Meghan O'Rourke discusses Hannah Montana and the Miley Cyrus photos.

Meghan O'Rourke discusses Hannah Montana and the Miley Cyrus photos.

Meghan O'Rourke discusses Hannah Montana and the Miley Cyrus photos.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
May 8 2008 5:46 PM

Don't Let Your Girls Grow Up To Be Child Stars

Meghan O'Rourke takes readers' questions about Hannah Montana and the Miley Cyrus photos.

Slate literary editor Meghan O'Rourke was online on Washingtonpost.com on May 8 to chat with readers about Miley Cyrus and the unreal lives of child stars. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Meghan O'Rourke: Hello everyone, and thanks so much for joining me here for a live chat.

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Waldorf, Md.: My 6-year-old daughter "loves" Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus. At first I was relieved that there was an actual celebrity that she could look up to—Miley seemed "normal." This made me realize that no celebrity is "normal." I'm not going to make my daughter stop watching the show (she hasn't seen any of the pictures) but now I don't think I like the fact that she looks up to her so much and wants to be just like her. I'm actually quite disappointed, because I did think she was different than the others (Lindsay Lohan, Paris, Mishca Barton etc....). However, there is one that I think really is different than the rest, and that is Hilary Duff. Too bad she's not on Disney anymore.

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Meghan O'Rourke: One of the striking things about the popularity of Hannah Montana is how broad the age range of its fans is. You say your daughter is 6 and loves it, and I know other 6 year olds who love it. But the show also appeals to 14 year olds (and Cyrus is 15). It seems to me that one of the complicated things about the "tween" category is just that—that at the high end of it, the stars and fans are starting to move into adolescence proper, but there are lots of 6 to 9 year olds watching the show, and observing the stars for cues about how to behave.

I think it's true that no celebrity today can live a "normal" life, however hard her parents work to give her one.

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Dallas: A question and a comment: Don't you think the photo "controversy" might have been invented by the Cyrus PR machine to generate interest in the article? Isn't it possible that the Cyruses weren't at all unhappy or embarrassed by the photos, but they saw an opportunity to make sure the whole world looked at them? And the Slate article describes Hannah Montana as a show about being normal, only it's not. I disagree. The show is a classic fairy tale, about a normal girl plucked from obscurity to become a princess—that's why kids love it. It's sort of like Harry Potter—a normal kid who finds out he's extraordinary. Wouldn't we all love to have that experience?

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Meghan O'Rourke: You're absolutely right that the show is a princess story—in an early draft of the Slate piece, I described it that way, and noted that of course Disney has always been in the business of selling princess stories, from its animated Cinderella on. But what's telling is that it's a particular kind of princess story (a Cinderella one), where there's a transformation of a "normal" girl into a "special" one. And what I was trying to get at in the piece is that the special gift that's bequeathed upon the modern-day princess is... celebrity. Not so much even talent. There have been other stories like this on TV—think even about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or, more analogously, Nancy Drew, who was enormously popular among girls precisely the age of those who watch Hannah Montana. But both Buffy and Nancy had gifts that had to do with talent and application, not with living in a milieu of advertising and performing on TV talk shows.

As for your interesting proposition that the Cyrus PR machine invented the controversy: Nothing would surprise me in this day and age. But I don't think they did invent it. They seemed genuinely surprised and I don't see the upside for them in alienating Disney at this point. It would make more sense if Cyrus were say 16 or 17 and ready to move on to adult roles. Still, you never know.

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Washington: I have many thoughts on this issue—one being that once again organizations who have a particular agenda to push are making a much bigger deal out of something which, at worst, is a slight mistake. I can understand the worry about younger children being influenced by this picture, but the picture is in Vanity Fair, a publication that is targeted to and should be read by adults.

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Do you think that the attempts by corporate America to keep these young teen starlets acting like children ultimately is hurting the starlets and their admirers? They should allow them to grow up at their own pace instead of trying to keep them at an artificial place in their lives (to sell more "widgets" the starlet is promoting).

Meghan O'Rourke: Certainly there are a lot of people and companies highly invested in Miley Cyrus—most notably, of course, Disney. In this case, though, it seems like it's parents on blogs who were most put off and upset by the photos in Vanity Fair, and not corporations. Of course, the media jumped all over the first grumblings, giving the story new life.

I do think it's very hard for starlets to grow up in the public eye; growing up is hard in any case, and must be even harder where you have on the one hand Disney telling you to keep your image "clean" and on the other the intuition that to stay successful as a young female actress you have to be sexy and attractive. And there's a conflict between those two pressures.

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New York: How many of Miley's fans would be aware of these photos if the media hadn't made such a stink about them? I mean, how many 12-year-old girls read Vanity Fair?

Meghan O'Rourke: Exactly—I was thinking a lot about that earlier this week. It's one of the great ironies of this whole "controversy." It's not as though the photos were published in Seventeen.

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Alexandria, Va.: In a world of Bratz dolls and Girlicious, parents have to be the ones their children look to. If you still are sitting your kids in front of the television and say "okay, pick someone you can admire," then you really need to spend more time with your children.

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Meghan O'Rourke: I'm sure that's true in many ways. But I also wonder—don't kids really like to have role models their own age (or, ideally, a little older)? I certainly did. But for me the models out there were people like Nancy Drew (also a very "clean" tween star, before "tween" was a category) or Laura Ingalls Wilder on Little House on the Prairie. You hit on something crucial when you say we live in a world of Bratz dolls and Girlicious. We certainly do. And entertainment and pop culture seem to be everywhere. I'm not sure how parents manage to monitor all of it.

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The "morning after" look: The issue with the Miley photo is not the level of skin (had she been photographed in a backless gown a la John Singer Sargent's paintings it would have been no big deal) but rather the implications of having just had sex: tousled hair, appearance of bedsheet, faint lipstick. America is just not okay with teen sexuality from someone marketed as "a good girl" role-model. Hence the freakout.

Meghan O'Rourke: That's true. The photo is at once highly classical and a bit sexually suggestive. (Mainly, it was the tousled hair, I thought, that really freaked people out.) And I tend to agree that Americans are not comfortable with suggestions of teen sexuality—especially female teen sexuality, and especially at that middle adolescent age range of 15. Since the show itself doesn't have that particular brand of sexual suggestiveness, it's not entirely clear to me why it matters if Cyrus (who is of course making a bit to become an enduring star) is photographed in a slight sexy way OUTSIDE of the show.

If the answer is that she's too cravenly pursuing a career by playing up her sexuality, then I just have to wonder whether people are watching the show closely, since the show is so full of coy participation in pop culture materialism.

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St. Mary's City, Md.: Certainly the handlers for underage teen celebrities deserve some of the blame, but I suggest the real problem is that many sick men are unhealthily attracted to these girls. The handlers may feed into that mindset, but they certainly didn't create it. During Britney Spears's heyday, it was obvious that a huge percentage of her "fans" were adult men who probably didn't care much about her music. The Olsen twins got this same type of disgusting attention. Is it fair to suggest that these men may have the same general psychological profile as the men who end up being grilled by Chris Hansen?

Meghan O'Rourke: I don't think that this particular controversy has a lot to do with older men being attracted to teen stars, though it does seem to have to do with our infatuation with youth, and the general sexualization of our culture.

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Honolulu: Could you comment on the content of the Thomas Huang piece published online May 5 by Poynter Online that gave the Miley Cyrus coverage serious journalistic analysis? This is the only serious analysis I have seen.

washingtonpost.com: Cyrus Story: Not Much Ado About Nothing(Poynter, May 5)

Meghan O'Rourke: I've only been able to skim the Huang story—I hadn't seen it before you brought it to my attention. It seems really thoughtful. I agree with him that the controversy is not much ado about nothing, and that's in part why I chose to write about it. The "tween" market is a huge, huge market these days (you can't imagine Vanity Fair having profiled, say, Alyssa Milano in quite this way back in the day). And as Huang says, the gender issues at stake—about how young girls transition into sexual adults—are fascinating.

Thanks for pointing it out.

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Washington: Help me out here! I looked at the photos of the teen star in question and they looked just like the usual, customary "glam photos" that high school kids typically take as jokes. I didn't perceive any really suggestive or over-the-top feature to them. What is the huge deal? Is this something causing more grief with the unemployables in Jesusland than with the actual markets near the coasts?

