Is it Sexist for Child Actors to be Nominated for Adult Categories?

24 Oct

3rd. article in our 6 week series on Hollywood Politics Inside & Out

Is it sexist for child actors to be nominated for adult categories? The goal of this article is to acquaint mainstream developmental psychology with a popular cultural event; The Academy Awards.  Why? I don’t believe it is necessary for the public to experience this cultural celebration in an intellectual vacuum.  Bringing the two events together might help us uncover a number of oversights sustained by contemporary customs. Many notions about gender and adolescence though wide spread, may not have been thoroughly researched.

Though their ratings may not denote adult films, let’s discuss children’s performances in films that appear to be produced for adults.  Maybe you were captivated when you saw Natalie Portman’s delicate portrayal of “Mathilda” in the ultra violent action film “Léon: The Professional.“  Or maybe you thought Jonathan Lipnicki’s portrayal of “Ray Boyd” in “Jerry Maguire” was one of the sweetest ways to imply adult character vulnerability in regard to the main character.  I could go on locating these stand out performances yet I think we may learn a lot more considering the really impressive performance examples.

We should concentrate on the instances where academy members (and the general public) claimed young actors deserved Oscars.  Winning in their respective years, Patty Duke (sixteen years old), Tatum O’Neil  (ten years old) and Anna Paquin (eleven years old) have not only made history but have also underlined the potentially embarassing conflict discussed in this article.

Patty Duke:

Tatum O’Neil:

Anna Paquin:

If those accomplishments were not amazing enough these are other examples of children and teens being nominated.  Compiled by these nominees incidentally underline how rare it is  to win  this award at all.

  • Patty McCormack’s nomination for ‘The Bad Seed’ in 1956;
  • Mary Badham’s nomination for ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in 1962;
  • Jodie Foster’s nomination for  ‘Taxi Driver’ in 1976;
  • Quinn Cumming’s nominaion for ‘Goodbye Girl’ in 1977;
  • River Phoenix’s nomination for ‘Running on Empty’ in 1988;”
  • Juliette Lewis nomination for “Cape fear” in 1991” [2]
  • Haley Joel Osment’s nomination for ’The Sixth Sense’ in 1999;
  • Keisha Castle-Hughes’ nomination for ‘Whale Rider’ in 2004;
  • Abigail Breslin’s nomination for ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ in 2007.”
  • “Hailee Steinfeld’s nomination for ‘True Grit” in 2010.” [3]
  • “Jennifer Lawrences ‘ nomination for  “Winter’s Bone’ in 2010.” [4]

Likely influenced by Jean Piaget, influential psychologists have spent much of the last century mapping out how age or stage theory distinguishes cognitive developmental milestones in children and teens.  Defining adolescence as between the ages of 12 and 18, an unusual realization occurs when we recognize that most adult reasoning processes manifest in the teen years (please see the appendix below) [5].  If we admit that reasoning develops late in childhood, shouldn’t we also admit Anna Paquin and Tatum O’Neil were not fully developed intellectually when they won the award at the ages of 11 and 10.  Though we were collectively emotional at the time, shouldn’t we admit these children never should have been in competition with far more intellectually developed adult women?  Even worse maybe this comparison is really an insult when expressed to accomplished women in the first place.   Still this admission would not diminish the brilliance of these young actor’s respective performances, which were still spectacular.

We can imagine those who want to avoid an evaluation of sexism, will likely claim that the negative allegation is inappropriate because boys were frequently nominated for theses awards as well.  The problem with that argument is boys never ever won when nominated.  Somewhere between the nomination and the eventual declaration of a winner common sense won out. The performances of men were not intellectually diminished and equated with the performances of children.  This benefit for men may be the result of having so many more men vote in the selecting pools.

This year, a movie that has received a lot of buzz, is the film “Beasts of the Southern Wild” staring nine-year old Quvenzhané Wallis.  Though has already claimed the actress does not stand a chance of winning an award since she…

“…won’t be eligible for the SAG Awards because director Benh Zeitlin didn’t hire union actors and relied on non-professional locals.” [6]

I believe we should continue to consider the issue.  IMHO, a disqualification should allow cognitive science, not union politics to change our values on this topic.  Given the shortage of non-white nominees in any category I would love for Wallis to get this nomination and win.  Yet two wrongs don’t make a right.  We should begin respecting adult actresses for the full totality of their intellectual contribution to the field.  That should begin with at least a specification of what minimal cognitive resources should be in place at the time of nomination.

Many (like me) may not care for the “For Dummies series of books” but in this case their short summary of necessary acting talents may be useful to anyone who needs a definition.  Looking for definitions of acting talents these attributes seem especially true even though exact jobs may vary greatly.

