Friday, August 30, 2013

Miley Cyrus is the Least of Her Own Problems

The Fourth Horseface of the Apocalypse
With all the ink spilled over Miley Cyrus’ strange, disheartening VMA performance this week, you’d think Cyrus personally despoiled a generation of girls, normalized rape, and bombed Pearl Harbor. The coverage has been both piously moralistic and unimaginative. Whether Cyrus pimped America’s daughters or Robin Thicke stage-raped Hannah Montana, the details blur. We’re left with Miley’s protruding tongue as the emblem of modern moral rot.

Talking heads have largely elided how utterly predictable this outcome really was. We’ve seen this arc with too many girls who underwent adolescent turmoil under public scrutiny. When our cherubic foster daughter outgrows her cute stage and demands her autonomy, especially in sexual terms, fans balk. Professional handlers shanghai the developmental stage where a girl gets to know herself. And she hits adulthood with a woman’s libido and a girl’s self-image.

Though details vary, the path never ends well for the girl. Modern society’s mix of celebrity acclaim and resistance to change create an unholy stew that inhibits normal development. Sometimes the results are tragic, as when Dana Plato descended from TV stardom to porn videos to an early, drug-induced death. Sometimes it’s more lachrymose, like Jodie Sweetin’s slow public self-destruction. But it’s always trite, and always wholly preventable.

Preventable, because we understand the stages of youth. We understand that, as our daughters approach adulthood, they resist our influence and experiment with identities like they formerly tried on hats. Brief ventures into emo culture or skater punk turn countless dads grey, but we recognize these youthful stages for the personal exploration they are. Sure, we try to keep girls young forever; but we revel when they find the women they’re meant to become.

Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. 'Nuff said.
Celebrity youth have no such transitions. When ordinary rebellion, like picking inappropriate dates or getting lascivious tattoos, becomes international tabloid fodder, girls never have the opportunity to blaze their own trail. Some, like Paris Hilton, become addicted to attention, living in a state of permanent adolescence. Others, like Lindsay Lohan, flee into a suicidal loop of induced numbness. What they don’t do, is become grown women.

In fairness, we’re not always offended by teenage sexuality. Take Britney Spears or Amanda Bynes, who both went from coltish child stars to sexual goddesses with whiplash speed. But both stars’ subsequent public freakouts bespeak why hastening adulthood does as much harm as postponing it. These girls had identities handed to them by parents, managers, and focus groups. They never had any chance to become themselves.

Some girls go to the opposite extreme—or, more likely, get pushed there by adults who should know better. Leann Rimes’ first music video featured her lounging like a poolside temptress, at an age when most girls still have a favorite stuffed bear. Early album covers highlighted her precocious figure, presenting her as a grown woman and casual tease. Her handlers forced her to become a woman when she was still a girl.

I cringed at Rimes’ early appearances, warning friends that Tanya Tucker started similarly. By age twenty, Tucker had multiple substance abuse problems, and after her comeback, became more famous for her liaisons and out-of-wedlock pregnancies than her music. Friends assured me that Rimes need not follow Tucker’s dark path, and I relented. Then Rimes celebrated turning eighteen by posing for magazine covers with her blouse off. Very mature.

Sadly, many girls—actresses, mainly—think appearing topless equals coming of age. Elizabeth Berkley’s high-profile burnout in Showgirls did not stop other former child stars, like Anne Hathaway, Reese Witherspoon, and Mischa Barton, from equating nudity with adulthood. Some, like Natalie Portman and Denise Richards, combined nudity with taboo sex. Most have seen their star power suffer; Barton, Richards, and Berkley haven’t gotten star billing for years.

Maxim Blender splashed this image of
Leann Rimes on their cover, with the appalling
caption: "ALL GROWN UP!"
Miley Cyrus’s much-propounded struggle against her Hannah Montana identity manifested this week in a strange confluence of girlishness and misplaced sexuality. Even before she disrobed and ground up against Robin Thicke, Cyrus attempted lewd moves on backup dancers dressed as teddy bears. Essentially, she attempted to vicariously deflower images of childhood innocence. This isn’t the behavior of somebody thinking about sex like a grown-up.

Cyrus need not follow the familiar path of rehab, divorce, and reality TV. Many former child stars avoid this trap: the Lennon Sisters, Danica McKellar, and Kirsten Dunst come to mind. These girls received sound personal and professional advice, even when, like the Lennons, they endured protracted public childhood. Good guidance could steer Cyrus to a fulfilling adult career. But she will have to stop submarining herself first.

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