Meghan O'Rourke: I tend to agree with you —the photo of her alone is pretty classical, except that the tousled hair does seem to conjure up some post-coital imagery. I still think the one with her dad is creepy, but mostly for the way that it drives home just how much she's a vehicle for him to stay in the public eye.

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Washington: Who really cares about Miley Cyrus? She's no role model, just like Britney Spears is no role model. I think the press cares more than the average or above-average human being.

Meghan O'Rourke: I think you're right that the press has fed this story and kept it alive. But I also know a number of 6-to-12-year-old girls who are obsessed with Hannah Montana.

This gets to another element of the story, which is the scrutiny parents now pay to so many elements of childrearing. The controversy started with mothers blogging about the photos, as I understand it.

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Bethesda, Md.: Your article was my favorite of all the stories on the photos—I was thinking much the same thing. I'm amazed that the professional handwringers came out crying "exploitation!" because of a photo of her bare back. The only thing that's notable about showing her back is that it's her back that has borne her father's achy-breaky ambitions of stardom for the past five years.

Meghan O'Rourke: Thank you—I'm really glad you liked the article. While I agree with a number of posters here that the "controversy" was fed by the media, I do think that the discomfort many parents felt touches on some larger cultural issues that are pretty fascinating. One of them being celebrity ambition, and how children of celebrities fare.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is it just me, or does this whole controversy about the Miley Cyrus photo shoot seem a mite ... manufactured? I mean, it's not like she flashed the world on Facebook or something.

Meghan O'Rourke: As I said earlier, there is a way in which it is. But it also seems to touch on submerged tensions in our culture about teen sexuality, the popularity of the tween market, and so on. It's funny to me that this photo was such a big deal, though.

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Easton, Md.: Thank you for this piece—you nailed it! I just wish it could be published in some teen magazines where girls might read it. Even my 13-year-old has begun to realize that Hannah Montana's "messages" are more disingenuous than wholesome. As for the regrets and apologies expressed by Miley and her entourage for the Vanity Fair photo, as the saying goes, it's easier to ask forgiveness than beg permission. (And hello, any parent who's thinking about having their daughter "shot" by Leibowitz can look at the famed photographer's celeb portraits and see that, ahem, "provocative" may be a polite word for the end result.) In any case, Disney (and Billy Ray) should milk Miley for all she's presently worth, because unless her singing and acting skills improve (along with the material that's chosen for her), her star may be slipping toward the horizon before she's old enough to vote. Thanks again.

Meghan O'Rourke: Thank you! I'm glad you liked the piece, and especially glad to know that someone with a 13-year-old felt it nailed some of the issues. I did talk to a few kids who watched the show and wish I'd been able to talk to more.

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Parents: I'm a 27-year-old woman and am sick and tired of little girls wearing the same clothes as me or carrying cell phones and Gucci bags or wearing lipstick or have dyed hair. Parents need to step it up—saying no is okay. I swear, my kid will never wear a T-shirt that says "ditch the loser" or "your boyfriend is a good kisser." My child will never have a Bratz doll. And if my kid hates me, so be it. Why not just give your kid a bottle of vodka and some ecstasy ... then they really can be cool.

Meghan O'Rourke: Saying no certainly should be OK. And I confess that why any teenager would need a Gucci bag is beyond me. At that age, I could barely hold on to my fingers, let alone something not attached to my body.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: I still don't see what the big issue is—it's a beautiful picture. There is nothing sexual about it. I'm an thirtysomething woman and have no problem with it. People are making too much over nothing.

Meghan O'Rourke: It's interesting to see how different the responses are. I tend to think the photo is not all that sexual. Except, as I said earlier, perhaps the hair...

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Madison, Wis.: I'm a 30-year-old single female with no kids and no television, so for the longest time I had no idea who or what "Hannah Montana" was, besides hearing the name occasionally. I knew it was some kind of television show involving a young girl, but judging on the name alone I pictured it as being a very innocent show about a freckle-faced young girl growing up in rural Montana, sort of a modern-day Little House on the Praire.

Boy was it a shock when I eventually saw a clip of the show (actually, that's the only clip I've ever seen) in which Hannah Montana was all bedecked in sequined pants and way too much makeup, pushing her way into a posh Los Angeles restaurant, gabbing cattily with a young friend. Maybe I'm hopelessly out of touch, but why aren't there shows like the one I imagined, like the ones I watched and loved growing up (a whopping 20 years ago) like Little House and Anne of Green Gables? Or are there, and kids just don't like them anymore?

Meghan O'Rourke: That was exactly how I felt when I saw the show—horrified and taken aback by the tube tops and stovepipe jeans and general lipglossed ethos. It made me wonder if I'd grown up and become a cultural conservative overnight. I don't have kids, so I don't know whether there are shows like Little House on the Prairie or whether kids like them; I think there must be, but I haven't encountered them.

Interestingly, Hannah Montana's ratings have slipped dramatically over the past year, apparently.

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Washington: I can understand why this photo shoot became news, but why is it still news. Why does this thing have legs? Are we all that bored of Obama and Clinton?

Meghan O'Rourke: Alas, I guess Miley Cyrus is more entertaining than the gas tax. Or Myanmar.

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McLean, Va.: This whole thing reminds me a bit of this huge kerfuffle years ago when the young actor who was on the preschool show Blue's Clues dared to do a guest shot on an late-night crime show. Many parents were enraged. So I think the take-away lesson here is that parents are extremely touchy when actors in kid shows step out of character.

Meghan O'Rourke: Boy, they do seem to be, don't they? I guess it's true that we live in the age of the so-called "helicopter parent," hovering nervously and observing everything their kid does. Given how much junk there is out there, I do understand why (and given the real threats of the Internet). But some perspective also seems in order.

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Baltimore: I am wondering, how is this episode with Miley Cyrus any different from what goes on everyday, and doesn't raise an eyebrow? Magazines like Seventeen, for example, are full of articles and tips on sex and female sex appeal. Movies also often portray this—remember American Beauty (late '90s). Strangely, the public outcry back then was nowhere near what it is now. What gives?

Meghan O'Rourke: Yes, it's not that different from what goes on every day. Except in one regard: Miley Cyrus makes a lot of money for Disney because she is the star of a show celebrated for its "clean" values. So if parents get upset by her actions, Disney starts to worry—and the episode becomes a story, because everyone wonders whether the Hannah Montana financial juggernaut will crash and burn.

In a sense, this is really a story about money.

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Richmond, Va.: I might believe the Cyruses were surprised if they were regular folks with a star daughter, but her dad is a celebrity and knows that world.

Meghan O'Rourke: Absolutely true. And they did see the pictures. I just think they underestimated the response.

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Arlington, Va.: My 9-year-old goddaughter and all of her friends know about the controversy and, strangely enough, now refuse to wear their Hannah Tees. The Cyrus family may have the long-range in mind, but it sure turned off a lot of girls who bought a lot of Hannah stuff.

Meghan O'Rourke: Interesting; I've heard similar anecdotes over the past week. That's why I tend to think they miscalculated here—and genuinely didn't realize what a controversy this would become. The show's rating are tanking too, according to some things I've read.

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Concord, N.H.: Miley has started the morphing into a more adult, glamorous young woman already. She wore that slick, floor-length red gown to an awards ceremony. It looked way too old for her in some ways, but strangely not in others. She probably has seen and done more than most adults. I find it funny and a little sad that Ellen Page dresses more in the way you'd want to see from a child star than a 15-year-old does.

Part of this is Miley's willing exploration into her sexuality—she has half-naked pics of her with that non-celeb friend. She wrote that off as stuff teenage girls do, but that's more of what teenage girls do now, largely because of the constant messages in the media that girls should be sexy. That isn't what we did when I was a teenager, some 20 years ago.

And as a young girl, it was the Nancy Drews, Trixie Beldens, etc., who were my role models, because they used their brains to get ahead and didn't traffic in a Lolita appeal. They were growing up but still felt safe. The message now is, do what you have to do for 15 minutes of fame—because that's so important—and if all else fails try taking off your clothes.

Meghan O'Rourke: One thing that seems sad to me about the photos is not the photos themselves and whether or not they're "appropriate" but the fact that Cyrus is such a money-maker that everything she now does is "managed" in some sense. And for better or for worse the whole thrust of adolescence ought to be about finding your own way. You take awkward steps, and make tons of mistakes—but usually they're your own ones, and they're in front of a small group, not millions of people.

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Meghan O'Rourke: It's 4 PM and I've got to sign out, but I want to thank everyone for sharing their insights and astute questions. Thanks again.