06 May 2008

why miley?

So I can't wrap my head around the controversy surrounding this picture.

Taken by the diva of photography herself, Annie Liebowitz, this portrait of teen pop culture queen Miley Cyrus has stirred up a lot of mixed feelings. Some say the photos of a 15-year-old with a bare back are to revealing, others say the "come hither" look in her eyes is not age-appropriate.

Who can decide what her eyes are saying? In my opinion, Liebowitz did what any great photographer does, and chose the photo where her subject's eyes were most intense. Just because her eyes are flashing, we do not know what she is thinking. Why, when a young girl has a brazen look on her face, do we automatically assume she is making love to the camera?

I know we've seen had some bad examples set by Britney et al, but in the case of Miley, it seems like people are projecting a precocious sexuality onto her. Not every young starlet is a ticking time bomb, waiting to explode into a drunken (or drugged out) nymphette.

She is a young, vibrant girl whose career is soaring. She is having her photo taken by one of the world's greatest photographers. Her eyes are probably shining because she's having fun.

In the Vanity Fair article that this photo accompanied, Miley shrugged off inquiries as to whether she was nervous about exposing "so much skin." When asked if she was uncomfortable she said, “No, I mean I had a big blanket on. And I thought, This looks pretty, and really natural. I think it’s really artsy.”

Now that the issue has hit shelves, and the photo has been widely criticized, Miley is reportedly ashamed. Her official statement states:
"I took part in a photo shoot that was supposed to be 'artistic' and now, seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed," she said in the statement. "I never intended for any of this to happen and I apologize to my fans who I care so deeply about."

It appears she has been shamed out of her former excitement about the image. After all, nothing about the image has changed since it met her and her family's initial approval during the shoot. The only thing that has changed is how she has been made to feel about herself.

I wonder: the look in her eyes aside, is showing her back setting a bad example for her fans? Did Liebowitz take advantage of her innocence?

According to an article in the New York Times, Disney believes so. A spokesperson blamed Vanity Fair, saying that "a situation was created to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines."

Let's not insult Miley's intelligence. At fifteen, girls are pretty self-aware. In the photo, she knowingly clutches the sheet to cover herself. She is no longer a child with nothing to hide; what she covers is her blossoming sexuality. A sexuality that—were Disney to have it their way—would stay under wraps for as long as possible, so that they could continue profiting from her squeaky-clean image.

As the NYT article notes, Portfolio magazine recently quoted president of entertainment for Disney Channel Worldwide, Gary Marsh saying, “For Miley Cyrus to be a ‘good girl’ is now a business decision for her. Parents have invested in her a godliness. If she violates that trust, she won’t get it back.”

Miley's handlers seem more concerned about losing the "godliness" of their meal ticket than about helping Miley deal with her own self image. In this sense, it seems to me that Disney is just as guilty of manipulating her as Liebowitz might be.

I look at the photo from a photographer's standpoint and I think it is artsy rather than sleazy (though more corpsey than sexy). I look at it, furthermore, from a female's standpoint. Would I feel embarrassed of a similar photo at age 15? No, I would be proud of my youthful beauty...until, of course, someone reprimanded me.

If it were in some indie publication by a lesser-known photographer instead of VF by the photographer, would it have been so contested? Did the context of its publication dictate the nature and volume of the reaction? Or, is it simply so scintillating that it would have elicited shock regardless?

I'm not sure. Poor Miley, the latest victim of America's culture war.


Jess said...

...or perhaps her eyes are shining because they've been photoshopped to look that way!

I agree with you for the most part, that this has certainly caused a seemingly undue amount of uproar. It also seems incredibly hypocritical for Disney to call exploitation, when that is clearly their game when it comes to Miley Cyrus and any other young stars they manufacture.

What I can also understand, though, is the perception of this photograph as inappropriately sexual because she is, still, a girl, albeit a likely more mature 15 year old than I was at that age, given her career. Presenting girls as sexual objects to sell magazines isn't kosher to me and, as this is such a stark example of that, I can see how people would freak out (and would this happen to Disney's newest 15 year old male star?). But the sexualization of girls to make a profit has grown to become a common practice, so I wonder why it's taken this long for people to see it?

Then again, perhaps I'm reading far too much into this. I've quit celebrity gossip sites cold turkey and I'm in need of a gossip fix...overanalyzing Miley seems to do the trick!

Mark P said...

Agreed. I mean, it was a picture shot by Annie freakin' Leibowitz for Vanit Fair. It wasn't shot by some guy named T-Bone in the back of a cube van.

One thing I learned from this situation (which was probably well-known, but hey, I'm not exactly a big follower of Hannah Montana) is that Miley is the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus. Good lord! Billy is on minute 16!

Dallas said...

"But the sexualization of girls to make a profit has grown to become a common practice, so I wonder why it's taken this long for people to see it? "

Yeah, that is definitely a major issue that I was turning over in my head. Maybe even I have become too desensitized to sexualized imagery, to the point where this looks squeaky clean in comparison to some of the other images we see...which is not a good thing.