As the mother of a 13-year-old girl, I couldn't resist trying to use the Miley Cyrus media tempest du jour as an opportunity to engage in one of those much-heralded parent-child teaching moments. So this morning, between bites of breakfast, I tried to engage my daughter in sharing her thoughts on the subject. Only trouble was, she couldn't have cared less about the subject.
"You watch a decent amount of TV and download music on your nano all the time," I implored. "Surely your friends have been talking about it." This was my chance to infuse some caring, motherly observations about body image and self-worth into the day, and I was not about to be cheated out of it. "What?" she said as she riffled through the homework in her backpack. "I haven't thought about it. No one cares."
But that's not true, I wanted to say to her retreating back as she walked out the door for the bus stop. The 24-hour media care. A lot. The story has been all over the usual suspects: The afternoon, evening and morning talk shows, the tabloid press and yes, the blogs. And if this isn't a Casablanca-style "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here!" moment, I don't know what is.
How many female teeny bopper stars (shows my age just to use that phrase, I know) have managed to avoid being portrayed in a sexual context in the media, almost as a rite of passage, and still enjoyed blossoming careers? Jamie Lee Curtis noted in these pages that decades ago, a teenage Brooke Shields announced that nothing would get between her and her Calvins; currently, TV shows like "Gossip Girl" depict glamorous, hot-to-trot teens engaging in sex. In real life, Jamie Lynn Spears certainly doesn't consider it a career-buster to flaunt her 16-year-old pregnancy in public -- and rightly so, because odds are overwhelming that she'll be performing again just as soon as she's shed that baby fat. In terms of physical presentation, flab is the one unforgivable sin for young pop queens held up as "role models."
Still think images of sexed-up stars are the exceptions, and not the rule? Just visit a news stand or walk in a heavily billboarded area like Times Square, and it's impossible to deny that the our culture prefers its young women objectified as pouty temptresses. The pictures sell beauty products and clothes, ads and the very on-air media time that bloviators use to decry the licentiousness they exploit.
If my daughter had stuck around for a mother-child tete a tete, I would have patiently asked her for her thoughts, and then launched into a discussion (hopefully in the preferred Socratic method: "Why do you think she did it?" "What do you think she hoped Vanity Fair readers would say about her when they saw her photos?")
Then I would have given my summing up of the situation: "I think she did it because she was excited to be in Vanity Fair and have her pictures taken by a famous photographer. I think she hoped people would say she looked beautiful, and that the pictures were arty. This is not a young woman who has to sit for magazine photos to boost her career. This is a young woman who appeared at the Academy Awards and didn't even break a sweat. She looked like the least-nervous person on-camera, and she's 15."
Sure, the photos don't show Miley stylishly cramming for an exam, rowing for the crew team or titrating test tubes in a lab. As a mom, I think that would be great. But that's not the culture we live in. Her loved ones know and care about her. But to the rest of us, she's a product, posing in a product, garnering publicity on TV shows that are products themselves. And I would like to think that when it comes to the "scandalous" or "controversial" quality of the subject matter, that today's teens recognize it for what it is: something some people want to buy, rather than be. And that if their parents are worried that they don't get it, they can help them to do so.