Thursday, May 01, 2008

Miley’s Vanity Fair pics stir moral panic

A thousand words apparently aren’t enough for at least one picture. Not if it’s a picture of Miley Cyrus. So, here are about 700 more.

The 15-year-old Disney starlet, better known as her TV character, Hannah Montana, posed for Vanity Fair magazine and famed celebrity photographer Anne Leibovitz. But before the May issue of Vanity Fair hit newsstands Wednesday, the photos were everywhere, after Cyrus and her Disney caretakers issued press releases basically claiming that Leibovitz had tricked her into posing for a sexually provocative shot.

The photo in question shows Cyrus topless but holding up a sheet so that only her back is exposed. Now, I’m probably not a good judge of how sexual the photo is. You’d be better off asking someone who is into 15-year-old girls and will actually admit to it — like, you know, a 16-year-old boy. But what I get from Leibovitz’s now infamous shot of Cyrus is vulnerability, which is what Leibovitz does, and does well. Her photos of the rich and famous are known for laying their subjects bare. And I mean that in the figurative sense.

The idea that Cyrus was tricked is a bit silly. She and her handlers signed off on the photo shoot. Her father, country music star Billy Ray Cyrus, was part of it. Everyone knew the score.

So, Miley changes her mind and says she is now “embarrassed” by the photo, either because she really is or thinks it will damage her reputation. She is a 15-year-old girl, so she probably changes her mind a lot. That’s fine. But Disney is in spin cycle. After all, it has been less than a year since another Disney star, Vanessa Hudgens of “High School Musical,” had to apologize when a nude photo of her — intended to be private — hit the Internet. And at least she was 18 at the time and not jailbait. But Disney’s public relations department is obviously in overdrive, making sure no one thinks its most profitable contract player is auditioning to be the next Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton.

’Cause you know, one minute you’re posing for Vanity Fair, and the next you’re out partying, drinking, crashing your car, flashing your crotch and shaving your head. From there, the only thing left is an extended stay at the Betty Ford Center.

Everyone involved in the Vanity Fair affair seems to have an agenda. So, it’s hardly a surprise that the usual suspects are in attack mode.

On his radio show Monday, Mike Gallagher — the poor man’s Rush Limbaugh — went into a truly disgusting rant that focused on the fact that Leibovitz is a lesbian, and worse yet, a liberal activist. He went on to describe Cyrus’ expression in the photo as a “come hither” look and the photo itself as “soft-core pornography.”

All that tells me is that Gallagher has never actually experienced a come-hither look, or thinks that every woman who smiles in his general direction is saying, “Come and get it,” nor has he ever seen any real soft-core pornography.

While the photo fiasco is much ado about nothing, it’s still symbolic of modern society’s latest moral panic — a generalized hysteria about sexualizing “children,” meaning teens. We’re all supposed to pretend that teenagers aren’t sexual. But 200,000 years of Homo sapiens biology and 6,000 years of human civilization beg to differ.

Until the Industrial Revolution, people in their teens were expected to go out and start families of their own. They were expected to be adults. Now when teenagers do “adult” things like flaunt their sexuality, it’s a national crisis. But a century ago, it was life.

It’s fine for parents to want to protect their children as long as they can, but it’s no use pretending that teenagers aren’t sexual beings.

Yes, teenagers today probably aren’t as responsible as teens of centuries past, if for no other reason than they don’t have to be. And, yes, that means it’s a bad idea for teens to have sex. But nobody in the media — especially not Anne Leibovitz — has to sexualize them. They’re sexualized already.
Maybe that’s why some people see “come hither” where it doesn’t exist.

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