Meghan O'Rourke chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.
Disney's gamble that kids would identify with the problems of fame paid off largely because even 9-year-olds today are obsessed with celebrity. But it also paid off because of the cleverest—and most insidious—thing about Hannah Montana: the way the show presents Miley Cyrus as just a normal girl who became a star by dint of talent and hard work. Each episode carefully maintains a kind of aw-shucks folksiness: Establishing shots of a Malibu beach house are contrasted with crude references to Uncle Earl in Tennessee stinking up his home after making three-bean chili. Billy Ray and Miley drop their g's and ape country dialect when it suits them, playing up the disparity between their hick sensibilities and their upscale surroundings. At the same time, though, Hannah Montana downplays the tolls our entertainment-obsessed culture takes on young stars, trading on the idea of having the best of both worlds: Miley Stewart is just an average kid living a normal life—and then the limo comes to pick her up, her brown hair turns blond, and she becomes glammed-up Hannah Montana. The show's theme song advises, "Chill it out/ Take it slow/ Then you rock out the show/ You get the best of both worlds"—implying that as long as you strive to be a "normal" girl like Miley Stewart some of the time, it's easy to be "pop sensation" Hannah Montana the rest of the time.
But Miley Cyrus has never had a "normal life" like Miley Stewart's. In fact, her entire life has been as managed and staged as a Disney production. Since she was a toddler, she has been surrounded by video cameras and immersed in the world of performance. (Her parents originally named her "Destiny Hope," for God's sake.) In other words, she has always been Hannah Montana, not Miley Stewart. The message of Hannah Montana, the show, is: You can be an ordinary kid and become famous—and still be an ordinary kid. The message of Miley Cyrus, the life, is: You can become famous if you are born into the right family and are willing to sacrifice any semblance of normalcy for your career. (Now, that would be a show worth watching.)
In this sense, the entire show is a canny celebration of pop culture masquerading as a story about hope and family life. What's most interesting about the scandal that erupted last week is that it's an example of the real dilemmas a 15-year-old celebrity has to navigate—one that will never make it into the plot lines of Hannah Montana. The squeaky-clean teen image that everyone keeps talking about was precisely that: an image created, managed, and assiduously maintained by Miley and her parents, at great cost to the product herself. Last December, another group of "racy" photos (of Cyrus and a friend at a sleepover) leaked to the press, and Cyrus spoke about how upset she was that her friend—a "normal" girl—had to deal with the harsh glare of the media. Asked how she felt about the scandal, she told one reporter, "I was really upset. It really sucks, to be honest. It was a friend of mine that's a normal girl and … the worst part is she has to go to school and deal with that crap. I have to deal with that anyways. I deal with it all the time." She does have to "deal" with it—and her word choice gets straight to the market-based heart of the issue.