In 1988, Victor Salva, the director of Clownhouse, was convicted of sexual assault. His victim was Nathan Forrest Winters, a 12-year-old actor. After 15 months in prison, Salva returned to the director’s chair, working with Disney on the movie Powder. This garnered serious backlash, as parents were outraged that Disney, a children’s entertainment company, would work with a child predator.
Salva’s Powder collaborators defended him, arguing that the director was not working directly with children and that no one knew about his prior conviction. After they became aware of his conviction, a producer for the movie argued that Salva had paid his debt to society and thus deserved another chance.
His most recent work says otherwise. In 2017, Salva released Jeepers Creepers 3, a horror film with a molestation sub-plot. Instead of condemning the film’s pedophile, the critics’ cut justifies his actions. One character even asks, “Can you blame him though … The heart wants what it wants, am I right?” illustrating just how apathetic Salva is to his previous misconduct. After critics singled out the quote, the line was removed for the theatrical cut.
Salva continues to make movies because his films perform well at the box office. Even with public pressure on Powder, the film earned over $30,000,000 domestically. His agent noted that if Powder performed well, Salva’s career could be salvaged. Ultimately, this prediction became reality. Salva hit gold with Jeepers Creepers, a cult classic which spawned multiple sequels. Recently, Jeepers Creepers 4 was announced, despite an unprecedented movement within the film industry to hold perpetrators accountable. Considering that the #MeToo movement has brought down prominent figures such as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, it is damning that Salva still has a career in the industry.
John Kricfalusi, the creator of Nickelodeon’s Ren and Stimpy, is still celebrated as an animation pioneer despite his history of sexual harassment. He formed “mentorships” with two underaged girls (aspiring animators), buying them art supplies before sexually assaulting them. It was an open secret that Kricfalusi was seeing underaged girls in Hollywood and even living with one, but no one condemned him. Tony Mora, an art director at Nickelodeon at the time, reflected that Kricfalusi would often sexually harass female artists, particularly teenage girls. “It’s always been there,” he remarked.
And yet, Kricfalusi still has a career. In 2014, he worked with Miley Cyrus on her Bangerz cover art, and in 2016 he screened his short film Cans Without Labels at a prestigious animation festival. Despite the allegations, Nickelodeon hung his portrait at Nickelodeon Studios, honoring him and his legacy. Only when Buzzfeed News got Kricfalusi to admit that he had an underaged girlfriend did Nickelodeon remove the portrait.
Hollywood’s failure to protect child actors goes beyond beloved creators like Salva and Kricfalusi. The industry tends to forgive and forget the indiscretions of sex offenders, regardless of their status or influence. Disney decided to hire Brian Peck—who was convicted of sexually abusing a 15-year-old actor at Nickelodeon—as a voice actor for The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, as well as one of its spin-offs, Yay Me! Starring London Tipton. Nickelodeon hired Ezell Channel, a registered sex-offender, as a production assistant. Channel used his position to molest a child actor working at Nickelodeon. He was arrested in 2005 and convicted of two felonies: lewd or lascivious acts with a child under 14 years of age and harmful matter sent with the intent of seduction of a minor.
Nickelodeon claims it has toughened up its hiring process by conducting background checks. Furthermore, five years ago, California passed the Hollywood Child Protection Act. It aims to prevent cases like these from occurring again. The law requires anyone working with child actors to be fingerprinted and pass an FBI background check which screens for registered sex offenders.
However, not a single publicist working for child actors has complied with this law; dozens of managers, photographers, and acting coaches have not either. Violators risk a $10,000 fine and jail time, but the law remains completely unenforced. The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists warns that undercover investigations could occur if the industry remains noncompliant, followed by prosecution.
Patricia Salazar, an attorney for California’s Division of Labor Standards and Enforcement, remarked that the department has not received any direct complaints of non-compliance. Both responses illustrate a passive approach to addressing non-compliance. Instead of simply issuing a warning to Hollywood, California’s Division of Labor Standards and Enforcement should investigate who has and has not been background screened. Once violators are found, prosecution must follow. Otherwise, the law will remain a joke.
We must remember that children cannot easily defend themselves, and are often unaware of what is happening to them. Nathan Forrest Winters, the child actor abused by Victor Salva, explained that Hollywood blackballed him after he told his story. Brian Peck’s victim, fearing retaliation, fought to keep his identity a secret. Children are already vulnerable to the whims of adults. This imbalance is heightened in the entertainment industry, as industry insiders have fame, power, and influence that child actors do not. So they remain silent.
Child victims also lack the comprehension and communication skills to recognize that they have been victimized. When Todd Bridges was targeted by his publicist, he was conditioned into thinking nothing of it. Child grooming—establishing a trusting relationship to later exploit—is nothing new. In the documentary, An Open Secret, five former child actors recount their experiences of being groomed for sexual abuse. Each explains how difficult it is to defend against an older, predatory mentor, especially when said mentor has spent years establishing a seemingly trustworthy relationship.
