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Can child acting ever be ethical?

In a world driven by fame, money, and internet notoriety, is pushing your child into acting inherently abusive? Nickelodeon star Jennette McCurdy certainly wants you to think about it.

If you grew up in the late 2000s – and were lucky enough to have a Sky TV dish on the side of your house – you probably spent most of your weekday mornings watching Nickelodeon.

Shows like Drake & Josh, Zoey 101, and iCarly signposted the pre-teen years for much of Gen-Z. And with them came a suite of household names from Ariana Grande to Miranda Cosgrove.

Amongst these beloved child-stars was Jennette McCurdy, who played the bolshy, confident Sam Puckett on iCarly. McCurdy revisited the character in spin-off series ‘Sam and Cat’ alongside Ariana Grande in 2013.

But despite the widespread success of both shows, and her lasting impact on the tweens of 2007, McCurdy has now spoken out about the realities of being a child-star. In short: it was terrible.

McCurdy’s new book ‘I’m Glad My Mom Died’, serves as both memoir and tell-all attack on the world of child-acting. Despite its shock factor, McCurdy has confirmed that the title isn’t a joke. ‘It’s something I mean sincerely’, she told Buzzfeed, ‘If she were alive, I’d still be trapped’.

This blunt, honest approach to complex and heart-breaking issues is McCurdy’s bread and butter. It frames her entire book and, inevitably, her life. But it comes as a coping mechanism after what she now reveals was years of childhood trauma.

To many of us, losing your mother to cancer at just 21 would be unthinkable. It comes as a surprise that Debbie’s passing was a positive turning point in McCurdy’s life, something she puts down to child acting. At its core, the book serves as a warning to other parents looking to set their children on a path to fame.

Jennette’s mother got her into acting from age 6. Debbie’s own dreams of being an actor often meant she pushed her daughter to unethical limits. McCurdy recounts being forced to work long hours even when she was sick.

Her mother also withdrew McCurdy from any form of social life until her early 20s, instead focusing her attention solely on growing a career. The outcome of this gruelling, isolated work was that McCurdy had eating disorders for much of her teens and 20s – both anorexia and bulimia.

‘My life purpose has always been to make Mom happy, to be who she wants me to be’, McCurdy told Buzzfeed. A large part of this involved dodging her mum’s mood swings and pandering to her insecurities.

In her book, McCurdy describes having to make eye contact with her mother in social settings from a young age, just to reassure her that ‘I care about her, that she’s my priority’. Debbie’s emotional stronghold on her daughter was the foundation of a lasting abusive dynamic.

The abuse from her mother was reflected in McCurdy’s professional life. After finding her big break on iCarly, she faced constant harassment by her boss – described as ‘The Creator’ in her book.

Said Creator allegedly encouraged McCurdy to drink while underage and gave her a massage. ‘I feel similarly around The Creator as I feel around Mom’ she writes in the book, ‘on edge, desperate to please, terrified of stepping out of line’.

The control her mother held over her life became a gateway for McCurdy’s own acute self-control, a means of dealing with the anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder she had developed over her new fame.

‘It was really important to write about eating disorders with as much bluntness and frankness as possible’, McCurdy explained, a nod to the painstaking detail with which she recounts her childhood.

Such a culture of fear is arguably inevitable when young people are forced into the spotlight before they’re emotionally developed enough to handle it. Pushing a child into any career would be damaging, not to mention one so arduous and intensely public.

It was on iCarly’s spinoff ‘Sam & Cat’, that McCurdy’s suffering reached somewhat of a climax. Her mother was hospitalised for much of the show’s run, a series McCurdy herself says she wanted no part in. Eventually Debbie passed away in 2013, correlating with ‘Sam & Cat’s’ own demise.

‘The Creator’ had supposedly been placed under fire for accusations of his emotional abuse, and the tensions between McCurdy and her co-star Ariana Grande had reached boiling point.

McCurdy writes that she was offered $300,000 by Nickelodeon to stay quiet about her treatment at the network, while the ‘Sam & Cat’s’ cancellation was painted as the by-product of McCurdy’s jealousy over Grande’s singing career.

‘I’m Glad My Mom Died’ is, in this sense, a letter of self-acceptance from McCurdy to her younger self. A large part of this reckoning has been the realisation that fame played a big part in her abuse.

‘I’ve finally started to take some control of my relationship with food, and the healthier that relationship becomes, the more unhealthy a career in acting seems for me’.

But in return, the catharsis of writing has allowed her to come to terms with the abusive pillars of power in her life, making peace with her past in favour of a healthier future.

‘Largely because of writing this book and how fulfilling that has been for me, I’m now at this place where there might be a way for me to write a role for myself or something where I can heal my relationship with acting’.

It is, ultimately, the lasting impact of being a child-star that McCurdy wants others to take form the book.

‘There’s such a gross fascination […] in child stars and the evolution of their careers and personal lives’.

McCurdy is carefully optimistic that the landscape of Hollywood may have shifted since her time on Nickelodeon, ‘It would be impossible for the cultural temperature to be where it’s at and there not be some more awareness and attention to the child’s well-being and safety […] Hopefully? I really, really hope so’.

But ultimately she remains tentative, seeing her book as a cautionary tale. ‘I do hope that if there are parents that are considering putting their kids into acting, I hope if they read the book…they don’t’.