Forced Stardom, Free Will and the Crocodile Hunter’s Daughter
Steve Irwin, the late “Crocodile Hunter” who recently met his untimely end in a freak attack by a stingray, had no aversion to exploiting his children for entertainment value. In 2004, for example, he unapologetically cradled his infant son in one arm while cavorting with a six-foot croc. Now his daughter Bindi has been anointed as the guardian of Irwin’s legacy, not to mention the savior of all the adults whose livelihood depend on “The Crocodile Hunter” name, syndicated TV shows, endorsements, movies and related products. The Discovery Channel is starring her in a new series called “Bindi, The Jungle Girl” that was originally going to co-star her risk-taking Dad. Now Bindi is going it alone.
Let’s put aside the matter of whether it is appropriate to have such a young child, even an unusually poised, precocious and intrepid one like Bindi, interacting at close range with large and potentially dangerous animals. The other looming ethical issue arises from the fact that Bindi’s mother and the family’s agents have placed the entire responsibility of keeping the Irwin entertainment empire intact on her. The question is not whether Bindi wants to star in her own nature show, following in her father’s dangerous footsteps. The question is whether she could have refused even if she wanted to. Instead of being sent to school and having the opportunity to enjoy a normal childhood, cared for by adults who love her, Bindi Irwin has been presented with the choice of becoming a pint-sized “Crocodile Hunter” or putting her mother and her father’s business associates out of work. There is no free will for an eight year-old in such a situation. Her options are guilt, or going to work at the family business. Make that becoming the family business.
This is not the typical situation in which a child performer auditions for a part. While there may be pressure from parents on a young actress or actor to accept a particular job, it is rare for a new project to be completely dependent on one child’s willingness to participate in it. If Soliel Moon Fry didn’t want to be “Punky Brewster,” another actress would have been found to take the role. The real pressure typically starts later, after the juvenile performer is identified with a franchise and deemed irreplaceable. Did MacCauley Caulkin really have the option of turning down “Home Alone 2”? Could Gary Coleman possibly tell his parents that he was through with “Different Strokes” when it was topping the ratings? But “Bindi the Jungle Girl” must have the Crocodile Hunter’s daughter, or there is no show. Whether Bindi Irwin knows it or not, she is trapped by the needs of the adults around her.
The sheer unreality of the process by which an eight year-old suddenly is presumed to have mature judgement and adult responsibilities is illustrated by a jaw-dropping press release by Dan Stockdale, an exotic animal trainer who is frequently involved with the media. As you read this, try to remind yourself that its subject is only eight years-old:
“For decades to come!” Not only has Bindi’s highly lucrative present been mapped out for her, but her future as well.
It is easy to condemn this process as exploitive, but it is a great deal harder to identify an antidote to it. The only one that comes readily to mind is a combination of courage and selflessness on the parts of the adults responsible for Bindy’s welfare—the courage to say no, and the selflessness to put a child’s best interests above the financial concerns of those who think of her more as a meal ticket than a little girl.
This must be accompanied by a combination of ethical sensibilities and the law. Responsible parents must have the ethical sensibilities to recognize and resist the inherent conflicts of interest a child’s marketable talent can create for them, and legislators must adopt the legal measures being advocated by Paul Petersen’s A Minor Consideration (www.minorcon.org), for the protection of those children whose parents’ judgement cannot be trusted.
None of this is likely to help Bindi Irwin, whom we can only hope enjoys the premature career that is being forced on her and avoids serious injury until she is old enough to take control of the direction of her own life. She does indeed seem to be unusually smart, tough and resilient for her age, and she will need those qualities to survive against something at least as dangerous as crocodiles: the personal agendas of the avaricious adults around her.