This is best illustrated through Evan Henzi’s story in An Open Secret. When Henzi was 11, he was groomed by his manager, Marty Weiss. Weiss often interjected himself into family events, acting as a friend to Henzi. Weiss played basketball with Henzi and his other friends, further establishing this informal relationship. During their games, Weiss would make jokes about sex, introducing the children to topics they otherwise would not have known about.
Ultimately, Weiss was able to turn what should have been a professional relationship into a completely inappropriate one. Weiss sexually assaulted Henzi after their regularly scheduled basketball games. It would take Henzi years to realize the gravity of what had happened; it still traumatizes him. Weiss was convicted for what he had done, as Henzi secretly recorded Weiss confessing his guilt. Weiss was sentenced to one year behind bars, but was released the same day because he waited six months in prison for his trial.
Leaving Neverland, the recent documentary detailing abuse allegations against Michael Jackson, illustrates the lingering effects of sexual abuse on minors. Wade Robson and James Safechuck were seven and ten years old respectively when the alleged abuse began. “It just didn’t seem that strange,” Robson recalled when recounting the first time Jackson had groped him. Jackson made them feel like equal participants rather than victims. Consequently, his behavior did not seem abusive, but rather affectionate. Jackson allegedly put pressure on the two to keep their “relationships” a secret, stating “people are ignorant… they’d never understand.” When they got older, both suffered emotional breakdowns after having sons of their own, causing them to come forward to their family and then the public.
Coming forward requires a great deal of inner strength, something that is difficult even for adults who can conceptualize that they have been victimized. There is also a feeling of shame and guilt that prevents victims, especially children, from coming forward. Jeff Herman, a lawyer who has worked with victims of sexual abuse, explains that a child victim’s guilt makes it “very difficult to come and talk about it” because they are not sure if they even are a victim.
In the case of musician Robert Kelly (R. Kelly), this rings out even clearer. The allegations against Kelly span decades and include instigating an illegal marriage to 15-year-old named Aaliyah, creating and carrying child pornography, operating a sex cult, physical abuse of his former wife Andrea Kelly, and sexual abuse of women, including minors.
When victims came forward with their stories, they all shared one common trait: guilt. Jim DeRogatis, the journalist who broke Kelly’s sexual abuse allegations, recalled Aaliyah’s mother crying on his shoulders, expressing that Kelly had ruined her daughter’s life. Additionally, Sparkle, a singer who worked with Kelly, expressed regret for introducing her 14-year-old niece to Kelly, as her niece would go on to star in a sex tape with him. Kelly’s ex-wife supported the victims, expressing how the fear and shame she felt as a result of Kelly’s abuse almost drove her to suicide.
Rochelle Washington and Latresa Scaff, two women part of the most recent round of allegations, have echoed these sentiments. After allegedly being raped by Kelly as teenagers while under the influence of alcohol and marijuana, both spent years ashamed by the incident, blaming themselves for being so vulnerable.
Alongside other women, they are pushing for accountability, leading to extremely encouraging results. Kelly has been indicted with ten charges of sexual abuse. Whether Kelly will overcome these charges remains to be seen. He rehabilitated his reputation after his 2008 trial for child pornography and enjoyed a fruitful career, working with Jay Z, Lady Gaga, Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, and Mary J. Blige. He also continued working with child musicians, repeating his cycle of abuse. Worst of all, no one tried to stop him. Everyone around him remained complicit.
While Lady Gaga and Chance the Rapper both apologized for their collaborations, condemning R. Kelly in the process, other big names have remained silent. Once again, the entertainment industry’s elites are overwhelmingly silent when it comes to protecting children or rectifying previous mistakes.
Hollywood has shown a blatant disregard for the well-being of children. Known sex offenders are working on children’s programming, particularly at Disney and Nickelodeon. It is completely unacceptable to give convicted sexual offenders a platform to abuse and manipulate children. It is even more unacceptable that this needs to be explained.
Without strong laws protecting children from sexual predators, sex offenders will have no trouble finding their next victims. It does not matter if it is a publicist, manager, actor, agent, coach, or crew member. All must be screened.
California’s Division of Labor Standards and Enforcement must prioritize the protection of children in the entertainment industry and enforce existing laws. Instead of waiting until a complaint is filed, California’s Division of Labor Standards and Enforcement should investigate sexual misconduct cases in Hollywood and look for perpetrators. They must also prosecute. Most importantly, these laws require review to see if they are effectively tackling this issue.
Beyond the law, the public must assert to Hollywood that child safety is a priority. R. Kelly was able to abuse young women for as long as he did because no one cared enough to intervene. If anyone around him had stepped forward sooner, the number of victims might have been substantially less. We must continue to pay attention to breaking news from Hollywood. When a company hires known sex offenders or protects a predator, that company needs to be singled out and punished. As consumers, we can dictate what we expect from companies, including their ethics. Just as we are holding the big names to a higher standard through the #MeToo movement, we must do the same for the entire industry. Otherwise, we will continue to leave children behind.
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