As you may have heard, Daniel Radcliffe, the 17-year-old actor who’s been playing Harry Potter in the movies, is about to do a London stage production of Equus (the psychodrama about a young man who has a sexual obsession with horses), and he’ll have some nude scenes and sexual scenes in the play.
I’m not going to talk about the actual news, which I find only mildly interesting in a “What a smart career move” way. What I find more interesting is the reaction to this news in the media and the public.
So far, much of the reaction I’ve seen has fallen into two camps. One is the juvenile snickering and nitwit penis joke category. (Even Keith Olberman, who I usually like a lot, was falling into this, with stupid jokes about magic wands and broomsticks.)
The other is the shock/horror/dismay category: “But… but… he’s Harry Potter! He can’t be naked! Won’t someone please think of the children?”
And I think both these reactions come from the same place — a discomfort with the fact that children become adults, with adult sexuality.
We know Radcliffe primarily — and quite famously — as a child and a young adolescent. He is now becoming an adult (if I’m not mistaken, 17 is the age of adulthood and consent in England). And this rather obvious fact of life makes many people extremely uncomfortable.
There’s a strong taboo in our society against thinking of children as sexual — a taboo that in many ways is very understandable. But it’s a taboo that we go seriously overboard with. It’s a taboo that twists our experience and blots out our reality. It makes us refuse to acknowledge that children have any kind of sexuality of their own. And it makes us have conniptions over the transition between childhood and adulthood… and the ripening of sexuality that this transition involves.
And I think that’s what the snickering and horror over a naked Daniel Radcliffe is about — the transition, and people’s discomfort with it. When a young person, one who we’re most familiar with as a child and who’s still fairly close to childhood, begins to claim their adult sexuality, I think it makes people feel like pedophiles. This person is still in our minds as a child, but now they’re also in our minds as a sexual adult — and that’s a category error that can cause some serious short-circuiting.
I think this discomfort is aggravated by the fact that, while our society sees childhood as a time of complete asexual purity, it also sees young adulthood as the pinnacle of sexuality and sexual desirability. Children are supposed to somehow magically transform from innocent sexless sugar-babies into ripe, dishy sex bombs — and they’re supposed to do it overnight, with no awkward transitional stage in between to make us feel like creeps.
In a way, I get it. I’ve had crushes on teenage actors before they were legal (Christina Ricci comes to mind), and it made me pretty damned uncomfortable. It gives me the willies to have the hots for people who I think it would be unethical for me to actually have sex with. And it gave me the willies to be having impure thoughts about this dishy teenage goth chick who I first got to know as Wednesday Addams.
But I also think we need to chill the fuck out about it. Children become adults. Childhood sexuality becomes adult sexuality. It’s not news. As Ingrid said when we were talking about this, “What did they THINK was going to happen?”
(P.S. To be completely fair, the reaction to this news hasn’t been entirely snickering and conniptions. A fair number of people are responding much the way I am, with a combination of “Hm, interesting career move” and “Will you all please relax and let this kid grow up?”)