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The Porning of Miley Cyrus

Today's post is from Kevin M. Scott, co-author (with Carmine Sarracino) of The Porning of America: The Rise of Porn Culture, What It Means, and Where We Go from Here, forthcoming from Beacon Press in Fall 2008. Scott teaches courses in American literature and culture and directs the English education program at Elizabethtown College.

Prningofamerica Talk about teachable moments. Two days before the "topless Miley" stories broke all over television and online, my class and I were discussing the young star of the Disney show, Hannah Montana.

My endlessly digressing American Studies class, fifteen young women and one lonely fellow, saw a connection between the subject and period we were studying—the representation of women in Cold War-era popular culture—and the current phenomenon of young female stars being offered up onto the altar of a lecherous public consumption.

Knowing, as they do, how easy I am to distract, they asked me what I thought of Miley Cyrus, who plays a normal high school kid who moonlights as a rock star. (Don't we all remember that kid from our own high school days? No?)

I said, roughly, "Well, the music makes my ears bleed, BUT, considering the options, if my daughter were to be a fan of the star, I would probably decide to shut up and let her have her fun."

What I was referring to, of course, is the star's well-groomed and G-rated image. Compared to the coverage given to figures like Britney, Lindsay, Paris, and the Olsen twins, Miley has been, well, both wholesome and, in a weird and vague way, feminist.

Like many parents (especially in that small subset who also happen to be cultural scholars), I was reacting to the sense that many of us have that the porned culture we inhabit is hunting in our children's world like a thief in the night.

Specifically, it seems as if our daughters are being targeted by waves of media—both in popular culture and in the "serious" media that covers the escapades of young female stars—that first encourage conformity to a new and virtual brand of highly sexualized identity and then thrills to their destruction. And so we encourage our daughters to adopt sexual identities that will eventually destroy them. Well done, us.

This is why many parents sigh with relief when the occasional Miley Cyrus comes along. And she isn't without precedence. Hilary Duff transitioned, within the current cultural regime, from child star to recording artist and actor. Even now, at 21, she doles out the sexy images of herself in small and comparatively mild doses. Soon she'll be appearing in a couple of respectable independent films and an artsy comedy with John Cusack called War, Inc. Nice work, if you can get it. And Miley very clearly wants it.

Yet parents also watch Cyrus' career with a certain amount of fear. They see their daughters commit to her, to her image and, often, to her ideas as carrying special and somehow divine weight. And they've seen it before. Britney was famously a "virgin" during most of her peak years. What if Miley hooks them and then does a moral nosedive? Will their daughters be discovering their own sexuality at the very moment that Miley gets caught without her knickers in public?

In my class, my students took a much more Machiavellian stance on Miley's actions. Several saw the move as her opening gambit, likely conceived by her handlers, to move toward a more sexual, and even "skankier," public identity. Others saw the move as an effort to thread the needle between her squeaky clean image and the more adult image that she'll need to develop if she wants to be acting in her twenties.

For her part, Miley backtracked like crazy, saying that she was manipulated into taking the picture, and that she is embarrassed and regrets the photo shoot. (She mentioned that her Christian faith would help her through it, which is a nice touch.) To my student's ears—and I should say that they are students in our honors college—this only provided more evidence that she is triangulating between the various public desires for her, as virgin or whore.

I don't know, of course, what she or her handlers intended, if anything. So far, the aura surrounding Miley Cyrus suggests to me that it's constructed with the kind of extreme care normally given to presidential campaigns and Papal visits. Largely, I agree with Cyrus' early comments, printed in Vanity Fair, along with the photos, that the image is "artsy." Yet there can be little argument that the girl in the photo—looking over her shoulder at you, with her lips plump and red, and her hair tousled as if awakened in the bed, nude, and clasping her satin sheets around her—is suggesting pleasures more adult than the age on the driver's license she can't yet possess would say is appropriate.

Then again, as a "Dad," I saw her ribs poking out and thought, "Man, somebody feed that kid."