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Miley risks the squeaky teen image

Marketing the teen star gets harrowing when she has one foot in Disney clean and another in Vanity Fair.

April 29, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

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 the May issue of Vanity Fair.

Taken by Annie Leibovitz (who else?), they are standard VF pouty pictures of an ingenue -- 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 out of 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, May 03, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Miley Cyrus: An article in Tuesday's Calendar section about controversy surrounding photos of Miley Cyrus in Vanity Fair said they appeared in the magazine's May issue. They are in the June issue.

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 -- she's 15, she's entitled to a little sexuality -- 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.

Though Cyrus and her family have certainly 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 -- or younger, since Cyrus was 13 when she signed on to be Hannah -- 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 actually 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 broohaha 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 -- she shouldn't be hanging out with all those naked Barbies.)

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