Making sense of Miley madness

Why did a photograph of a 15-year-old Disney star’s back cause a global storm of controversy?

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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A photograph of Miley Cyrus, the 15-year-old star of Disney hit series Hannah Montana, has been splashed all over the internet and in newspapers across the world this week. It shows the teenager wrapped in a satin sheet, revealing her bare back and shoulders. Her hair is messy and her lips are smudged with red lipstick. Cyrus says she is embarrassed about the picture; Disney claims she was manipulated by the photographer. Commentators have deconstructed the photograph in great detail, arguing over whether it is lewd or artistic. Outraged parents have condemned Cyrus’ mum and dad as irresponsible, reportedly threatening to hold bonfire parties to burn Hannah Montana merchandise.

Miley Cyrus as photographed
by Annie Leibowitz

Cyrus initially thought the portrait was ‘pretty and natural’ and ‘really artsy’, yet many others claim the photograph shows a postcoital child, and they seem unable to take their minds off what is – or, rather, what isn’t – under that sheet. The photograph was taken by the acclaimed photographer Annie Leibowitz for the June issue of Vanity Fair. She has defended it as ‘a simple, classic portrait, shot with very little make-up’. It is, says Leibowitz, ‘very beautiful’.

But the big issue at stake here is not the line between commercial photography and art, but the blurring line between childhood and adulthood. In discussions and rows around the sexualisation of children, fingers are often pointed at the fashion industry, the media and large corporations who put commercial interests before the welfare of children. In the current furore, everyone from Leibowitz to Cyrus’ parents and Disney have been blamed for taking advantage of the 15-year-old, who is said to be headed the same way as previous Disney stars Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. That is, straight to rehab.

But in the frequent rows around the destruction of childhood, we see reflected anxieties that are prevalent in society at large – around sex, safety, consumerism and the effects of the media. When projected on to children, these concerns are magnified and, ironically, controversies around the sexualisation of childhood themselves end up sexualising often innocent images and blurring the distinction between childhood and adulthood further.

At the same time, the notions of vulnerability and powerlessness have become less childlike in recent years as they have extended to the adult world. Widespread elevation of victimhood, combined with a strong cultural currency of pre-adulthood, means that it’s not simply the case that children are being pressured to mature quicker, but that adults are having a hard time growing up. Adulthood is now also riddled with anxiety or derided as tantamount to stagnation, whereas childhood is elevated as a pure, authentic or uncorrupted state.

As for Cyrus, Leibowitz’ shot may be suggestive, but it’s not as if the teen star hasn’t bared body parts before. And in her Disney TV series, which is aimed at the ‘tween’ market, she lives a double life as the average high-school girl Miley Stewart by day and ‘hot’ pop star Hannah Montana by night. Cyrus herself has now, predictably, acknowledged the errors of her ways: ‘I took part in the photo-shoot that was supposed to be “artistic” and now seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed… I never intended for any of this to happen and I apologise to my fans who I care so deeply about.’ Leibowitz has said that she and Cyrus discussed the shot before going ahead with it, and it has been pointed out that Cyrus’ father, Billy Ray Cyrus, the country singer-songwriter of such hits as ‘Achy Breaky Heart’, was present at the photo-shoot.

Despite claiming the moral highground in this row, Disney has of course opened itself up to criticisms of hypocrisy. Apparently sensing a backlash to the carefully constructed image of Miley Cyrus as the churchgoing, prim girl next door, Disney has slammed Vanity Fair for manipulating an innocent 15-year-old. To such low depths is the magazine apparently willing to sink in order to make copies fly off the shelves (and they most probably will now). But Disney knows that pretty girls boost television show ratings, and it doesn’t hesitate to dress Hannah Montana up as a nocturnal, short-skirted teen sensation.

And for all the outrage among parents, bloggers and media commentators about the abuse apparently suffered by the young Cyrus at the hands of Leibowitz, the relentless denouncement of her decision to dress up in a sheet that reveals nothing but a few inches of her back, is a bigger insult to the young girl who, understandably, was very excited about the prospect of being photographed by the celebs’ portrayer of choice, and to appear in the prestigious Vanity Fair.

Much of the debate in the past week has centred on whether or not Cyrus’ satin sheet faux pas makes her a dangerous role model for young girls. But why should the star of a Disney show be seen as a role model in the first place? Disney creates fantasies in the form of animated dreamscapes, anthropomorphic adventures and sickly sweet morality tales with glitter-laced happy endings. Perhaps adults shouldn’t rely so much on the star of an artificial teen franchise to dish out moral lessons to children.

Kids admiring pop culture figures and being in a hurry to grow up are not new, but today grown-up society itself seems unconfident about maturity, resilience and other behaviour that has for a long time been seen as Adult. Perhaps if we focus on addressing this issue, rather than obsessing about the possibility of a few inches of bare 15-year-old skin corrupting a generation of young girls, the kids will be all right after all.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nancy McDermott thought Annie Leibowitz reveals her subjects’ humanity. Nathalie Rothschild viewed Leibowitz as more than a celebrity snapper, and pointed out the dangers of censoring photos of children. When the BBC pulled a drama about a teenage suicide, Tim Black argued that this showed the authorities’ lack of faith in young people. Frank Furedi explored the phenomenon of children who won’t grow up. Or read more at spiked issue Modern life.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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