In a recent profile published by Vanity Fair, these are some the terms used to describe Mad Men's 14-year-old star, Kiernan Shipka: "Well-behaved." "Preternaturally mature." "Poised." "Self-possessed." "Your favorite precocious niece." And that's just what's in the first paragraph. By the end of the piece, Shipka is compared to an actress a decade older, complimented for her vocabulary, and called a "prodigy" by no less than the creator of the show she stars in, Matthew Weiner.
The same day as the Vanity Fair profile was released, a New York Times article on 17-year-old Chloe Grace Moretz, now starring in an off-Broadway show, was published. Although Moretz and Shipka are nothing alike on-screen, they seem closely linked on paper; with words like "poised," grounded," "mature," "centered and levelheaded" used to describe Moretz, the two profiles could've been talking about the same girl, and in a sense, they are. Although the actresses, three years apart, may play vastly different roles, they're bonded by one key characteristic: both girls are members of the Emma Watson generation.
For the last few decades, teenage actresses have generally had a bad reputation, thanks to child-stars-gone-bad like Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes. Their mentions in the press revolved around DUIs and mental breakdowns, drug-addled appearances and visits to the emergency room. Even the girls who managed to stay out of legal trouble took pride in acting out, taking on R-rated roles and performing very public stripteases. To these women, gaining Hollywood's respect meant ridding themselves of their prior, childlike image; a real star wasn't "polite" or "behaved." Instead, they were "mature," and that meant going wild.
Of course, not every female child star followed this path. Hilary Duff, for instance, grew out of her Lizzie McGuire days with no stops in jail or attacks on the paparazzi. At 26, she's still in the spotlight, and can safely say that she "made it." Her lasting fame, however, is only because audiences found her so likable. Like Mandy Moore or a pre-Spring Breakers Vanessa Hudgens, the teenage Duff cultivated an image for herself, one of a bubbly, cute girl who'd undoubtedly grow into a bubbly, cute adult, perfect for lighthearted roles and the occasional "serious" turn in an indie. The plan worked; Duff, like the others, is considered a child star success story. Unfortunately, just like for Moore and Hudgens, it was at the expense of her career.
Although these women may be talented, audiences don't know it. Their "who, me?" attitudes and constant on-camera smiles kept them from becoming serious stars, or even "real" actresses in the eyes of the media. It seems that in Hollywood, bubbly only goes so far; to be taken seriously, a teen actress now must put career first, cuteness second. A prime example? Emma Watson, the former Harry Potter star, who's gone on to diverse film roles, impressive acclaim, and international adoration, all while never hearing the word "bubbly" attached to her name.
Like Duff or Lohan, Watson began her Hollywood career as an adorable child star, an innocent 11-year-old who giggled at premieres and shied away from hugging her male co-stars on screen. As the years went on, however, Watson matured, growing into an elegant, gracious teen who wowed on red carpets and spewed feminist quotes in interviews. By Harry Potter's end, Watson was 21, a fashion icon and a talent to watch. Over the next few years, she took on increasingly bold projects, ranging from The Perks of Being a Wallflower to My Week With Marilyn. Meanwhile, she lobbied for films, modeled for Vogue, and attended an Ivy League college.
Watson is of a different mold than most former child stars. Like Hilary Duff, she exited adolescence without a note on her public record, but the way she did it was entirely unique. Although certainly likable, Watson forwent cuteness for respect; she earned her place in Hollywood's elite by putting acting first and choosing grace over giggles. Everything people like about her today — her intelligence, her maturity, her unfailing poise — is a result of that choice.
And now, other actresses are following suit. Young Hollywood is filled with teens who grew up watching Watson in Potter, and view her as the ultimate master of the child star-to-respected-actor transition. These girls wisely attempt to emulate Watson's career — as well as her fashion sense — and for the most part, they are succeeding. Kiernan Shipka, for instance, is already viewed as wise beyond her years, thanks to her risque, critic-loved role as Mad Men's Sally Draper. All those Young Artist awards, combined with her precocious red carpet sense, makes Shipka is first in line for the title of The Next Emma Watson. Presumably, that's an honor the teen views as a substantial achievement.
Similarly, Chloe Grace Moretz has garnered a "generally sterling reputation" in Hollywood for her skill and maturity, with directors from Soderbergh to Scorsese clamoring to work with her. At 17, Moretz has spent most of her adolescence in Hollywood's eyes, and she's making a seamless transition from child star to adult actor. The same can be said for Hailee Steinfeld, Saoirse Ronan, even Rookie editor/burgeoning actor Tavi Gevinson; these girls are calm, centered, and more concerned with fashion and feminism than partying and rebellion. They are closer relatives to Natalie Portman, Anna Paquin, and, most prominently, Emma Watson, than to Lindsay Lohan and Miley Cyrus.
What these girls want is respect, not likability. Often, the two become intertwined, but that's only a side effect of their drive and politeness. These actresses take their work seriously. They don't mess around. For them, success in Hollywood isn't given, but proven — and judging from the reception they've had so far, this attitude is working well. They're taking parts actresses twice their age would kill for, earning raves for each practiced performance, modeling clothes for designers who'd typically never want to dress girls barely out of braces. Elegant is in, and cute is out; Watson spearheaded the movement, but as shown by Shipka, Moretz, and the others, the idea that well-behaved women seldom make history is quickly becoming a thing of the past.