Opinion: ‘Quiet on Set’ tells a harrowing but unsurprising tale of unchecked power

Jared Bashaw

Opinion Columnist

Content Warning: this story refers to sexual abuse of minors.

Gingerbread-man-style figures line the walk outside of the Nigh University Center. (JARED BASHAW/THE VISTA)

If you grew up religiously watching Nickelodeon shows as I did, then the ”Quiet on Set” docuseries released on Max last week was undoubtedly upsetting and hard to watch. I brought it up to my parents last weekend over coffee, asking if they had seen it. Obviously, neither of them had watched the Nickelodeon shows, but they knew that my siblings and I enjoyed them as kids, so they were invested in hearing about it. When I told my dad about the documentary, he made a comment that has stayed in my mind since.

I likened the main perpetrator Dan Schneider to Harvey Weinstein in the scale of his exploitation. After hearing about just how many predators worked on the production of these shows, my dad responded, “You know, that makes sense, because I would not be interested in a job where I am famous and working closely with a bunch of kids who look up to me all the time, but it does sound like a position that a predator would be thrilled at.”

What he’s actually getting at is a complex question related to power, and why we see this kind of pattern in Hollywood production over and over again. Are we surprised at the kind of people who are attracted to Hollywood jobs where you hold a position of power over multiple children? A quote from the documentary about Schneider states, “The power dynamic between adults and children is already extreme, then on top of that it’s an employment situation where he holds economic power over these kids. A lot of these children have parents who are economically dependent on them.”

Sadly, ”Quiet on Set” isn’t particularly surprising, it just made us aware of the extent of the abuse that many already knew was occurring. I mean, we’ve all at least heard of “iCarly” star Jennette McCurdy’s book ”I’m Glad My Mom Died,” which details how she was exploited by both her mother and Hollywood as a child. It also details how the so-called “responsible adults” in her vicinity forced her into compromising situations and constantly preyed upon desperate and powerless children. 

Maybe way back in 2017, you were a chronically online teen as I was, and you listened to the now massive artist Joji when he went by Pink Guy. In his edgy song ”Nickelodeon Girls” (disclaimer: it didn’t age well), he calls out Dan Schneider for being creepy toward kids. Or perhaps you just went back and rewatched your childhood shows as an adult and found yourself uncomfortable at some of the scenes in which these young teens were forced to act.

If you watch the documentary, you can see how often these weird scenes come up in shows like “iCarly,” where kids are literally stripping down on set and putting their bare feet up to the camera. As a kid, I didn’t have the context to picture a grown adult man on the other side of the camera directing the underage girls to do things that made them constantly feel uncomfortable and distressed, but seeing it recontextualized through the documentary is shocking. How did they get away with it for so long? Why did no one look into this sooner?

In the most shocking part of the documentary, Drake Bell gives an interview and publicly details how he was sexually assaulted by Nickelodeon producer Brian Peck, something he has never talked about publicly before. His father also gave testimony of red flags he noticed, that Bell’s attacker would often touch him around his waist or arms, but the studio had a rule that parents were not allowed on the set (which is an extremely sketchy rule to have for a show that stars kids). They prevented Drake’s father from watching over him, and later, no one seemed to think it odd that young Drake would often go alone to this man’s house and stay the night there. Brian Peck got sentenced to 16 months for assaulting Drake Bell, and then he went on to work on multiple movies involving kids for years after that: ”Bedtime Stories,” another from my childhood, and even coming close to being on ”The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.”

At UCO, you might have seen the “Stop Child Abuse” signs and blue ribbons in front of the daycare. It has cutouts of kids holding signs with statistics about abuse and details on how to help. One of them offers a solution via Public Health Policies, training, and child advocates. These are all approaches that require us to prioritize the health and wellbeing of children and require that we care. How do we structure power in a way that attracts the right people? There are plenty of morally upstanding people who would make great leaders and directors, but there’s a problem: They aren’t interested. It’s an unfortunate design flaw in the human psyche that the people who are most likely to abuse power, are usually the ones who seek power the hardest. We should obviously always scrutinize people who seek power, but how much more important is it when it involves power over those who have less of a voice, like power over children? I would say that most normal people would be able to make a TV show about teenagers and also not sexually assault any of the actors, but of course, the person who sought out that position did so with ill intentions, and they went unchecked.

A cardboard cut out of a person

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This sign brings four possible ways to prevent child abuse, including data collection and improved training. (JARED BASHAW/THE VISTA)

When we let those in charge do whatever they want without anyone even bothering to check their conduct, we should expect to see corruption go unpunished. The “public health approach” that this sign advocates for requires us to scrutinize our positions of power and search for accountability. The reasons for Schneider getting away with his behavior for decades are that the adults were not aware of what was happening — or worse, some of the parents would stay silent so that they could benefit from the exploitation. Only now that the victims have grown up and made that brave decision to speak out do we see progress. 

Moving forward, we shouldn’t assume that people’s intentions are innocent, and we need to hold those in power to a higher standard. This documentary was a case study that shows how corrupt people are allowed to abuse their power. We should watch powerful people’s actions more closely, and pay attention to stories like this even though it’s uncomfortable. The series isn’t finished yet and I will be watching as the rest comes out.

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