I’m always skeptical of famous parents who let their children chase professional entertainment careers before they’ve even hit puberty. The artistic results can be mixed, as has been the case with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s decision to cast his son Marten Weiner to play Glen Bishop on the lauded AMC show. And the psychological track record for child stars can be unsettling. Just recently, Disney Channels Worldwide president Gary Marsh insisted that he wasn’t responsible for raising his networks’ stars, and that he shouldn’t be blamed if he puts a vulnerable young person in a significant spotlight. “Someone like Demi [Lovato, who sought treatment for significant psychological issues] is an unbelievably talented young woman who had some challenges in her life from before we met her and will probably have those challenges far into the future,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s not fair, if that’s the right way to express it, to lay that at the feet of the network that discovered her.” But despite my general anxieties about the fates of young performers, I can’t help but be charmed by the trajectory of the undeniably talented Willow Smith, daughter of Will and Jada Pinkett. The Smith family appears to be striking a rare balance with their daughter, giving her an opportunity to seek out a stage for her talents, while making her age a feature of her performances rather than a bug to be erased with sexualized performances or too-grown-up costumes.
The video for “I Am Me,” Willow’s most recent single, is spare, showing Smith gliding through New York parks on a skateboard and stopping in medians and under lampposts to bang out tunes on a portable keyboard. The most striking thing about the video might actually be how much she looks like an actual kid in her close-cropped hair, simple earrings, and a giant collared shirt she could have swiped from the mothballed archives of her father’s old costumes. Even when she sported painted nails and makeup in the video for “Whip My Hair,” released when she was 9, the crystals at the corner of her eyes and on her lips looked like she’s raided her mother’s cosmetics case. Smith’s appearance may be managed down to the smallest detail, but watching her move from sparking a schoolroom rebellion in “Whip My Hair,” to running with wolves and other little girls in the African desert in the video for “21st Century Girl,” to playing latchkey kid in “I Am Me,” she seems to be having fun rather than feeling anxious playing dress-up in public. If she doesn’t want to keep the braids that made her famous, what of it? “I set the boundaries,” she sings in “21st Century Girl.” “The rules don’t own me.”
To a certain extent, Willow Smith strikes me as the Pixar of child stars. She doesn’t need to slip double entrendres into her lyrics that adults will get but that will pass over her core audience’s heads, a la Dreamworks. She doesn’t have to be an aspirational figure, a Disney princess little girls can look up to for the future. Instead, the persona she’s presenting to the world, whether it’s her authentic self or not, is very much eleven years old. And Smith and her managers are trusting that what she has to sing will be interesting and compelling to adults without gussying or sexing it up. A line like “your validation is just not that important to me” may be a profound revelation to a listener who’s just heading into middle school and a welcome—if familiar—reminder to a grown-up having a bad day. That doesn’t mean she’s serving up generically appealing pablum. Rather, Willow Smith is a reminder that in rushing kids in the public eye into adulthood, we’re missing out on the chance to see them encounter the world for the first time, and to be recharged by their bravado and their hopes.