It's a grand but unspoken Hollywood tradition: the child star grows up and becomes sexualized. Occasionally the initiative is seen to be taken by the actor— as in the case of Daniel "Harry Potter" Radcliffe, when he scandalized the entertainment world (or the hand-wringing parents of underaged Potter fans, in any case) by appearing nude (and buff) in the theatrical psycho-drama Equus. In his case this was seen as a healthy thing, a smart step by a serious actor trying to avoid being typecast in infantile roles. But Radcliffe is, was, a boy. It's a depressing fact that if you happen to be a girl, Hollywood will take care of the whole "growing up" thing for you. Except the name of the game here is not sexuality per se, but sexual objectification, and it seems to be an ironclad pre-requisite for all starlets hoping for mainstream glory.
The latest victim of this old script is Radcliffe's costar Emma Watson, a young girl we have watched grow into a young woman through the course of the Potter films. I did a doubletake at a Manhattan magazine stand today when I glimpsed the cover of hipster rag Interview (above) out of the corner of my eye. Staring back at me with a dispassionate gaze was Ms. Watson, looking for all the world like a plastic blow-up doll. My immediate reaction was queasiness, similar to that reported by subjects of the infamous "Uncanny Valley" study, wherein it was discovered that an increase in the human likeliness of a doll or robot causes an increase in the apprehension and distress of the human viewer.
My second reaction was a sense of déja vu: I remember being nearly as creeped out when I read Roger Ebert's review of the second Harry Potter movie, wherein he described Watson as being in "the early stages of babehood"; at the time she was all of 11 or 12 years old. When a normally well-behaved and thoughtful writer like Ebert tosses such a disturbing bon mot, you know that the meme is almost hopelessly ingrained in moviemaking, and male movie-viewing, culture. Over and over the ritual is reenacted: Lisa Bonet, Drew Barrymore, Alyssa Milano, Scarlett Johansson. Early raves for a child's or precociously young actor's emotional range or resonance, then the steady drumbeat of questionable roles and/or increasingly suggestive magazine covers. Occasionally an actor navigates her sexuality with depth and an almost tactical creativity, as did Christina Ricci; she made smart choices so that her sexualized image always functioned as a shorthand for her unusual and challenging roles. But more typically, an uncompromising talent (i.e. Parker Posey) will fall by the wayside to be appreciated by ever smaller audiences for her efforts if she doesn't "fall into line."
It's not too late for Watson, though. Interview is offbeat enough to be a blip in an actor's career, and this issue is early enough in the season to be a vague memory by the time the next Potter is released. But the choices she makes now and in the immediate wake of the Potter series may very well determine whether she will be ultimately be known for her body of work, or just, well, her (toned/decrepit/buffed/doubled/ Photoshopped/objectified) body.