Watching Kid 90, the new Hulu documentary about child stardom during the ‘90s, is an exercise in reckoning with the relativity of normal, one that asks you to remember in real time how dehumanizing the hypervisibility of fame can be. What is supposed to be a viewing experience in which the audience witnesses the humanity of a particular group of people becomes a mind game in recalibrating what authentic childhood experiences even look like. To empathize with the neuroses and inner lives of these famous now-adults, you have to remove the threshold between celebrity and pedestrian—you have to compartmentalize the obvious distancing elements of fame.
At one point Punky Brewster star Soleil Moon Frye—the film’s director, producer and star—discusses her young crushes on Mark Wahlberg and Charlie Sheen, both of whom left messages for her on her answering machine. The reflex to spectacularize Frye’s girlhood crushes and the people she had them on are strong because tabloids and press culture make Wahlberg and Sheen out to be larger-than-life figures and not former teen boys one might imagine simply flirting with girls their age. The reflex distances Frye—it sequesters her to this othered mental space that undercuts her effort to find a commonality of experience.
But this was Frye’s normal, growing up and hanging out with other industry kids. Through home video footage and contemporary interviews with Frye’s fellow former teen star friends, we are given selective access to a slice of her past—her normal. In this way, Kid 90 successfully communicates how perilous and pleasurable early fame can be. Its anecdotal nature personalizes the film and tries to dissolve the distancing agent of celebrity. Its refrain is simple: That these famous kids were also just kids. Despite the resonance of that message, I found that the framing and context of the documentary were more impactful than the actual anecdotes shared by interviewees. It is not that these anecdotes were uncompelling, rather the concept of celebrity itself is so mind-warping that as these people attempted to talk about their youth, I found myself asking if I believed them—if it all felt like a performance.
My skepticism was not a result of Frye’s filmmaking, but rather a consequence of the way celebrity culture conditions people to question the authenticity of famous people at all times. Because actors and musicians are characterized as conduits of entertainment, it becomes a reflex to always equivocate them with some level of performativity. Being deified for your talents (or at least notoriety) makes celebrities seem less like human beings and more like ideas. This deification is an alienating disservice perpetuated by some enthusiastic celebrity participants, others who accept that the burden of celebrity sometimes accompanies work in the entertainment world and wise-ass culture writers like me who hypocritically perpetuate celebrity culture by writing pensive essays about its very existence.
Celebrity is so engulfing that when people like Frye earnestly aim to demystify their own lived experiences and connect with others using their admittedly exclusive platform, it can be challenging to receive these stories with abandon—to resist the urge to gauge how real they seem. How does a celebrity make a movie about celebrity without perpetuating the very dynamic they examine? Most people don’t have their life stories executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, you know? Thus the mental exercise rears its head again. Frye’s position is undeniably one marked by power and access. That fact shouldn’t wholly disqualify her from the domain of her fellow humans, even if receiving her outside of the gaze of celebrity demands an adjustment period that, for me, lasted for all of Kid 90’s runtime.
The bifurcation of the famous and the pedestrian positions the non-famous as others, spectators, in a way that reductively deems celebrities more attention-worthy or important because, well, they’re celebrities. This is dangerous because people falsely internalize the idea that fame is some credible, legitimate indicator of virtue. It suggests that fame publicly and inherently confirms a person’s worthiness.
This framework places immense pressure on famous people to reify the ideas that they become in other people’s minds, to comply with that persona, to maintain attention and relevance in order to work. They are stripped of the freedoms of anonymity—all while stuck in something that perpetuates the fallacy that fame is something worth aspiring for at all. Basically, celebrity culture is weird especially when those celebrities try to make relatable films about themselves. We’ve normalized a twisted sort of voyeurism and unfettered access that renders famous people as superhuman, and therefore non-human. As a media-obsessed collective, we should find a way to compassionately perceive all people outside of the limiting lens of “image,” so that when people in Frye’s position make the case for their own humanity, the impulse is not to scrutinize these cases for their believability but to merely take them or leave them—as we do with anyone else’s.
Kid 90 helped me understand that the access people have to being perceived—their subjection to being witnessed by other people versus by a capital-A Audience—drastically shapes their relationship to their own humanity. People across social statuses are worthy of being understood, even though context remains vital when assessing how a person like Frye has the resources to craft a distinct social persona. And even then, Frye isn’t the problem with Kid 90, the parasitic symbiosis of celebrity is. No matter how hard you try from the inside, the mythos of celebrity continues to obfuscate the line between being seen and being gawked at; the line between brandishing one’s personhood and making one’s personhood a brand.
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna.