When the Miley brand crosses over
By Mary McNamara
Los Angeles Times
This is what happens when you take a 15-year-old girl and try to turn her into Mickey Mouse.
Just days after trying to do damage control about candid Internet photos of Disney superstar Miley Cyrus showing her bra and generally vamping for the camera, the Cyrus family and Disney executives are screaming bloody murder about photos accompanying a piece about Cyrus in this month’s Vanity Fair.
Taken by Annie Leibovitz (who else?), they are standard VF pouty pictures of an ingenue ó in one, Cyrus is draped over her father’s lap, holding his hand while her hips are canted suggestively toward the camera; in the other she appears naked, holding up a requisite bed sheet and looking over her shoulder through a tangle of hair.
The only thing that separates these shots from the millions of sexualized portraits the magazine has run of starlets are the visible goose bumps on Cyrus’ arm in the bed sheet shot, and that she is the 15-year-old star of the Disney Channel’s runaway hit “Hannah Montana.” Meanwhile, the story that runs with it (story? Is anyone really going to read the story?) dutifully follows the template of every article about Cyrus (including one last summer by me). Which is: Like her alter ego, Miley Stewart (who is also rock star Hannah Montana), Miley Cyrus is a surprisingly normal teenager who just happens to be a multimillion-dollar industry. The photos, the story acknowledges, are just a “baby step” toward the next stage in her career.
Which clearly will involve stripping.
OK, sorry, couldn’t resist. They are hard photos to look at, so humor comes in handy. Hard not because they are so sexual ó she’s 15, she’s entitled to a little sexuality ó but because the whole package, story and photos, was so inevitable. Disney is blaming Vanity Fair and Leibovitz for manipulating a 15-year-old into agreeing to poses that were not appropriate. As if no one in the Disney infrastructure or the Cyrus family had ever picked up Vanity Fair before. They should just be thanking their lucky stars Cyrus wasn’t wearing fish nets or splayed on top of a car.
Although Cyrus and her family certainly have been willing and hard-working participants in the creation of the “Hannah Montana” juggernaut, isn’t it a little late to be talking about manipulating, or at least marketing, a 15-year-old? And at that age ó or younger, as Cyrus was 13 when she signed on to be Hannah ó is there a difference between the two?
Now, I wasn’t at that photo shoot, but it is difficult to imagine Cyrus was there on her own. Vanity Fair says her parents/handlers were present during the entire shoot. Her dad was certainly standing right there. Why was he even in the photo? It was a story about her.
But then, Billy Ray Cyrus is always standing right there, on the red carpet with his daughter as his date, going to Appalachia with her for the “Idol Gives Back” episode. The public rarely, if ever, sees Cyrus’ mother. That’s her prerogative, of course, but it does create the image of a motherless girl who is more of a companion to her father than a child. Interestingly, while in the midst of the brouhaha over the Internet photos, Cyrus announced she was going to write an autobiography, which would center on her great relationship with her mom. Oh, right, she has a mom.
You know, it is hard to write those words, to seem cynical and a bit judgmental. So many of us find “Hannah Montana” a terrific show and Cyrus the perfect star for the tween set. And she does seem like a nice kid. But there’s no avoiding the fact that she is the latest figurehead for a company that, if it didn’t invent coldblooded mass marketing to children, it certainly perfected it.
Only they’ve never really done it with a real live girl.
It’s one thing to decide that Mickey needs an updated look or the princesses should be repackaged to expand the fan base and move more merchandise. (Disney recently tried to get everyone excited about Tinkerbell, but it didn’t work out, which is too bad because Tink is perfect for Vanity Fair.)
It’s another when you are dealing with an actual person, a child who is, as they say in all those sex-ed classes that are still controversial in this country, rapidly becoming a woman.
Miley/Hannah has been used to sell everything from bedsheets to karaoke machines. They put her on a tour schedule that would have killed anyone but Mick Jagger, who exchanged his body with an alien’s years ago. There’s even a Hannah doll, styled to look like Cyrus in her alter ego but with a standard Barbie-sized rack. (I can’t have been the only mother that kept trying to make sure the darn thing was clothed and kept separate from the general orgy of the naked Barbie box. Because Miley Cyrus is a person, a young girl ó she shouldn’t be hanging out with all those naked Barbies.)
Meanwhile, the Miley brand seamlessly if a bit relentlessly followed the Hannah storyline: She is just a normal girl who happened to become a star overnight. Never mind that her father was a country music star or that she devoted a yearof her young life to getting this role. Now she has it; it’s very fun, kind of weird and it could happen to anyone. Aspirational marketing made flesh. Not manipulative at all. Parents were just grateful to have a tween role model who didn’t expose her midriff or wear dolphin shorts with words branded across the rear end.
From the beginning, the specters of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears have been held up for Cyrus to banish with a preternaturally mature refusal to judge ó they are just nice girls who made bad choices ó and the assurance that this will never happen to her because her family and faith are so strong. All of which is supposed to make us, the audience, feel better when we wonder about the pressures of stardom, the temptations that must come with so much money. Because no matter how broad Cyrus’ smile is or how protective Disney can seem, there is always an uneasiness when we see kids doing grown-up work, like when Brooke Shields was in “Pretty Baby” or Linda Blair starred in “The Exorcist.”
And now, it seems, Cyrus is having her “Pretty Baby” moment. For which she has apologized to her fans.
So a media storm will rage, for a few days or weeks, over the Vanity Fair pictures. And it would be nice if it all gave us pause to consider our part in it. If we think the pictures are OK, that 15-year-olds are entitled to be sexually active ó as the bed sheet photo clearly says ó then why all the fuss about a pregnant Jamie Lynn Spears?
But if we don’t think it’s OK for a girl’s sexuality to be used to sell magazines, perhaps we should wonder why it’s OK for her childhood to be so totally and synergistically up for sale.
Disney might have listened to the “Hannah Montana” theme song too many times. No matter how willing the girl or how good the wig, you can’t have the best of both worlds. Or if you can, it will look alarmingly like the Vanity Fair spread.
McNamara is a TV critic for the Times.AP-NY-04-28-08 1835EDT