Good Girl, Naughty Picture

May 2, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

The New York Times headline calls it “A Topless Photo.” “RACY MAG PIX,” screams the Daily News. “Exploitative semi-nude photo spread,” says the Toronto Sun. In the London Times headline, it’s “Half-naked Photos.”

It wasn’t what Miley Cyrus was showing – a beach photo of her in a scoop-back, one-piece bathing suit would have shown more skin – it was what she wasn’t showing but that the viewers knew was there. “Seemingly bare breasted,” was how the Daily Record put it (just under the headline “It’s not Art – It’s Porn.”). What made the photo “racy,” at least to these observers, was not the sight of her bare breasts but the thought that she either had just bared them or might be about to.

The problem for Disney seems to be how to have their teen-age girl stars be attractive without being sexual. That was hard enough in the 1950s, when Annette was prima inter pares among the Mouseketeers, and as Dave Barry put it, some of the letters on her jersey were closer to the screen than others.* Still, like a good Disney kid, she acted happily unaware of the changes puberty had brought. Not till she left Mouseworld did she go on to make all those beach films. (“Hi, I’m Annette, and these are my breasts,” cooed Gilda Radner in the SNL parody.)

That was then. Now, girls younger than Miley Cyrus are eager to be “grown up,” that is to be attractive in some sexualized way. They don’t get this idea from nowhere. It’s certainly out there in the culture, and it’s especially visible when someone – clothing manufacturers, for example – can make a profit from it. One September a few years back, the New York Times ran an article on back-to-school shopping in which the mothers of middle-school daughters described much of the available clothing as “hookerwear.”

Miley Cyrus the TV character was the perfect antidote. Several of the recent news stories cited both the character and the actress as a “role model.” But how difficult it must be for a 15-year-old girl working in television in Los Angeles to resist the lure of being just a little bit sexy. The problem may also be that we want our public figures to be one dimensional – sexy all the time or innocent all the time. We don’t want to accord them the complexity of feelings and desires that we take for granted in ourselves.


*It’s a good line, but it isn’t accurate. Google a picture of Annette in her Mouseketeer outfit, and you’ll see that Disney had placed the kids’ name letters just below the neck, probably for the very reason Barry alludes to.


SARA said...

I wonder if this was an oil painting of Cyrus created by a master, would it then be considered "fine art" ?

(reminds me of the oil painting by John Collier, Lady Godiva

Corey said...

As the dad of a 7 year old girl I've watched more than my fair share of Hannah Montana (and truth be told, I've been known to enjoy the random episode). I'm still trying to understand the outrage over these photos. I haven't seen anything that's so over the top that I'd declare Ms. Cyrus off limits to the pre-pubescent media consumer in my house. Which isn't to say that I don't question the collective judgment of those who captured, produced, and published these photos... what were they thinking?

I think this whole episode illustrates a parasitic dimension to contemporary media. When my daughter gets up on a Saturday morning, she has several cable channels available to her, each running situational comedies focusing on the hijinks of adolescents. Some of these programs have been running long enough that the child actors matured through puberty on screen. Since these channels have 24 hours of space to fill, they run the full catalog of reruns almost monthly (I know... my daughter has learned how to Tivo).

The problem is that these kids grow up and lose the *cute* factor. By the time they reach 15 or 16, they're already fairly savvy about their business. Unless they reinvent themselves, they will be a washed up has been, two years before they're eligible to vote.

What to do?

I think they (and their handlers) decide to recreate themselves accentuating their new post-puberty assets. [Britney Spears performance at the Teen Choice awards about 7 years ago is a great example of this]. The alternative is to fade away to obscurity and go the path of Gary Coleman, Jerry Matthers, or *gasp* Danny Boniduci.

The True Hollywood Story, which runs 3 or 4 times a day, nearly every day, more than poignantly communicates to today's child celebrities of the fate that awaits them if they are unable to to make this transition. That seems to me to be a pretty powerful motivator.