We are at war. Gas prices are at record highs. There are food shortages, a credit crisis, the financial markets are in hell and we are about to enter a recession. So, it makes total sense that Annie Liebovitz's photographs of Miley Cyrus are front-page news. The rumor mill is running at 100% capacity and the blogosphere is replete with pundits and self-proclaimed experts foretelling the end of Miley's business relationship with Disney. It's Cyrusgate! A scandal. Everyone is outraged!
First of all, Disney is not kicking a multi-million-dollar franchise to the curb any time soon. Miley Cyrus is a "big" star by any measure and she is a massive cash cow for ABC/Disney. Money talks, so you can absolutely ignore anyone who is floating rumors about a Cyrus/Disney split. (BTW: Miley, if by some bizarre, cosmic shift in reality, the Disney guys actually want to cut you loose, I'll be happy to pick up your contract right now, no questions asked.) If Selena Gomez's star is rising, it will do so on its own. She is not going to replace Miley Cyrus. If anything, programming execs will try to spin her off as a separate asset. Remember, Cyrus is a proven earner, Gomez is not.
Of course, Cyrusgate could just be a massive publicity stunt. Vanity Fair could really use the boost in circulation and there's nothing like a controversy to drive sales. But, I don't think anyone in marketing at Vanity Fair is that smart. (No offense). Disney's corporate governance is set up to prevent individual executives from intentionally packaging this kind of scandal, and truth be told, they don't really need this kind of PR. Miley doesn't need this kind of PR either, she is already overexposed (no pun intended).
So what is this really about? Let's review:
Love her or hate her, Annie Liebovitz's art cannot be ignored. She is a gifted photographer with a unique, highly recognizable style. Like all art, Ms. Liebovitz's work is a reflection of the society from which it emerges. It is not her job to create culture, it is her job to observe it, feel it and use her creativity to help us see and feel it too. Her photographs are not just "artistic," they are art, as they show us who we are.
As a professional photographer, Ms. Leibovitz is used to directing her subjects. She composes each shot and communicates with the on-camera talent much the same way a television or motion picture director would.
Miley Cyrus is a 15-year-old professional actress. She is in the business of taking direction from professional directors. It is how she makes a living. She doesn't write her show, she doesn't choose her camera angles, her costumes, her make-up or anything else about the Hanna Montana character. She is directed by various adult professionals who have made her a superstar.
So, when Annie Liebovitz (arguably one of the most famous photographers in the world) tells a 15-year-old professional actress how to pose, you can bet she is going to do as she's told.
That's the whole story. Now, let's add the narrative.
People are all bent out of shape about the "semi-nude," seductive picture of Miley Cyrus. As if somehow this photograph defiles this supposedly clean-cut, virginal 15-year-old role model/icon. If you look at it closely, you can argue that her expression is anything you want it to be. Put your fingers across the photograph to cover her body and if you look only at her face, she could be thinking or doing anything. It is non-descript in the extreme. Her back is bare. So what? Anybody with a long lens could catch a much more disturbing picture of her in a bikini at the beach.
The truth is, that none of my interpretation matters. The only thing that matters is what you think! What does this image say to you? Whatever it is - you are right. And, more importantly, you are entitled to your feelings and they are valid. That's what makes Annie Liebovitz an artist as opposed to a Paparazzi. She can evoke emotions from you that are under her control.
Now, if you don't like what you see. You have only yourself to blame. By this, I mean you have only our culture to blame. If you think that this particular 15-year-old is not exhibiting behaviors that are appropriate for her age, don't blame the artist or the subject. In fact, don't blame anyone - just go fix it. Are our children exposed to too much adult content at too early an age? Are they striving to live faster than we would like? Do you feel it is inappropriate for tweens to dress like young adults? If so, then fix it one child at a time. You can start right in your own house. But don't blame the artist or the artist's subject. They are simply a reflection of who we are and what we are doing.
Of course, the so-called, "semi-nude" picture was not the only picture that caused a controversy. There's this very nice father-daughter portrait. (In truth, this one makes me a little bit uncomfortable.) Billy Ray and Miley look a bit like, em, err ... well - they don't look like they're in a father/daughter kind of pose here. So much for the "her dad had already left the photo shoot when the 'controversial' shots were taken" theory. If you were Billy Ray, and Annie Leibovitz (with camera in hand) told you to "lean back on one arm, put the other arm around your daughter and look out into the distance" you'd have followed directions too.
In conclusion, I must remind everyone that there is not one single consumer in the Hanna Montana universe who reads Vanity Fair, or at least there wasn't until now.
Shelly Palmer is Managing Director of Advanced Media Ventures Group LLC and the author of Television Disrupted: The Transition from Network to Networked TV (2006, Focal Press). Shelly is also President of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, NY (the organization that bestows the coveted Emmy® Awards). He is the Vice-Chairman of the National Academy of Media Arts & Sciences an organization dedicated to education and leadership in the areas of technology, media and entertainment. Palmer also oversees the Advanced Media Technology Emmy® Awards which honors outstanding achievements in the science and technology of advanced media. You can read Shelly's blog here. Shelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org