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Perspective: The Romeo and Juliet lawsuit raises a question: where were their parents?

There are few adults who care more about protecting a child’s mind from harmful images than parents

SHARE Perspective: The Romeo and Juliet lawsuit raises a question: where were their parents?

Alex Cochran, Deseret News

It’s been more than half a century, but these two are still pretty angry. Last month, Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, who starred in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet, filed suit against Paramount Pictures for making them film a nude scene when they were under age. The visuals are arguably pretty tame by modern standards, but there’s no doubt about what you’re seeing. 

Hussey was 15 and Whiting was 16 when the movie was filmed and they say they were assured by the director that they would be able to perform with flesh-colored garments. But then he pressured them to forgo the garments and even filmed parts of the scene without their knowledge or consent. Their lawyer, Solomon Gresen, said in an interview with Variety: “These were very young naive children in the ’60s who had no understanding of what was about to hit them. All of a sudden they were famous at a level they never expected, and in addition they were violated in a way they didn’t know how to deal with.”

Suing the movie company so many years after has garnered headlines for a reason. It’s not quite as shocking as Spencer Elden suing former Nirvana band members decades later for profiting off a picture of him as a naked baby that was used on an album cover. But unlike Elden, who it appears sought to profit off of his image before the suit, there is little reason to doubt that Hussey and Whiting suffered emotional distress at the time. Few teenagers, particularly in 1968, would have wanted their naked bodies splashed across the big screen, and there’s no question that Hollywood deserves scorn for how it’s so often sexualized teens — but the problem here is that neither Zeffirelli nor Paramount pictures were really the adults directly responsible for these two actors.

That’s what their parents were for. 

Again, there were clearly problems with the way Hollywood considered the sexualization of children and adolescents back then. Roman Polanski isn’t the only Hollywood figure from that era to rightly face a public reckoning during the #metoo movement. And since the 1960s and 1970s, the sexualization of young children on the silver screen has only continued apace in advertising and Hollywood, though the laws about contact between adults and minors are probably more universally acknowledged and enforced.

But some of the same attitudes that allowed Hussey and Whiting and Geimer to be victimized are still in place today. 

It has become common to assume that our children are protected by communities, that they should be raised by a village. An article in the New Yorker a couple of years ago touted the exciting growth of people living in communes. Author Nathan Heller describes Treehouse Hollywood, for example, as “a space for community living, where people of many ages and from many walks of life eat together, spend time together, and conduct their lives largely in common view.” The kids in these places are described as having a kind of large extended family. But that is not at all what is going on. The parents who place their kids in these situations don’t often know much about the other adults and trusting them to look out for your kids can be risky. 

The truth is that there are very few people who are going to be as invested as mothers and fathers in actually protecting their children. Sure, friends and neighbors might step in if they see a child in an obviously dangerous situation, running into traffic for example. But the idea that movie producers or directors (or other actors) can always be trusted to care about whether a child is being exploited is unwise at best, and perhaps a fantasy at worst.

In fact, a lot of adults these days are loath to get involved in any issue involving someone else’s child. What business is it of mine? Could I get sued if I intervene?

But the attitude that promotes suing Paramount is the same attitude we have to have toward media companies more generally. I applaud activists for fighting big, difficult battles. But if you win one, another will undoubtedly emerge since companies like Facebook and Instagram and TikTok want to make money. They want more eyeballs on their products. You can try to force them by law to keep young children off of their sites. You can try to make pornography harder for younger kids to access. And those are positive efforts.

But ultimately there are a few adults who actually care enough about protecting a child’s mind from harmful images. And those are the best ones we can really count on to help keep kids safe and healthy.