Willow Smith (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Willow Smith's "controversial" photo is anything but

An image of her with a shirtless pal grabs headlines -- and says volumes about our messy ideas about teens

Mary Elizabeth Williams
May 7, 2014 10:53PM (UTC)

Despite the headlines you may have seen Wednesday, the photo itself is anything but scandalous. Viewed through one lens, yes, it is a 13 year-old girl reclining in a bed with a shirtless 20 year-old man. Through another, it's just two pals lolling around. But when the girl is purportedly actress and singer Willow Smith—daughter of Will and Jada – the rush to report "Willow & Moises Arias Caught In Bed Together" was apparently irresistible.

There are two photos from the Tumblr of Moises Arias, a former costar on Disney's "Hannah Montana." One is of him sitting on a bed looking off to the side while a girl believed to be Smith rests near him. It's captioned "Simba & Nala." In another, entitled "Roar," she's in the same position but he's laughing. Perhaps they were taking in a "Lion King" viewing? Arias posted the pics on his Tumblr -- which is full of photos of his semi famous friends like "Ken & Ky" Jenner and Willow's brother Jaden -- last month, but it was when one them showed up Tuesday on his Instagram that the outrage began. (He has since deleted it from Instagram, though it remains on the Tumblr.)


There hasn't been an aspect of the photos – the bed, the age of the participants, the shirtlessness – that isn't a trigger for a flurry of media handwringing. Billboard and Us both called the photos "controversial," while CBS News reported that fans were "outraged" over them and the Daily News called them "suggestive." Hollywood Life, meanwhile, noted other photos of the Jaden and Willow from Coachella and tsk tsked, "They are both too young to be gallivanting around this festival that is known for hard partying."

Tied up in the whole shockhorror of what the photograph seems to imply is, of course, a whole heap of parenting judgment. Last year, Will Smith raised eyebrows after he told a British newspaper, "We generally don't believe in punishment." And Jada has echoed the sentiment, saying, "I'd rather have kids in my house with me, building out certain freedoms as you go, and being there with them in my house while they are exercising these certain freedom so that we can be in the process in these freedoms together." The relationship that I have with Willow is pure understanding. The thing I never try to make her feel is guilt. Whenever she makes a mistake, I never want her to feel bad or guilty about it. But I want her to remember how she feels and ask herself, 'Do you want to feel like that again?'"

I have an eighth grade daughter of my own, and I know it's a strangely in-between time. Two ten year-olds lounging like Simba and Nala wouldn't be considered unusual at all, nor would two eighteen-year olds. But put a 13 year-old just about anywhere in the world, and the tableaux becomes fraught. Does it always have to be that way? If that "controversial" photo had been of Smith and Arias sitting on a couch, would it have grabbed such attention? What if it had been of Smith reposing with a girl? What if Arias had put on a damn shirt? Does the fact that clearly there were other people in the room matter? What's the tipping point that takes a moment from friendly to not okay?


While I can't claim to account for my daughter's every moment, I have a pretty good sense from the pictures she and her friends take (The selfies. Oh God, all the selfies, all day long.) of what contemporary teenage life is like. The teens I know are gay and straight and questioning, they're friends with both boys and girls, and when they hang out, they're comfortable and close with each other. That type of behavior to me doesn't seem unusual or, as TMZ puts it, "creepy." What is a little more peculiar is why a 20 year-old would want to hang out with a 13 year-old, but even then, if you've got friends – and their siblings -- who are a range of ages, it's not that surprising.

Girls the same as my daughter and Willow Smith are actively trolled every day. They are photographed without their consent as they walk down the street. They are talked about and bullied and leered at online and off when they go to the beach or wear their summer clothes. So what's sad in all of this is the immediate assumption of something controversial or creepy in an image that is in no way salacious or even attempting to be. It's not revealing; it's not graphic; the two parties involved aren't even touching. Yet give people a chance to get the vapors over a 13 year-old "in bed" with an older male, and the media's all over it. That is what I find creepy. And if there's anything inappropriate in all of this, Smith and Arias are the least of it.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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