When I was around ten years old, my mom decided that my younger sisters and I should not watch the most popular children’s show of the time, Power Rangers. She feared that the violence of the show would make us more likely to be aggressive, especially given the fact that every time she picked us up from school, at least two of the other kids in the class would be kicking each other while shouting slogans from the show. So she made us a deal: we wouldn’t watch Power Rangers, and she would pay an extra fee so we could get the Disney Channel.
At the time, this was a good deal. This was the mid-1990s, just before the advent of the teen star creation machine that Disney Channel became. But as time went on and my younger sisters grew up, my parents began to notice a disturbing trend: all of the young, fresh kids on the Disney Channel turned out to be the worst possible life examples as they got older. Britney Spears morphed from bubble gum-popping kid to jailbait with bare midriff and modified Catholic schoolgirl uniform. Then she collapsed altogether. Lindsey Lohan morphed from the cute kid in The Parent Trap to the disaster area star of The Canyons. Christina Aguilera transformed from the title singer of Mulan to Xtina. Hillary Duff went from Lizzie McGuire to Gossip Girl, where instead of participating in a comic duo with her cartoon self, she participated in a threesome.
And then there’s Miley Cyrus.
Cyrus was the most successful of all of the young Disney Channel stars. Hannah Montana made her a global name, allowing her to overcome the quasi-stigma of her “Achy-Breaky Heart” father. She became a billion dollar industry. And then she did what Disney Channel knew she would and the rest of Hollywood thought she should: she “grew up.”
By “grew up,” Hollywood meant that Miley would have to become a sexually aggressive, pseudo-promiscuous Madonna-slut, gyrating before millions. To make it worse, Miley would have to act out the pathetic sexual fantasies of pedophilic anime. And so she did. On the Video Music Awards this week, Cyrus reached the apex of her crass and unsexy cynicism. She’d already turned her movie career into an exploration of her sexuality (see LOL). She’d already begun tweeting pictures of herself frolicking like a drunk New Orleans college girl. But at the VMA, she went all the way: she popped out of a giant teddy bear, dressed in a onesie with a teddy bear outlining every body party. She stuck out her tongue like some odd sort of pornographic iguana, humped the teddy bear, stuck her face between the buttocks of another bear, touched her privates like a knock-off Michael Jackson, bent down and “twerked” (gyrating the genitals in imitation of sex).
That was for starters.
Then, getting creative, she grabbed a giant foam finger from the crowd, rubbed it across her crotch repeatedly. When Robin Thicke, the singer of “Blurred Lines,” arrived to sing his hit, Cyrus went up to him, rubbed the foam finger across his crotch, leaned forward to nuzzle his ear, and bent over to twerk right at his genital level. It was simulated sex onstage before 10.1 million people.
Even those in the Hollywood crowd were shocked by the level of exhibitionistic vulgarity Cyrus displayed. Will Smith and family (Smith, his wife, and his two children) looked on unamused. Rihanna, no stranger to sexualization, frowned glumly.
But this, said the press, was Cyrus growing up. Yes, she was out of control. Yes, she was perverse. But she had shed her little girl image, and done what Tinseltown demanded: she had gotten sexed up.
Not that Cyrus was forced into it. Cyrus knows where her bread is buttered; there’s a reason she ended up at the top of Maxim’s Top 100 despite being on few men’s wish list. But we live in an era in which entering adulthood means discarding innocence. Sin has become maturation. And that is a devastating message, especially for children.
This is the true danger of Cyrus and those who both preceded her and follow in her footsteps: not that she is any different from Madonna, but that her career path suggests to young girls that growing up means giving themselves away, and that empowerment means debasement. But Cyrus, unlike other women, lives in a world without consequences. She can act like something out of an X-rated funhouse without having to worry about money. She could get pregnant, have the baby, and pay for it to be brought up by others (as so many others in Hollywood have). She has handlers to protect her, press relations gurus to make her seem less unpalatable, and an enormous industry ready to sign her for big bucks for each step she descends on the moral ladder. That’s not true for the millions upon millions of other girls watching thousands scream Miley’s name as she simulates masturbation with a foam finger. There are real consequences for the sort of behavior Miley champions, both spiritual and physical. That’s what adulthood means.
Miley lives in a perennial Never-Neverland created by the industry that needs cannon fodder like her to shock the masses into opening their wallets. She will never need to be an adult. But the girls who watch her will. And if they are shown lies about what adulthood means, they will learn the hard way that adolescent behavior gets punished, not rewarded, in the real world.
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