The Dakota Fanning controversy.

Examining culture and the arts.
Jan. 24 2007 12:51 PM

Dakota Fanning

All shook up over Hounddog.

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The strangest thing about the pre-release debate may have been observing Dakota Fanning herself defending her choice with the savvy articulateness of a child raised in Hollywood's echo chamber. In curiously perfect sound bites, she winningly explained her decision to play the part to the New York Times ("The bottom line was, I couldn't notdo it," she remarked. "I was the perfect age"). Elsewhere, she pointed out what seemed to her a puzzling failure of logic, noting that Hounddog is "no darker than Hide and Seek or Man on Fire! I still am going through difficult things in those films as well, and nobody seemed to talk about that!" She's right that the new film isn't truly a departure from her earlier work. But it is a resolutely unambiguous extension of her child-actor roles into the realm of the adolescent. And it's this lack of ambiguity that has stirred controversy: She's crossed the sexual Rubicon. Taking on this character is a violation of the subtle enactment of anxieties about survival and innocence that had formerly gone—quite pleasingly—unstated. Whether or not she is fully aware of it, Fanning, the actor, is officially leaving childhood behind in the eyes of the public.

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And she may not be fully aware of it. Take, for example, the fact that in the Times she defended her choice to play the role of the young girl, Lewellen, by reassuring her interviewer that Lewellen "is still very innocent, she's still a child, but she's also a little bit wise beyond her years." There's an odd paradox at work. Fanning invokes Lewellen's innocence as a way of comforting us that she herself has not yet reached the realm of sexuality and still stands at the brink of it. But to know to do as much is, in a way, to be out of the garden already. That she comprehends the various dimensions of the role is not reassuring proof of her childishinnocence. It only makes it all the more impossible for the viewer to imagine her going back to the cocoon of childhood, rather than moving forward into the trials of adolescence.

From this perspective, whether or not Hounddog is a film about redemption and healing doesn't exactly matter; nor does it matter whether Fanning wore a bodysuit while filming; or whether Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields, two child actresses to play sexually graphic roles in the 1970s, survived their experiences whole. Such niceties are beside the point (and the announcement of them, not surprisingly, didn't reduce the pitch of the protests). The problem for an American audience weaned on this waif, and chock-a-block with repressed feelings about adolescent sexuality itself, is that Dakota Fanning the actress (if not the character she plays) has chosen to take on this graphic a role. She has opened Pandora's box. Once she has become part of the sexual economy of adolescence—about which Americans are so clearly conflicted, living as we do in a hypersexualized era that is also peculiarly hyperprotective of children—she can't go back.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.