We’ve seen it happen with Britney and Christina and with dozens of other squeaky-clean pop princesses (most of them white, most promoted by that corporate juggernaut, Disney) when they reach a certain age. The pink sparkles disappear, the low-cut tops and pouts are trotted out, and the world is suddenly turned on, horrified, and perplexed.
But now it’s happening to Miley Cyrus, the former child star who has been arguably as big a celebrity as any in the bunch, and the first one to whom millions have tuned in every year from sweet kid to spunky preteen to endearingly tomboyish younger teen, and now to sexualized older adolescent in boots and hot-pants. Britney, Christina and their ilk vanished in the years between their stint in the Mickey Mouse Club and their reinvention as writhing seductresses with bellies bared, as though they’d been caterpillars in a cocoon. But we’ve seen young Miley go through every single one of her transformations in public–and face backlash when it appeared she was moving too fast.
As Tracie from Jezebel wrote, the real significance to this cultural moment is that distinct element of constant surveillance:
What we are witnessing now with Miley Cyrus is the first pop star—born after the publication of Madonna’s coffee table book Sex—to literally transition from childhood to adulthood in this new cultural climate and take hold of her sexuality by the crotch. It’s sort of monumental.
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The world has been waiting for this. It was only a matter of time before Cyrus and her team attempted to change gears and bring her to an adult audience–by emphasizing her sexuality. And it was inevitable that real and manufactured controversy would follow.
Within weeks of debuting her new, “adult” album this month Cyrus has been the focus of dozens and dozens of critiques, invasive photos, think-pieces and more. After possibly-explicit “upskirt” shots of the starlet were tweeted and printed, she’s been presented by many in the media as an innocent victim of child porn, because she’s months under the age of consent. On the other hand she’s been pilloried for wearing skimpy outfits–while having each new outfit be worthy of its own news story. She’s been legitimately criticized for using inappropriate racial motifs in her performances, but that issue–a potential teachable moment for the young woman and her fans–has been overshadowed by the former one, the issue of her attire and those awful adults who see said attire as an invitation to violate her.
The problem stems from a media climate that doesn’t know whether to treat teenagers, particularly teenage women, particularly white teenage women, like smaller replicas of grown women who should be monitored for dangerous sexuality, or sensitive virgins who need our protection. The fact is, teens are their own thing, in between kids and adults, and Cyrus is no exception. Teens are at a vital age to absorb lessons about sensitivity and empathy–they’re at a “me” stage but are socially and intellectually curious, and often can be outraged by injustice. But as a society we’re more hung up on the fact that some teenage girls enjoy wearing short-shorts or tank tops, or (gasp!) having sex than we are interested in helping teens enter the adult world mindful of how they treat others.
Tricia Romano at the Daily Beast points out that the arbitrary legal age of consent, and the focus on Cyrus’s own grownup behavior as justification for ignoring that boundary, ignore the reality of the young people around us.
But perhaps we are all skipping over the crux of the issue, considering that Miley Cyrus, at the tender age of 17, isn’t really all that tender—17.4 years is the “median age” for sexual intercourse in America, according to a 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation report. By then, “62 percent of 12th graders,” have had sex.
As a celebrity, Cyrus has become the focus for collective anxiety over young women and sex. I’m not the first to point out that Cyrus’ experimenting with revealing clothing, a tattoo, and a sexually curious rock’n’roll persona, is pretty standard stuff for a 17-year- old. It’s a mixture of rebellion and conformity that comes with the growing-up territory, and as such it’s neither particularly bold nor is it deserving of censure. Even the common refrain that Cyrus is betraying her young fans is easily swatted down by LA Times rock critic Ann Powers, who took her young daughter to the starlet’s recent show:
Sexual display and broad innuendo run rampant in the forest of images and references in which [my daughter] is growing up; that’s part of contemporary life, and my job as a mom is to help her navigate it while developing self-respect and good sense.
The only downside to the Miley brouhaha, at least in my opinion, is that our society’s collective freakout makes the kind of standard, leg-baring hypersexual persona Cyrus is adopting seem actually subversive despite its fairly normal rite-of-passage quality. The fact of the matter is that all our female pop stars seem to embrace variants on the same tired motif to keep themselves relevant, from Cyrus on one end to Jennifer Lopez and Madonna on the other: it’s all leotards and faux lesbian kisses and stomping onto stage belting a catchy dance tune, surrounded by a gaggle of gyrating dancers. It’s enough to make artists like Lady Gaga, who also wears a leotard, feigns those kisses, and has those dancers, seem genuinely groundbreaking. If such cookie-cutter displays didn’t still have the power to offend, artists wouldn’t keep relying on them to generate buzz–and there’d be more room for women in the pop/rock/hip-hop world to really innovate.
I have to wonder if male artists have more freedom to experiment with artistry and also flaunt their sexuality, the latter of which is certainly a cornerstone of the genre. There’s certainly at minimum, a double-standard at play. Even Miley Cyrus seems to think so.