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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.