Let's be honest: female teen idols have never been the most well-behaved bunch.
So why do I find this latest crop so worrisome? What has me shaking my head in dismay and concern every time I read an article about the famous under-21 set of ladies? How is it that I end up feeling like a disapproving grandmother, instead of the 27-year-old pop culture connoisseur that I actually am?
Few would blame me for my jaded reaction, given the headlines of late. Disney star Demi in rehab for eating disorders and cutting, or maybe alcohol and drug issues! Taylor blames her parents for creating a miserable mess of a teenager who likes to pose for magazine covers in lingerie and accessorize with guns! Miley lap dances! Miley drinks! Miley grinds up against a pole!
But you can't really blame these girls, either. I shudder to think how I would have behaved - and what I would have worn, and who I would have offended - if I'd been rich and successful and attractive as a teenager. I distinctly remember being in 10th grade and thinking to myself, I would totally wear Britney's outfits, if I had her abs. The fact that these girls are acting out doesn't make them particularly hateful or weak.
Then why do I find them so perplexing? And sort of terrifying, when I think about the next generation of women?
As a writer who focuses on modern dating and relationships, I spend a lot of time talking to Millennials like myself. Women, especially. And I find our generation to be typically in line with the terms that people use to describe us: ambitious, creative, open-minded, innovative, empowered, educated, curious, focused on our own personal development. Yet looking down at the next micro-generation - the Demis and the Taylors and the Mileys - I can't help but feel like there's a break in that mentality. Whereas the 20- and 30-something women I've met are breaking boundaries and exceeding expectations, these younger girls are relying heavily on traditional cartoonish perceptions of sexuality and rebellion and success. And, perhaps most importantly, they're doing it at the height of their popularity with other young women.
I know. Who am I to judge? I am presumably of the generation of Britney and Lindsay - the classic trainwrecks after whom these girls seem to be modeling themselves. And like many of my peers, my formative years were spent idolizing women who were arguably even more controversial and edgy than today's poptarts. In middle school, I fawned over every song, music video and interview that featured tortured women like Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple and Shirley Manson. Nobody was cooler than Winona Ryder (okay - nobody was cooler than her Reality Bites persona, with all the self-destructive behaviors that hovered around that). I was convinced that all these angry, complex women were speaking directly to little ol' me, stuck in my safe and boring middle-class suburban life.
So...where do I get off, acting like I grew up during some golden age of pop cultural influence? Wasn't my slice of a generation privy to a whole slew of negative messages about the female experience as well?
Yes. But here's the key difference that I see.
I looked up to these women because they were reflecting my teen angst back at me. They were sold to me as rockstars and movie stars - not as girls who I was supposed to emulate or aspire to be. These women were not touted as the girls next door, or the popular crowd, or the prom queens. They were never on lunchboxes, and they certainly weren't still on Disney's payroll. I knew that, as a 7th grader, I wasn't supposed to strip down to my underwear like Fiona in her Criminal video - as cool and badass as that made her.
Can the same be said of Miley's fans?
Sure, the mid-90's eventually gave way to the late-90's, and suddenly we were all secretly admiring the 'innocent' sexuality and enviable dance moves of Britney, Christina, Beyonce and Jessica - all of whom went on to shake up their bubblegum images, to varying degrees of sanity and grace. But when they were at the height of their popularity and influence with teens, even they were pretty wholesome. Not necessarily Red State, Sarah Palin-style wholesome, but staying-away-from-poles-and-drugs-and-guns wholesome.
Of course, much of this is probably due to the changed nature of our relationship with celebrities. I had no idea what Alanis was doing in her free time, and Beyonce wasn't expected to tweet at me about her every move. Reality television was restricted to MTV's The Real World, never featuring people who were already famous, and there wasn't as high a premium placed on celebrities being "just like us." Watching celebrities struggle has always been a voyeuristic pleasure for the rest of us, but most of the self-destruction used to happen in private - something that's nearly impossible to sustain in today's paparazzified world. Maybe it's now unreasonable to expect that a teenager can rise to fame without eventually showing up in a provocative onesie or punching someone in the face (although Taylor Swift has managed to avoid that fate thus far, so here's hoping?).
I'd like to have faith that the new generation of teens and pre-teens are smart enough to filter out the troubled, spoiled Hollywood stuff from the supposed role model images that are being thrown at them. If anything, these confused starlets need all the support that we as a public can give them, as they navigate fame and try to figure out who they are underneath the push-up bras and fake eyelashes.
But in the meantime, in anticipation of some bumps along the way, maybe we should begin drawing earlier and clearer lines between "normal girl" and "famous girl." No, Miley is not just like you, young lady! She's an actress and a singer, and a rich and famous one at that. Go ahead and look up to her as a celebrity, but please don't look up to her as your very own personal prom queen.
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