While playing '70s rocker Cherie Currie in 'The Runaways,'Dakota Fanning shot scenes where her character gets high, struts around a stage in a corset and stockings, has sex in a backstage dressing room and shares an intimate kiss with bandmate Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart). A few months later, Fanning turned 16.

Fanning has made a career of playing girls in extreme situations who have maturity thrust upon them early, from mothering mentally challenged dad Sean Penn when she was just 7 in 'I Am Sam,' to playing a 12-year-old rape victim in 'Hounddog,' to reenacting the excesses of 15-year-old rock star Currie in 'Runaways.' While critics have praised her talent and precocity for years, Fanning keeps pushing the shock envelope with each performance. With the release of her most extreme role yet, observers have been asking if Fanning has grown up too fast.

By all accounts, Fanning lives the normal life of a 16-year-old girl off-screen (well, as normal as can be for a girl who's been an A-list movie star for most of her short life): she loves horses and dogs and is a member of her high school cheerleading squad. Onscreen, however, she's faced one trauma after another, including kidnapping, rape, murder and alien invasion, in performances that elicit harrowing emotions while displaying the icy professional aplomb usually associated with much more experienced adult actors.

So the charge of exploitation is not new for Fanning, and she's always had the same answer: she's not a Method actress, she has no difficulty going to dark places while the camera's running and then returning to her sunny life at the end of the workday, and she knows the difference between on-screen pretending and reality. I interviewed her when she was 11 and promoting 'War of the Worlds,' and she displayed in person the same mix of childlike cheerfulness, preternatural precocity and mature understanding of the nature of her profession that she does in interviews today.

While promoting 'The Runaways,' Fanning has been asked many times whether she's not too young even to pretend to engage in the kinds of behavior shown in the film. (That the actress was the same age as Currie was when she started with the band doesn't seem like an excuse.) Fanning's response is always some variation on what she told Moviefone:
For me because people have seen me grow up since I was six, I think people feel like they own a part of me in a way. That's completely understandable because now I'm 16, so it's been 10 years from when I was a little girl. I'm not grown up yet but I'm a lot older, and I think sometimes people don't want to see you in certain positions. But you have to understand I'm an actress and I'm going to do all different things and it's not me personally. It's just a movie and it's just acting. I'm not too good to be in that position because so many young girls are in worse positions than what I could do in a movie.

Fanning gave a near-identical response to Movieline and said something similar to MTV: "Certainly, it was tough going to those places, but at the same time I don't know if it has to do with starting young, but for me I've always just gone there and then come back.... So, [depicting the sex and drugs] is not something that lives with me forever -- but the experience, and Cherie and Joan, and Kristen will live with me forever. The tough parts I'm able to just leave [on set], but those are the best parts and the parts I was most excited to do."

If anything, the oft-repeated question is more revealing than the actress's answer. 'The Runaways' is unapologetically about teenage girls who find a creative outlet to express their sexual desires, adolescent girls who are not mere objects onto which men (often considerably older) project their own desires. That's a subject our culture is just as conflicted about now as it was 35 years ago when the real Currie was a teen dancing in her lingerie and belting out 'Cherry Bomb.' On the one hand, we cling to the notion of teenage girlhood as the last moment of sexual innocence (even while we wink at and tacitly approve of teenage boys expressing their burgeoning sexual impulses). On the other hand, we've allowed teen girl sexuality to become a commodity that almost anyone can exploit in order to sell consumer goods (including, in the case of 'The Runaways,' movie tickets and recorded music) while hoping that our own sisters and daughters won't rush to sell themselves or give themselves away.

During the Runaways' late-'70s heyday, Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields were unnerving moviegoers by playing preteen prostitutes in 'Taxi Driver' and 'Pretty Baby,' respectively. Foster went on to co-star opposite Currie in 1980's 'Foxes,' a drama about a group of Southern California teenage girls who get in over their heads while exploring sex and drugs (sort of like the Runaways, without the guitars), with Foster playing the most responsible of the girls and Currie the most self-destructive. At the same time, Shields was making movies like 'The Blue Lagoon' and 'Endless Love' that capitalized on her nymphet sexuality. Yet both grew up to become successful, Ivy League-educated grown-up actresses and role models.

At another extreme, perhaps, is Drew Barrymore. Like Fanning, she got her start playing traumatized, precocious children in such films as 'E.T.,''Irreconcilable Differences,' and 'Firestarter.' Unlike Fanning, she really was growing up too fast and living a Currie-esque life of excess well before she turned 15. Maybe that's why no one batted an eye when, having cleaned herself up, the teenage Barrymore played a series of troublemaking Lolitas in such films as 'Poison Ivy,''Gun Crazy' and 'Boys on the Side.' As an adult, however, she became a bankable star and savvy producer of her own material while settling into a career of playing sweet, pure heroines looking for nice boys to settle down with; it was as if she was reliving the childhood innocence she never really got to experience (literally so, in the high school do-over comedy 'Never Been Kissed'). In retrospect, those 'Poison Ivy' roles seem not like her first screen stab at adult sexuality but a farewell to her scandalous youth, cannily exploited by the actress herself.

Then there are the cautionary tales, Disney-bred child stars like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan who couldn't wait to sell their teenage sexuality, and who became famous by courting public arousal and disapproval at the same time, but who were not mature enough (or adroit enough) to keep their balance atop the narrow platforms they'd built for themselves. Seemingly ready to follow in their footsteps is Miley Cyrus, who seems to be aching to burst out of the straitjacket she's been bound in by Disney, her parents and her audience, but who receives a public smackdown every time she's hinted at having grown-up sexual desires (from that ill-fated Vanity Fair photo shoot to her pole dance at last year's Teen Choice Awards). But grown-up behavior from her is inevitable (at least on-screen), as are the shock, disappointment and titillation that will greet her first real display of adult sexuality.

With Fanning, then, journalists' professed worry over her on-screen antics in 'The Runaways' is less a concern about her own exploitation (all signs seem to point to her growing up to be another Foster, not another Lohan) than about our own ambivalent reaction. We marvel at her talent and poise, yet we fret about her exploration of grown-up desire, not because we're worried about its adverse effects on her (or on 15-year-old girls who might watch 'The Runaways') but because we can't believe it's been so long since she was that wide-eyed moppet in 'I Am Sam,' and that we ourselves have aged so much in the meantime. If only she could stay young a little longer, maybe we could too.

A final thought: Fanning and Stewart are coming of age at a time when teen objectification isn't just for girls anymore. Exhibit A: their 'Twilight Saga' co-star Taylor Lautner, who seems game about being a passive object of desire for audiences consisting of girls his own age as well as women much older than he is, in a movie franchise built around teenage female sexual desire. Is equal-opportunity exploitation still just exploitation, or is it a perverse sign of progress?

categories Features, Hot Topic