Meghan O'Rourke chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.
Call me insensitive, but I didn't think that the supposedly "racy"photo of 'tween star Miley Cyrus holding a bedsheet around her bare torso was as outré as all the fuss made it out to be. Sure, Cyrus' hair is tousled in a sexual way, and she is, technically, topless. But from a less alarmist perspective, the photograph is—as Annie Leibovitz described it—highly classical. It focuses on the contrast between Cyrus' alabaster skin and dark hair, and it captures, in her vulnerable yet adult gaze, the strangeness of the transitional period known as adolescence. To be 15 is to be no longer a child, even if you are not yet an adult.
The most revealing picture in the article, though, was a photo of Cyrus sprawled atop her father, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus (of "Achy Breaky Heart" fame). Billy Ray looked quite at home—hell, even happy—with the fact that his young daughter was the subject of a Vanity Fair shoot and that he was along for the ride. Take one glance at the picture, and something clarifies itself. The issue here isn't the relative appropriateness of a 15-year-old being photographed draped in bedsheets but the degree to which Cyrus' parents and Disney have consigned Cyrus to the excruciating demands of being a thoroughly "packaged" 'tween star. Because if you turn on the Disney Channel and clock a little time with Hannah Montana, what you'll find is that the layers of self-presentation in the photos are nowhere near as weird as those in the showitself.
Hannah Montana is a sitcom, after all, built on the idea that the dilemmas of multimillion-dollar stardom are as relevant as the problems of Marcia Brady. Cyrus plays a girl ("Miley Stewart") plucked from obscurity in Tennessee to become a 'tweenybopper sensation ("Hannah Montana") in Malibu, Calif. Miley's father, Robby Ray (played by Cyrus' actual father), is determined to keep her head on straight, and the show's plots revolve coyly around the predicaments of being a real person and a celebrity at the same time. The fact that this appeals to kids is odd enough: Who knew that 9-year-olds (among the show's core audience) were enthralled by efforts to find a balance between life and career? As Disney's Web site describes it (ungrammatically), "While the glamour and the fame does have its perks[,] limousines cool clothes and hanging out with celebrities, Miley most wants to be treated like any other teenager."What's striking, though, is that we don't see all that much of Miley being a real person, going to school, riding the school bus. Instead, the show is really all about being a pop star. In one episode, Miley feels neglected because her father is writing a song for the Jonas Brothers (another huge teen sensation on and off the screen); in another, he's sick and she wants to go to Florida without him to perform at a big concert with her pop rival Michaela. (The moral of that episode? Dad needs to let his little pop princess grow up and travel with only a family friend as a chaperone.) The parental celebration of Hannah Montana's "clean" values misses the point. The show may not show much skin or make explicit sexual jokes, but it is lousy with a wised-up materialism.
Take an episode in which Hannah Montana realizes she hates the perfume she's about to become the spokeswoman for. She has to choose between keeping her integrity and keeping a convertible the perfume company sent her way. She makes the wrong choice, and finds herself having to lie on a TV talk show about loving the perfume. (The host replies, "I'm glad you're not one of those celebrities who goes out and pushes something you don't believe in.") One thing leads to another, and by the end of the show, she's backed out of her contract; we watch her wince goofily as the prized convertible (which she's too young to drive) is towed away. This is the way the show works: It teaches kids to understand their own experiences—about growing pains, about being honest with their parents, and so on—through the narrow lens of teen celebrity, rather than through broader storytelling. Once, sitcoms taught kids to be true to themselves by showing what happened when, say, Greg Brady thought about cheating on a test, or how Sandy and Bud's adventures with Flipper shaped their character. Hannah Montana instructs them in the proper etiquette of endorsement deals.
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.