Every successful actor has to have two skills. One is a certain amount (but not necessarily a lot) of acting talent, which usually comes from a combination of natural ability and constant training. The second skill, and perhaps the more important, is knowing how to market yourself as a product.” [8]

Given their short number of years of existence, children have little ability to satisfy either of these talents.  That does not mean they can’t show extraordinary promise.

Are there any other solutions for this dilemma?  The Oscars used to have a kind of Junior Oscar that made it possible to celebrate the contributions of young actors.  According to funtrivia .com:

These were officially called “Honorary Juvenile Awards” and were first given in 1934, and then sporadically through 1960. Winners include Shirley Temple, the first honoree in 1934, Deanne Durbin and Mickey Rooney in 1938, Judy Garland in 1939 and Margaret O’Brien in 1944, along with 7 others in the following 16 years. ” [9]

I think that the juvenile Oscar should be revived and fortified (as non-honorary) as a regular category again so as to respect the contribution of brilliant young actresses like Wallis who really deserve notice for her dynamic and unprecedented first performance.

Quvenzhané Wallis:

Do you agree with the way the Academy Awards deals with child actors?

Please join us for an open discussion on this topic Wednesday 10/24/2012-Friday 10/26/2012.

Also see: The President of the United States: The Men Behind The Title by Parisienne


Essential References:







[7] dazzles-3d-33303.html




Article Appendix:

With adolescence defined as the ages between 12 through18; developmental psychologists estimate that several reasoning abilities emerge within these teen age groups.

Early Adolescence:

During early adolescence, the use of more complex thinking is focused on personal decision making in school and home environments, including the following:

  • The early adolescent begins to demonstrate use of formal logical operations in schoolwork.
  • The early adolescent begins to question authority and society standards.
  • The early adolescent begins to form and verbalize his/her own thoughts and views on a variety of topics, usually more related to his/her own life, such as:
    • Which sports are better to play.
    • which groups are better to be included in.
    • what personal appearances are desirable or attractive.
    • what parental rules should be changed.

Middle Adolescence:

With some experience in using more complex thinking processes, the focus of middle adolescence often expands to include more philosophical and futuristic concerns, including the following:

  • The middle adolescent often questions more extensively.
  • The middle adolescent often analyzes more extensively.
  • The middle adolescent thinks about and begins to form his/her own code of ethics (i.e., What do I think is right?).
  • The middle adolescent thinks about different possibilities and begins to develop own identity (i.e., Who am I?).
  • The middle adolescent thinks about and begins to systematically consider possible future goals (i.e., What do I want?).
  • The middle adolescent thinks about and begins to make his/her own plans.
  • The middle adolescent begins to think long term.
  • The middle adolescent’s use of systematic thinking begins to influence relationships with others.

Late Adolescence:

During late adolescence, complex thinking processes are used to focus on less self-centered concepts as well as personal decision-making, including the following:

  • The late adolescent has increased thoughts about more global concepts such as justice, history, politics, and patriotism.
  • The late adolescent often develops idealistic views on specific topics or concerns.
  • The late adolescent may debate and develop intolerance of opposing views.
  • The late adolescent begins to focus thinking on making career decisions.
  • The late adolescent begins to focus thinking on emerging role in adult society.

30 Responses to “Is it Sexist for Child Actors to be Nominated for Adult Categories?”

  1. littlebells October 24, 2012 at 11:52 AM #

    Fantastic article CR! Wow! Incredibly research and a great, GREAT topic!

    What made you choose this topic in particular?

  2. Comic Relief October 24, 2012 at 12:43 PM #

    Thank you so much LB.

    There area few influences but this one comes to mind now. Frequently when you hear stories about the kinds of head injuries boys get when they play football, you almost always hear someone discuss how their head trauma occurred before they reached full maturity.

    I would wonder why would this matter? Since then I have concluded that people who care understand children are precious, and deserve to fully mature regardless of what activities they amuse themselves with.

    As we know they do not always know what is good for them. Now just move this concern to the girls.

    With girls the childhood challenges may not always be physical yet they still might be damaging.

    • littlebells October 24, 2012 at 4:10 PM #

      I appreciate your response. I majored in Human Development and you are spot on. The brain doesn’t actually stop maturing til 19-21, depending. That’s why I am blown away by parents who allow their children/teens to make adult decisions! We live in a world where there is a lot of focus on getting our children to grow up faster through subtlety (although I don’t find it subtle): clothes, TV dialogue and plots, magazines, etc…

      I don’t see why the Academy couldn’t create an award especially for minors in a way to honor them if they happen to prove exceptional work in a film.

