#FreeBritney, Labor Laws, and How to Escape Abusive Parents
Before I was a homeless teenager, I was a child actor in the 90s with parents who circumvented child labor laws, the Coogan Act, and SAG-AFTRA union regulations
Britney Spears is a former child entertainer who has been rendered the legal equivalent of a child under her father’s control. Although Spears is an adult, exploitation of child entertainers by their parents is commonplace. I should know. Before I was a homeless teenager, I was a child actor in the 90s with parents who circumvented child labor laws, the Coogan Act, and SAG-AFTRA union regulations. Like Spears’ conservatorship which grants her father control over her body, finances, and business, our antiquated laws do not adequately protect child performers and the children of social media influencer parents like the Stauffers.
As my mom and dad found, it is very easy for parents to take advantage of their working children if they reside in a state that does not have the Coogan Act, a law passed only in California, New Mexico, New York and Louisiana. The 1939 law was named after Jackie Coogan whose mother and stepfather refused to give him the money he had earned as an actor. Penniless, he took his mother to court because he had nothing after barely surviving a car accident that claimed the lives of his father and best friend. Shirley Temple’s career began 7 years before the law was passed, and as a result she received only a fraction of the millions she had earned for her irresponsible parents during the Depression.
Looking back, as a homeless teenager, I should have called a lawyer to sue my parents for the hundreds of thousands I had earned as a child actor in the 90s. But I naively thought that lawyers are only for divorce or getting out of jail. I eventually decided that not having contact with my abusive parents was more valuable than trying to ask them for any of the money I had earned when I began working at the age of 6 months old. Sometimes I think about how as a millennial, I may never be able to retire or pay off my student loans, even though I began working and had my first W-2 before I could even walk.
In February 2021, SAG-AFTRA announced that influencers can now join the union, but it should be noted that social media influencer parents and family vloggers are not required to register their children in the union. In other words, the parents who make their living by capitalizing on their children’s lives, broadcasting videos of their kids for our consuming entertainment, have no oversight and generally do not need to adhere to child labor laws. Afterall, if you’re creating content and filming your kids 12 hours a day in your living room, who is going to enforce lunch breaks and make sure that your kids’ income is being deposited into a trust for them when they go to college? The kids might throw a tantrum, but for some influencer families, maybe that’s incorporated to be part of the brand.
At an audition when I was 6 years old, a director once pointed out that I was the same age as the Olsen twins. I remember asking my mom why the Olsen twins were both cast to play only one character, Michelle Tanner on Full House. My mom explained that it was because the twins were allowed to work twice as long as I was. At age 6, I didn’t understand the math of having a twin and avoiding overtime. Actually, there was a lot I didn’t understand at age 6, and shouldn’t have needed to as a kid. In the 80s and 90s, there should have been adults and better laws protecting children from exploitation. But there weren’t, and three decades later, there still aren’t.
We need systems and laws to effectively protect the children of influencers who can’t consent to working, whose parents archive their childhoods on the internet for money. We need to reform conservatorships and remove judges who grant unchecked control to estranged fathers like Jamie Spears, a man who has a history of violence and gloated about what he would buy with the money his daughter earned. We need the Coogan Act expanded as a federal law. Because unlike the 1930s when Jackie Coogan and Shirley Temple were the most popular influencers, Hollywood is no longer the only place where child performers with abusive parents live. Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and other platforms have made stardom possible anywhere. And the economic hardships of COVID and quarantine has made many parents more desperate, perhaps in the same ways that Shirley Temple’s dad felt when he signed her first contract after losing his job as a banker in the Depression. We need laws and systems to recognize that some people, through no fault of their own, are born to greedy, cruel parents. Not everyone is lucky enough to have parents who do not wish to consume, sabotage, and exploit their own.