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In defense of Willow Smith

Published May 8, 2014 1:41 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

I'm not going to post the now-infamous photo of singer Willow Smith on a bed next to actor Moises Arias. It's hard to say anything about the photo without knowing the nature of the relationship between the 13-year-old girl and the 20-year-old man (Arias reportedly is a family friend), but I'll err on the side of caution.

That's because if a 20-year-old and a 13-year-old are involved in an exploitative relationship, the 13-year-old is THE VICTIM — a fact apparently lost on the Hollywood commentariat and headline writers the world over, who have fixated on Smith's role in the matter.

Willow Smith causes a stir with controversial bed photo

Willow Smith Causes Controversy For Being Photographed In Bed With Moises Arias

Willow Smith Stirs Up Controversy With Pic

Teenage Willow Smith shouldn't be in bed with grown man

Singer, 13, criticised after she is pictured lying in bed with 20-year-old actor

If the photo is sexual or romantic (a point that's far from obvious to many who have seen it, including police), its news value comes from the ages of the subjects. Whether you think it's criminally predatory or just kinda creepy, any objection stems from the pair's relative maturity and Smith's absolute (im)maturity as a child. If the photo is offensive, Arias is the offender, not Smith. Smith is not the stir-causer or the controversy-stirrer. In the context of child sex abuse, the child is not the actor — the adult is.

Compare two headlines on the same story, distributed by Contra Costa Times:

Underage Willow Smith poses with older man in bed (Contra Costa Times)

Moises Arias poses with underage Willow Smith in bed (San Jose Mercury News)

Given the URL of the Mercury News story, it looks like a web editor there intelligently chose to give credit where credit is due. (Disclosure: Both The Times and the News are managed by The Tribune's parent company, Digital First.)

It's not just the headlines. Stacey Brooks, at KTAR in Phoenix, writes, "My father taught me early in life about not putting myself in compromising situations. This would be a perfect example. As a young girl, why do you want to lay on a bed with a half-naked man? It's just not necessary, and posting the photo on social media only complicates the situation."

This is the same mentality that drives the response to rape victims, "Why couldn't you just not get raped?" I don't want to be the person who smothers all talk of safe behavior, but Brooks barely mentions Arias' culpability in the "inappropriate"-ness. She actually nods to his "innocent intentions" while accusing the child of being a bad role model.

I personally don't think the photo is very exciting. I don't think a bedroom today implies what it once did, and standards of dress are different in Hollywood than in lots of places. More importantly, context matters, and we don't have it in a snapshot. But don't let that get in the way of insidiously slut-shaming a 13-year-old.

The Global Grind, after accusing Smith of "sparking controversy," goes on to list "Willow Smith's Most Scandalous Moments Over The Last Four Years." These include a photo of her holding a stripper's pole in Las Vegas (jarring, yes, but a not-unthinkable product of unfiltered digital behavior), her rejection of the role of "Annie" (the horror), the time she shaved her hair, the time she dyed her hair blonde, the time she dyed it green, the time she dyed it pink and the time she dyed it pink-stripey.

I guess if people run out of chances to speculate about a young black girl's sexuality, they can always pick on her hair.

—Erin Alberty

Twitter: @erinalberty