Trends: Jennette McCurdy’s memoir revives conversations about child entertainment industry horrors

McCurdy’s memoir reveals the traumas she endured as a child actor at Nickelodeon, reviving discourses surrounding child abuse in the acting industry.

by Shaphnah Mckenzie | 9/26/22 2:05am

jennette
by Lila Hovey / The Dartmouth

Jennette McCurdy’s memoir “I’m Glad My Mom Died,” released on Aug. 9, has made its way onto the bestseller table in bookstores — complete with a pink and yellow cover and a photo of the former “iCarly” star smiling with a pink urn. While the memoir’s title may present as a mere shock tactic, the title points to a fundamental truth: The death of her mother, Debra McCurdy, brought Jennette McCurdy peace. In writing the book, she said she has achieved a catharsis possible only in the absence of her mother, who disapproved of all her creative pursuits. With her mother dead, McCurdy is finally free to admit: “I absolutely prefer writing to acting. Through writing, I feel power for maybe the first time in my life.”  

“I’m Glad My Mom Died” tackles tough subjects — including eating disorders, as well as physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The memoir comes at a time when the #MeToo movement has encouraged women to share their stories to combat harassment. Furthermore, fans of McCurdy’s older work from their childhoods have now matured enough to grapple with these difficult topics. The memoir has revived an ongoing discourse about the dangers of the child entertainment industry, which has, in turn, set the stage for other child stars to come forward.

Allegations against Nickelodeon predate McCurdy’s 2022 memoir. Nickelodeon’s history of negligence seemed to have begun with Angelique Bates, another former child Nickelodeon star from the 1990s who appeared as a series regular in “All That” from 1992 to 1996. Bates has since shared her experiences — in 2016, she published a video in which she detailed her abuse by her mother on set: “I was physically, mentally, emotionally abused in front of the producers and cast members and sometimes they could even hear me yelling, but nothing was done to help me until. . . [Child Protective Services] was called.” Many, including Tyisha Hampton — ex-wife of former Nickelodeon star Kel Mitchells — and McCurdy in her memoir, have claimed that young actors on the set of “All That” were provided alcohol.

Coverage of the memoir by mainstream media outlets has reinvigorated discussion about dangerous work environments for child stars, with Nickelodeon as the paramount example of an unsafe space for young actors. McCurdy’s memoir showcases some of the ways in which parental abuse works in tandem with the abuse of power by adults in the industry, often creating lasting psychological scars. McCurdy said her mother was emotionally manipulative and would guilt Jennette into continuing an acting career she despised, as well as encouraging her to restrict calories. No one intervened, even as Jennette suffered through anorexia and bulimia. 

McCurdy most often focuses on someone she refers to only as “The Creator,” though some readers have used descriptions to point to Dan Schneider, long-time producer of millennial and Gen Z childhood classics like “Zoey 101,” “Victorious” and, of course, “iCarly.” McCurdy’s memoir ultimately reveals the dark reality of securing a spin-off show from The Creator, depicting an egotistical and manipulative Schneider as constantly lauding his power to make or break a child’s career while subtly pitting actors against each other. 

According to McCurdy, the elevation of an actor’s career was contingent on their obedience and deference to Schneider; McCurdy wrote that she felt “on edge, desperate to please, terrified of stepping out of line” after Schneider promised McCurdy her own spin-off show after iCarly. McCurdy’s mother encouraged her to maintain a mask, never expressing discomfort or disapproval. Following her mother’s instructions, McCurdy showed no hint of distress, even as Schneider “coaxed” her into tasting alcohol and “caressed” her knee.

McCurdy’s memoir has had massive ripple effects. In August 2022, fellow Nickelodeon star Alexa Nikolas, who played Nicole Bristow on “Zoey 101,” staged a protest outside the Nickelodeon headquarters. A video of the protest posted to Instagram shows her holding a sign that reads “Nickelodeon didn’t protect me. ” Nikolas relates to McCurdy’s experience, reflecting, “[Schneider] played a huge role in my personal childhood trauma. I did not feel safe around Dan Schneider while I was working at Nickelodeon.” 

In one chapter of the memoir, McCurdy wrote that she recalled having to endure the discomfort of a bikini photoshoot on the set of “iCarly.” Feeling exposed and over-sexualized, she asked the wardrobe designer if she “could please just try on one-pieces with board shorts,” to which the wardrobe designer replied that “The Creator explicitly asked for bikinis.” 

McCurdy does not seem to be alone in feeling that Schneider’s wardrobe choices were inappropriate. Daniella Monet, who infamously played Trina in “Victorious,” told Business Insider in Oct. 2019 that she felt that many of the show’s costumes were “not age appropriate” for her and her fellow actresses and that she “wouldn’t even wear some of that today as an adult.” Monet also said she wished “certain things. . . didn’t have to be so sexualized,” mostly referring to a scene in “Victorious” where her character eats a pickle while sprawled on the couch, reapplying lipstick in between bites. 

Even after Monet had expressed her discomfort over the sexual suggestiveness of the scene to the producers, Nickelodeon still chose to air it. With video compilations of old episodes of “iCarly” and “Victorious” going viral since the pandemic, fans of both shows have also begun to question some of the blatantly sexual innuendos infused within episodes, seemingly providing further evidence of the perversion and power abuse McCurdy calls out in her memoir.

In 2018, Nickelodeon cut ties with Schneider following an inside investigation into his allegations of misconduct on sets at Nickelodeon. While the investigation supposedly yielded no evidence of sexual misconduct, it did find that Schneider was verbally abusive towards staff and actors on set, which is corroborated by McCurdy’s account: “I’ve seen The Creator make grown men and women cry with his insults and degradation.” 

Schneider has essentially been cast off of a sinking ship, as Nickelodeon’s Nielsen ratings, which tracks the engagement of entertainment,  have shown a strong downward trend since at least January 2017, falling from 1.3 million viewers per week to 372,000 in 2021 — a loss of over 71% of its viewership in just four years.

“I’m Glad My Mom Died” has reinvigorated the discourse surrounding the dangers present within the child entertainment industry, which has, in turn, inspired former child actors to join the conversation in solidarity with McCurdy. As social media continues to shed light on mistreatment in Hollywood, former child stars and their fans are calling for greater accountability from studios — not only to acknowledge the past misconduct of powerful producers, but to take actionable steps toward creating a safer environment for young actors and actresses.

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