      • Comic Relief October 25, 2012 at 9:31 AM #


        We are definitely drinking the same Kool-Aid or maybe this is a better explanation.

        I studied education for a while and cognitive psyche was a requirement. I think the first stage theory I ever had to study was, I believe Victor Lowenfeld’s theories about how children’s intellectual abilities grow as they mature. This should sound a lot like the material in my article appendix.

        Actually I was looking for a “19-21” quote you mentioned yet could not find the theory or theorist so I just let that go until I found what is posted at the end of the article.

        That information equally illustrated how slow and deliberate child development occurs and also details how ridiculous a competition between adults and children actually is. We as audience members gain so much pleasure from watching actors perform. We (as a culture) need to give the field the intellectual esteem it deserves.

        It was surprising to me that this hostility can be so obviously directed toward women.

        • Comic Relief October 25, 2012 at 9:34 AM #

          Like you, I don’t have anything against children being recognized. They figure so integrally in the lives of adults, when there creative efforts seem mature, recognizing their contribution seem so natural to me.

          • Comic Relief October 25, 2012 at 4:05 PM #

            From the article, non-Oscar nominated but stand out performances just the same.

            Natalie Portman from Leon the professional

            Jonathan Lipnicki from Jerry Maguire

  3. Comic Relief October 24, 2012 at 2:23 PM #

    Here’s more information on the “juvenile” award.

    • littlebells October 24, 2012 at 4:15 PM #

      Ok, just saw this and they should bring it back. Adults and children have absolutely no reason to compete in the same categories.

      • Comic Relief October 25, 2012 at 9:35 AM #

        I agree. I really don’t understand why they stopped this award. Children certainly did not cease to appear in feature films.

        Many of the children that received the award now appear to be Hollywood royalty. It’s really sad that some of the people whom we’re acquainted with today had their time wasted by being placed in competition with adults.

        I guess any honor is an encouragement but when I think these children’s talents really deserved a more appropriate evaluation.

        • Comic Relief October 25, 2012 at 9:38 AM #

          On the other hand I can barely look at the documentation of the actresses at the Oscars anymore. They sit there and accept this insult so graciously. I’m also really embarrassed that I did not see this practice as the abuse it so obviously is.

          Angela Lansbury
          Madeline Kahn
          Holly Hunter
          Emma Thompson
          …and so many others.

          These women deserve our fondest apologies.

  4. Open Book October 24, 2012 at 2:29 PM #


    Wow!It’s really sad to see (over the years) how subtle advertisers have systematically depreciated culture in this country. All in efforts to get consumers to spend on impulse and emotion instead of reason. Americans have allowed advertisers to turn this country into a youth culture that no longer respect adult advancements, achievements or interest. Using a popular cultural event like The Academy Awards to denigrate adult women is just a symptom of a much bigger problem adult consumers face in this country.

    • Comic Relief October 25, 2012 at 9:39 AM #


      I think if we try to discern where these motivations come from I would not count out advertising’s influence. You are definitely right Madison Avenue’s continuing youth craze is stupid and really doesn’t help anyone.

      But I think these trends have a more responsive, spiteful and corrective quality as well. During a time when many men were more appreciative of women’s roles in society the juvenile award was used as an appropriate response to children’s performances in film.

      In the US, young women filled many of men’s domestic roles in the workplace because so many men were away at two world wars.

      • Comic Relief October 25, 2012 at 9:40 AM #

        Like before, this is all wild speculation….

        Though I think it is difficult to be precise, Patty Duke’s award coincides with many of the victories of the mid-century women’s rights movement.

        Tatum O’Neil’s award might also respond to social progress for women. Many women chose to forego many traditional roles in the home in favor of positions in the work place.

        Anna Paquin’s win a decade later may have been inspired by women’s undeniable successes in the workplace.

        Should she get nominated and win, I will assume that Quvenzhané Wallis’ nomination and win might be a response to the fact that many women have broken through corporate glass ceilings and have emerged as CEO’s, managers, founders and heads of many of the countries greatest corporations. In politics women are running for President.

        It seems this award may respond to many anxieties regarding women’s changing roles in this society. Seems culture is a frequent arena of disagreement and or an escape valve for tensions that exist in society.

  5. parisienne October 25, 2012 at 6:59 PM #

    Hi Everyone!

    I can only stay a few moments tonight but I wanted to comment. First and foremost, excellent article CR!

    • Comic Relief October 26, 2012 at 10:19 AM #

      Thanks Paris.

