Millie Bobby Brown, 17, is an Emmy-nominated actress lauded for her performances in film and television. The "Stranger Things" star rose to fame at just 12 years old, and has spent the better part of her adolescence in the public eye. But while her childhood has been full of accolades, it has also been rife with media scrutiny, online bullying and repeated sexualization.
The latest affront involves TikTok star Hunter Ecimovic, 21, who claimed during a livestream this week that he’d sexually “groomed” Brown, making a series of lewd comments about the young actress and employing a term that sexual violence experts say describes behaviors perpetrators use to lay the groundwork for abuse.
USA TODAY was unable to identify a representative for Ecimovic, whose Instagram and Twitter accounts have been disabled. TikTok only allows direct messaging between friends.
It was an egregious violation, and given the age difference sparked outrage on social media in defense of Brown, who has previously opened up about the toll hypersexualization and online hate have taken on her life.
It's unclear if Brown and Ecimovic (who goes by Hunter Echo on TikTok and boasts 1.6 million followers) were ever in a relationship, though representatives for the actress called Ecimovic's remarks "dishonest," "offensive" and "hateful" and said they would move to take action against him rather than engage on social media.
Whether there's any truth to Ecimovic's claims, his livestream continues the trend of sexualizing a girl who until recently was considered under the age of consent in most states. At 13, Brown was put on W magazine's list of "Why TV Is Sexier Than Ever" and grown men online have frequently commented on her looks. A GQ profile from 2016 called her a "very grown-up child" and remarked on the appearance of her legs.
On social media, users lambasted Ecimovic for sexualizing a minor and condemned the public for its complicity in normalizing a culture that infuses young girls with adult sexuality while consequently punishing them for it.
"It's all the more disturbing because of the fact that she is so young and has been sexualized from such an early age," said Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. "When someone is experiencing that kind of far-reaching sexualization – by society, by the media – it takes away some of their power and agency in sexual relationships. They can't control the ways they've been sexualized and that may impact the way others treat them."
When Brown turned 16 last year, she posted a message on Instagram chiding the media and the public for years of mistreatment.
“The last few years haven't been easy, I'll admit that,” Brown wrote. “There are moments I get frustrated from the inaccuracy, inappropriate comments, sexualization and unnecessary insults that ultimately have resulted in pain and insecurity for me.”
A report by the American Psychological Association found the sexualization of girls can contribute to "body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, low self-esteem, depressive affect and even physical health problems in high-school-aged girls and in young women," as well as "a societal tolerance of sexual violence."
"Hypersexualization is considered the price girls and women have to pay for visibility," said Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies at UCLA. "It reinforces their positioning as sexual objects and makes their objectification feel natural and legitimate. If you need evidence of what's wrong with hypersexualization, just look at the disgraceful, disrespectful commentary levied at (Brown)."
Sexualization of girls is inescapable
The sexualization of girls and young women is pervasive, especially for those in the spotlight. In 2004, before Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen were about to turn 18, websites featured clocks counting down until they became "legal.” Natalie Portman, who was frequently sexualized in her early roles, shared at the Women’s March that “a countdown was started on my local radio show to my 18th birthday – euphemistically, the date that I would be legal to sleep with."
Portman noted on Dax Shepard’s “Armchair Expert” podcast in 2020 that "being sexualized as a child, I think, took away from my own sexuality, because it made me afraid."
Healthy sexuality, according to the APA, "is an important component of both physical and mental health, fosters intimacy, bonding and shared pleasure, and involves mutual respect between consenting partners."
Palumbo said the adultification and sexualization of girls and young women denies them agency.
"It's projected as a compliment – this is a sign of maturity that you are in some way set apart or different from other children and young women," she said. "This is the way that society traps girls and young women because then it is this bind of whether you are worthy enough of the status that we've given you, whether or not you even wanted it."
'Yeah, no, I groomed her'
In Ecimovic's livestream, he jokes about Brown, "Yeah, no, I groomed her," laughing with friends before talking explicitly about alleged sex acts between the two.
"The term grooming is often used in the context of child sexual abuse. To see it being used so flippantly is very disturbing," Palumbo said. "It's not talking about sexual experiences in a way that conveys mutuality and respect, but in a very degrading way that suggests it's normal or admirable to manipulate or court young women into sexual behaviors."
Williams said Ecimovic's comments are unsurprising. Men often attempt to promote their masculinity by speaking about women as sexual conquests.
Psychologists:'Traditional masculinity' harmful
"One thing you can say about this guy is that he's working from a very common script," Williams said. "The things that he said are the height of cliché. Everybody knows this is the way women have always been put down."
Doing better for girls in and out of the spotlight
Everyone has a role to play in preventing the hypersexualization of women and girls, experts say.
The media can be more careful about its representations (avoiding stories focusing on a young star's body or sexual appeal), adults can examine messages they're sending girls about their value (avoiding suggestions that male attention is an achievement), and girls and women themselves can fight what they're told to internalize (resisting the pressure to post only highly sexual images on social media).
And whenever someone hears a person speaking the way Ecimovic did about Brown, Williams said they have a responsibility to shut it down.
"Are you part of a social media group where this kind of talk happens? Have you ever just said, 'well, that's just my college buddy, that's just my cousin or my fraternity brother'? We have to call it out," Williams said. "Every single girl and woman in the world knows that we're one tweet away from rank humiliation."
If you are a survivor of sexual assault, RAINN offers support through the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE & online.rainn.org).