Iron Baby, Baby Gaga, and the Importance of High Production Values When Exploiting Your Child

Earlier in the week, I found myself describing to a friend the one and only time I attended a casting call. I was in first grade, and one of dozens of pale, dark-haired boys brought to the Mall of America to be considered for a bit part as the young Keanu Reeves in the mid-’90s rom-com Feeling Minnesota. My parents are level-headed people, and the trip was intended to be little more than a lark–had I actually been offered the part, a move to California in search of further fame would most likely not have followed. All the same, I’m glad it didn’t happen, even if no one remembers Feeling Minnesota anyway.

Because of the difficulty a child might have in conceiving what it means to be potentially viewed–scrutinized–by millions of people, and thus the impossibility of his or her genuine, informed consent, the casting and filming of child actors is an unavoidably dubious practice. But it’s also a practice that’s unavoidable in general, so unlikely to cease that it hardly seems worth debating. (How would one create a persuasive fictional world onscreen without children to partially populate it? etc.)

Whether or not it’s wise to put videos of your kid on YouTube is a different dilemma, but I do think dilemma is the right word, at least if the video in question is a calculated attempt to go viral. We have more means than ever of responding to the footage, images, texts, and various other stimuli that provoke a strong reaction–we including the countless faceless dirtbags who populate the user comment threads of YouTube and so many other sites. What kid-centric YouTube videos and motion pictures featuring kids have in common is the issue of consent. In either case, a child can’t really process what it means to be put in the sights of millions and millions of potential viewers.

Selling David-after-the-dentist t-shirts might help the kid’s family send him through college. This is cool, provided their basement isn’t filled with unsold merch right now, and David won’t even resemble his YouTube self once he hits puberty so there’s not much chance he’s gonna be hassled on the street for the rest of his life. Similarly: Baby Gaga may have been the toast of Buzzfeed a week ago, but videos like this are forgotten almost as quickly as they spread:

I understand, at least one one level, why a video like this took off. A toddler in goofy costumes dancing to Lady Gaga is not a hard sell. (Even for people like me, evidently, and Gaga’s music isn’t where my heart is at.) But I found the experience of actually watching Baby Gaga near-disturbing–I felt implicated in the process of the video’s circulation and consumption in a pronounced way. I attribute much of this feeling to the lousy quality of the footage itself. Baby Gaga looks like what it is: a slipshod piece of work that aspires to be nothing beyond an information snack, and it made me feel like I was party to something exploitative while watching it. (It doesn’t help that the girl looks like a deer in headlights for most of the clip.)

My reaction was a little different with Iron Baby. (Readers who know me will be tempted to chalk this up to my comics fanhood, but I think “Telephone” is a solid pop song too.) Watching a movie is an immersive experience, and Iron Baby is marginally more like a movie than Baby Gaga. Having seen Baby Gaga first, I still thought about the inherent weirdness of kid-centric viral videos, but I at least thought about it less. Maybe another difference is the wish-fulfillment factor, knowing that one kid got to play superhero for an afternoon while another was thrown without a safety vest into the middle of a stripperobics class. The point is, I guess, that Lady Gaga’s brand of music is highly sexual and not aimed at children, so using the combination of Gaga’s music and your young child to garner YouTube views is a shitty thing to do. But for the unmoved, I also offer: production values matter, even for viral videos, so parents, please take your work seriously.

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