  6. parisienne October 25, 2012 at 7:10 PM #

    That’s was odd. I only got to post two sentences before my pc went wonky (LB, I’d like a MAC for christmas. You may ship it to my house) LOL.

    I believe that children should be recognized for their contributions to the industry but in a way that is age appropriate for them. The academy could gift them scholarships toward their education for example. (We all know how fleeting the money and fame is) a scholarship would be fitting and encourage them to pursue their educational interests outside of the industry.

    In regards to the psychological effects on a child in the industry, first let me just state that there is no way in hell my children will ever be in this industry. None what so ever. I’d rather see them able to enjoy their childhoods while they can. I don’t think that its fair to put the psychological pressure on a child in order to create and maintain an “image” and all the other BS actors go through to earn a paycheck.

    With all this said, has anyone been watching Honey Boo Boo on talk shows lately? Someone get that child off the damn t.v. She doesn’t have the mental/emotional capacity to deal with what is going on in her life. She almost slapped Dr. Drew!

    Then again her family members are being paid $20,000 per episode when they return next year.

    • littlebells October 25, 2012 at 7:31 PM #

      I refuse, REFUSE to give Honey Boo Boo and her bunch any time of my day. She is going to have some serious issues. Especially when she’s old enough to understand how most people make fun of her.

      I think scholarships are an excellent idea!

      • parisienne October 25, 2012 at 8:01 PM #

        That’s because she and her family don’t speak none good.

      • parisienne October 25, 2012 at 8:03 PM #

        Plus she already has issues. Their idea of a good family game is to blow their breath in each other’s faces and guess who the person is by the smell of their breath. So she already has issues.

        • Open Book October 26, 2012 at 12:11 PM #

          “Their idea of a good family game is to blow their breath in each other’s faces and guess who the person is by the smell of their breath.”

          How classy!

  7. littlebells October 25, 2012 at 7:45 PM #


    Does there seem to be more female or male minors who get nominated for awards? Of those that succeed in their careers later in life, how many of them did it without going through the typical drug, booze, and wild partying?

    • Comic Relief October 26, 2012 at 10:30 AM #


      Great question! I’m SO glad you asked.

      The oldest questionably juvenile winners (who were not mentioned in the article):

      Timothy Hutton 20 Ordinary People 1980
      Marlee Matlin 21 Children of a Lesser God 1986

      In terms of nominees (who were not mentioned in the article):

      Justin Henry 8 Kramer vs. Kramer 1979
      Brandon deWilde 11 Shane 1953
      Saoirse Ronan 13 Atonement 2007
      Bonita Granville 13 These Three 1936
      Jack Wild 16 Oliver! 1968
      Sal Mineo 17 Rebel Without a Cause 1955
      Leonardo DiCaprio 19 What’s Eating Gilbert Grape 1993

      I would say the gender spread was more equal in the juvenile Oscar period than the period after; where girls seemed to receive more nominations and wins.

      • Comic Relief October 26, 2012 at 10:31 AM #

        As for your second question;

        I’m not that big a fan of the tabloids and I’m surprised that I’m too young to remember Patty Duke era craziness. Though I believe OB thinks she remembers some. I will let her elaborate further.

        As for the Tatum O’Neil I do have a slight memory of her drug abuse. As I understand, her Dad was not at her ceremony.

        Despite what happened with the others, Anna Paquin seems suprisingly normal.

        • Open Book October 26, 2012 at 12:08 PM #

          CR- Hahahaha! I was not born or even thought about when Patty Duke won her Oscar. However, I did read about her life a while ago. Anyway, here is an article that discusses her life as a child actor.

          • Comic Relief October 26, 2012 at 1:44 PM #


            Sorry to have implied you were old enough to have heard about Patty Duke drama. But I was right you were well informed.

            Sounds like Mrs. Duke survived a lot of hardship before her childhood Oscar win. Sounds like an amazing woman.

      • littlebells October 26, 2012 at 12:20 PM #

        To this day, Leo’s role in WEGG is my favorite performance of his. He nailed the mannerisms and personality! Absolutely looooooved him in that film. He actually stole the film for me. Should have won, damn’t! 🙂

        • Comic Relief October 26, 2012 at 1:53 PM #

          Thanks LB,

          It’s been a long time and I was curious about what I originally appreciated about that role.

          • littlebells October 26, 2012 at 4:16 PM #

            THANK YOU CR!!!!

  8. ozzie20 October 25, 2012 at 8:10 PM #

    Amazing article CR!

    I’m going to have to come back later when my migraine has eased up to add anything of worth to the discussion.

    • Comic Relief October 26, 2012 at 10:31 AM #

      Thanks Ozzie. I will check back later.

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