We’ve seen this movie before. A child performer attempts to make the transition into more serious roles and in the process adopts an entirely new, more “adult” public persona. It isn’t enough just to seem older. Well-known child performers who age by increment only serve to remind audiences of the passage of time, a reality that has never scored well in the 18-34 demographic. In the same way that people find it hard to see the physicality of actors that aren’t extremely thin or extremely overweight, outward signs of adolescence are not tolerated. As an actor, graduating from child roles to adult ones is a test less of performative skill than of personal reinvention.
Some, like Anne Hathaway or Ryan Gosling, achieve this transformation of persona. Others equally talented, like Dakota Fanning or Haley Joel Osment, don’t. Still others, like Lindsay Lohan or Macaulay Culkin, change from a performing child into an attention-seeking adult, whose antics off-screen belie anything they could do professionally. Audiences become eager to punish the Lohans and Culkins of the world for stealing away the child they once knew and replacing it with a flawed human, one who chose to step out of the professional stage lighting into the stark light of day, blemishes and all.
But the metamorphosis of former child star Amanda Bynes is different from any of those other examples, if only because it may be the severest case of this third category.
The markers of Bynes’s downward spiral aren’t the conventionally tragic drug addictions and career disasters; she’s gone beyond that. Her fall seems to entail not a lack of poise but a loss of self. When you hold a picture of the Amanda Bynes we knew from only a few years ago in her early 20s to the selfies that show up on her Twitter these days, the difference is more drastic and bizarre than that of other fallen child actors.
Before Bynes started showing real signs of this change, she had already successfully landed several supporting roles as an adult in major motion pictures like Easy A and Hairspray and a starring role on the TV show What I Like About You. But it wasn’t her transition from the apple-cheeked sketch player on her Nickelodeon shows to the semi-successful adult actor that has lit up the blogosphere. Rather, it’s been the emergence of the acid-haired glamazon of her own self-shot Twitter videos.
I’d never really taken much notice of Amanda Bynes as an actress. Even from a young age, I was more interested in MTV than Nickelodeon. But the couple of times I did see her shows, she had a spark of intelligence and charm that her tween cohort lacked. Her comic stunts seemed better realized than those of, say, Hilary Duff or Melissa Joan Hart. She was that rare contradiction of terms, a child actor with equal parts commitment to craft and effortless panache.
But Bynes’s roles as a child actor, while effective, were mostly in an overdrawn slapstick style. And so it’s striking how in her new role as media curiosity, she has seemed to draw from a lot of the same comedic tools she used for the clowning of her childhood performances. Her hair and eyelashes just keep getting bigger, her make-up more and more dramatic.
Watching the videos Bynes posts on her Twitter doesn’t feel like watching someone giving a poor performance. It feels like watching someone lose her mind. And yet there’s also a distinctly performative flavor to the specifics of these videos.
Bynes seems obsessed with controlling her image, and yet that obsession itself is characterized by a lack of control. Her tweets are a never-ending campaign for glossy celeb rags to use “approved photos” of her, and yet the photos she posts on her Twitter are without exception poorly shot images of an exhausted, desperate young woman.
As art, her persona is a horror show where she is both the blonde heroine unwittingly stalked by a creature and the creature itself. We hear ourselves screaming, “Don’t go in there!” but keep watching through our fingers to see what will happen. And in that performative capacity, the new “Amanda Bynes Show” is not without its merits. There are elements of her performance as a personality on the brink that are actually pretty compelling.
For instance, the fact that her facial piercings affix right at the spot where her dimples would go could be a way for her to comment on the characteristic feature of the cute child actor, as if she’s redefining that characteristic to suit her new goals. In the infamous “Sour Patch video,” it’s compelling the way she looks both in the screen of her phone and in the mirror. One wonders which picture was showing her what she wanted to see? And then she posted this video online, another lens. She piles screen upon screen between herself and her viewer like layers of make-up, daring us to feel any sort of connection with her.