They start as young cherubs, their round faces full of smiles and innocence. They play, and delve into anything cute and sweet. A few years pass and the Barbies are given up for boys. Life is still childlike, even with the first hints of attraction. But the good gets tired, and in a blink, it's given up for stripper poles, prostitution, degradation, and a feverish desperation to be seen as an adult -- mentally and physically.

Yes, the above path is a bit exaggerated. Young actresses often mix a little thrilling fare in with the sweetness. Nevertheless, there is almost always a swift and destructive crashing of the gate between adolescence and adulthood. One minute, the young actress is all song, dance, and smiling love, and the next, they're fighting for their own spot in the world of Mr. Skin.

We can't exactly blame them. We live in a world rife with contradictions about growing up and being taken seriously. The world of The Breakfast Club and slightly tougher teen fare was replaced with tween limbo and an elongation of sweet teen life. But at the same time, we chide those that take part in Disney's tween world, publish countdown clocks marking the days left until some young actress is legal, and as much as we might complain about them stripping for cred, our complaints fade if the project turns out to be good.

But what does it mean for actresses now and tomorrow? The path is murky.

Shirley Temple never diverged from her sweet routes and remains the sugary sweetheart. Trying to drop her sweet image, twenty-year-old Hayley Mills bared all for The Family Way, while having an affair with director Ray Boulting -- 33 years her senior. (But that only led her to Saved by the Bell. She played Miss Carrie Bliss in the then-titled Good Morning, Miss Bliss.) Tatum O'Neal disrobed for Circle of Two at seventeen, but her later career never matched her Oscar win for Paper Moon. And then there's Jodie Foster. She didn't bare all at age fourteen, but she did enter the world of prostitution for Taxi Driver, immediately wrenching herself out of her iconic family film image.

But even if there weren't examples like Jodie Foster, Hollywood endlessly links coming-of-age, maturity, and success with skin. As Rebecca Walker pointed out for the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, the link between the Oscars and prostitution/stripping is as tight as can be -- Marisa Tomei, Natalie Portman, Charlize Theron, Elisabeth Shue, Julia Roberts, Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda... Hell, the first actress to win an Oscar, Janet Gaynor, got it for playing a prostitute in Street Angel.

With that track record, it's no wonder that so many of today's stars are doing their part. Just like the countdowns to legality, one could make bets on when today's youth will step up to the nude plate. Some have expressed their willingness in advance, like Vanessa Hudgens and Emma Watson. Some jump into the idea haphazardly like Lindsay Lohan and I Know Who Killed Me. Some try to wipe away their goodie-goodie roles with nude pictorials like Jessica Biel. Ironically, Anne Hathaway followed the same path with the risque Havoc, only to have it ignored in favor of her dramatic and comedic work -- a welcome exception in the bunch.

Then there's Dakota Fanning. Never one to shy away from challenging, disturbing, and controversial fare well before legality, she started an uproar with Hounddog, and always presented herself as a mature adult trapped in a tyke's body. Now, according to some sources, she's set for a steamy lesbian scene in the upcoming Runaways film with Kristen Stewart.

This all brings up a big question: What will happen in a decade or two? As we've all learned over the years, each new generation does what it can to out-do, and often out-sex the last. Will actresses just skip the teen years altogether like Fanning? Perhaps not, since the revolving door of T & A has always opened to the younger actresses now and then.

An interesting twist to the equation: Rather than following their own path, actors are hopping onto the skin bandwagon too. Daniel Radcliffe bared all publicly for Equus and Robert Pattinson did a little Silence of the Lambs-esque tucking for Little Ashes. I don't know what this means for coming-of-age in Hollywood -- whether actors are just joining in on the fun, or could take the skin-heavy shelf that girls have held for all these years.

Either way, I can only hope we take a cue from examples like the ones above: Sex might sell, but it is no sure-fire way to be taken seriously. Sexuality might be part of growing up, but it doesn't hold the key to maturation, success, and respect.

Maybe if we showed adolescence as a little more Degrassi and a little less Disney, and studios stopped throwing so much money at films with strippers and prostitution, times could change. Young actors wouldn't feel as desperate to be taken seriously, and egads, more dramatic roles for women could actually reflect our life rather than just sexualizing it.
CATEGORIES Columns, Cinematical