This week, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley posted a picture of himself with celebrity heiress Paris Hilton. “Met w Paris Hilton to discuss how we can stop the abuse of children in residential care facilities,” he tweeted.
If your immediate impulse is to laugh or scoff, you're not alone. Hilton has long been a pop-cultural symbol of vapid privilege as a thin, blonde, very wealthy female celebrity. Many would-be jokesters thought it was funny that Grassley would be consulting her on child abuse. You can see the attempts at humor in the quote tweets. “Govt abuse of children has gotten so out of hand they decided to get serious about it, & in typical govt fashion they sent an 88 yo dinosaur & Paris Hilton to address the problem” is one typical response.
If any of the wits had googled for five seconds, though, they would have discovered that Grassley was talking to Hilton because Hilton was abused in residential care facilities as a child. In her painful account in the Washington Post, she describes being kidnapped from her bed at her parent's behest, with no idea what was going on.
In the care facility, she was hit, insulted, forced to take meds against her will, spied on while naked, and thrown into solitary confinement in a room “where the walls were covered in scratch marks and bloodstains.” She wasn't able to speak openly to her parents. If she tried to report the abuse, her abusers would tell her parents she had lied and then punish her. “It was the most traumatizing experience I've ever went through in my life, and to this day, I have severe PTSD because of it,” she said in a video interview.”
Hilton's article is a sober, thoughtful argument for more oversight of an industry that regularly abuses and occasionally murders children for profit. But the internet, in its wisdom, chose to mock her for advocating against child abuse on the assumption that she had never suffered adversity. Part of the dismissal of Hilton is misogyny and shaming; attractive women (especially those whose sex tapes have been publicized) are not supposed to have either problems or ideas.
But part of the hostility to Hilton is because she is wealthy and has been wealthy from birth. Her net worth is estimated at around $300 million. As an heir to the Hilton fortune, she was born into a privilege that most people can barely dream of. How can she advocate for children when her wealth insulated her from many of the trials of childhood?
As Hilton's op-ed clarifies, though, wealthy children can also face abuse. In fact, the truth is that no child is exactly rich—children have no money. Even the most affluent child receives clothing, food, housing, and income only at the sufferance of their guardians or parents.
A parent's wealth and power are not exactly their child's wealth and power. This means that highly wealthy and influential parents can, in some situations, be more dangerous to their children than people with less power might be. That was the case for Paris Hilton; her family had the resources and the power to pay people to kidnap their daughter and house her in a facility where she was beaten, threatened, and tortured.
Hilton notes that young people in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems are often sent to congregate-care facilities; poor children and children of color are always very vulnerable to abuse. So are queer youth, who are more likely to face harassment, discrimination, and violence in congregate care facilities than are their straight peers.
Marginalized children are targets. But what's less understood is that children themselves, as children, are effectively marginalized in many ways. They are often stigmatized as trouble-makers. They are heavily policed and surveilled at school, at home, and everywhere else. And they are extremely vulnerable if the adults in their lives fail them or target them.
Hilton seems to have always had everything; her wealth and celebrity mark her as beyond the need for sympathy and beyond the capacity for harm. But even very powerful people have little power as children. Hilton knows that, so she's become an advocate for children of whatever background who end up in abusive facilities. Maybe if we listened to her, we would be less likely to rush to Twitter to laugh at victims of child abuse.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: Paris Hilton.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.