Miley Cyrus was just following the rules
The list of celebrities at the hub of this phenomenon is long: Madonna, Brooke Shields, Paris Hilton, Pamela Anderson, Britney Spears, Jamie Lynne Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Kim Kardashian, Vanessa Hudgens, Rob Lowe, Janet Jackson's ‘wardrobe malfunction' at the 2004 Super Bowl, the Hollywood Madame, Heidi Fleiss, and her black book, and Roman Polanski's 1977 dalliance with 13 year old Samantha Geimer. Now, there's Miley Cyrus.
Cyrus is the 15 year old star of the Disney Channel hit TV show Hannah Montana and is the role model for millions of 6 to 12 year old tween girls. She's also just appeared semi-nude in the current Vanity Fair. In the Annie Leibovitz photo, we see Cyrus's bare back, her front covered by a silk sheet as she looks over her shoulder with a come hither look, suggesting she either just woke-up from a nap or just, well, you can imagine it.
This controversy is more about the public's cultural naiveté and Cyrus' careerism than it is about morality.
We shouldn't be aghast that a 15 year old girl is sexualized for the mainstream, because a precedent has already been set both in low and high culture. On the low end, there was Brooke Shields' 1980s Calvin Klein ads --‘Nothing gets between me and my Calvins' -- and again, Calvin Klein, this time the company's infamous ‘kiddie porn' ads. On the high end, one of the twentieth century's so-called greatest novels, Lolita, is about a 50 year old man's affair with a 12 year old girl.
Sadly, representations of sexualized minors are accepted in the public domain. As Diana West discusses in her book, The Death of the Grown-Up, around the time of Elvis the Pelvis, the culture at large started changing with the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll ethos, climaxing in the anything goes ‘60s. Adults lost judgement about what was right and wrong, decent and appropriate for the public. Porn, dirty pictures and books have always been around, but at one time they were underground -- think of Ulysses and Lady Chatterly's Lover. If one wants to see pictures of naked teens, then that's a person's choice, but they shouldn't be able to satisfy their craving at their local newsstand.
But this is the reality. Ms. Cyrus is doing what is expected of her. And she's doing it knowingly. To think that she was tricked or preyed upon is naïve; worse, it makes her a victim. To think that a girl who's grown-up in the entertainment industry -- her father is Billy Ray Cyrus -- and not understand that industry's culture, especially that of child stars, such as Britney and Lindsay Lohan, is to believe she's an idiot. She reportedly earned $18.7 million in 2007 and she's just signed a contract for her autobiography. Naïve, stupid people are not that successful. While she obviously has very clever, ruthless people on her side, credit must also be given to Ms. Cyrus. Victims and dupes do not achieve her success. Smart, ambitious and talented people do. She may be a virgin, but in knowing how the world works, she lost her innocence a long time ago.
As a culture we need symbols of childhood innocence. Young girls need role models who provide an example of decency. Adults need such examples too, to counter our cynicism and restore belief in goodness. Miley Cyrus is not that symbol. Instead, she is a 15 year old girl, her childhood behind her, whose body is developing into a woman's body. So are her appetites, her mind and emotions. To continue to hold her up as a model of sweetness and light is to imprison her in a false and incongruous set of expectations that deny her, at least publicly, to live the life of a flesh and blood 15 year old girl. It's as if adults don't want to grow-up; we always want to be Toys ‘R Us kids, living a Disneyfied life, of sugar and everything nice, but no spice.
So, we buy into propositions of pop purity. It's naive. They never live up to their idealization. How can they and why should they? Think Britney, or Marianne Faithful before and after The Rolling Stones. Not only does the entertainment industry expect its young female performers to sell their sexuality, the public does too. Take sex out of rock ‘n roll and it's just ‘n. Take the sex out of pop and the ‘pop' of pop is popped, about as useful and engaging as a deflated balloon. At some point, Ms. Cyrus must stop being for the kids, otherwise she'll end-up in Dickie Roberts: Child Star II. How else is she going to navigate the rite of passage from child star to adult star other than to trade on her sexuality? To appeal to an older audience, she needs to be seen as sexually daring and risqué because as a culture we equate sexual knowingness and experience with adulthood. We think sex makes a work of art adult.
Ms. Cyrus is just following the dictates of the culture. Those dictates must change. In a culture where everything is sexual, is it unreasonable to think that smart, funny, talented and clothed women are just as, if not more provocative, and more enduring, than artsy versions of page 3 girls?