. And yet in the days following the posting, readers across all of these publications expressed their outrage that the women’s media that seeks to empower women — that would devote thousands of words to #MeToo — would run articles about the love lives of pre-teens. They made it plainly clear: A 13-year-old girl was not fair game when it came to romantic speculation.
After reflecting on the situation, the production process, not to mention the reactions on our site and across women’s media, we agreed our readers are right. Though we hadn’t sexualised Brown, analysing a young girl’s private romantic life felt like one small step too far.
If the current climate of Hollywood tells us anything, it’s that girls in Hollywood have been poorly treated, and part of the reason for that is because young girls have routinely been treated like grown women (who have themselves been bullied and harassed). Earlier this month, Eliza Dushku shared her story of being sexually assaulted by a stuntman when she was a 12-year-old girl. At the Women’s March, Natalie Portman remembered the ways male critics would describe her “budding breasts” when she was a preteen actress. Men would send her long, detailed “rape fantasy” letters; a radio station gleefully started a countdown to the day Portman would turn 18. (The same was true for Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen a decade ago.)
Even before the #MeToo era, there was Emma Watson. The actress delivered a speech in front of the United Nations in 2014 in which she described being “sexualised by certain elements of the press” when she was just 14 years-old at the height of her Harry Potter fame.
She asked us to do better, and in a year of reckoning, we’re listening.
We’ve watched stars like Watson and Portman grow up on screen and in public. They’ve invited us in to their personal lives on social media. But voyeurism gets much more complicated, and potentially harmful, when it bleeds into the personal life of a 13-year-old girl. Yes, we know Millie Bobby Brown’s favourite colour and dream role. But we don’t need to gossip about who she’s dating.
At ELLE’s Women In Hollywood event last October, Reese Witherspoon shared her own history of sexual abuse in Hollywood, but she went one step further. She spoke to young women in the industry directly, and promised to treat them better.
“For the young women sitting in this room, life is going to be different for you because we have you—we have your back.”
As a site, we’re refraining from these types of stories moving forward. We’re not going to pry into the romantic lives of actresses as young as Brown, and we’re going to do our best not to make the same mistakes as those members of the press called out in Portman’s and Watson’s speeches. We’re going to treat them better. We’re going to have their back.