Sunday, April 27, 2008

Who's the Grown Up Here?

Sunday evening and I'm feeling refreshed from a swim at the YW.

Which is a good thing, because I just checked the HuffPost and what did I find but a distressing and depressing story about another teen girl star being "sex-potted" by the media. Apparently, semi-nude photos (by Annie Liebovitz) of 15 year old Miley Cyrus are in this week's Vanity Fair.


You no doubt know that Miley plays Hannah Montana on the Disney Channel's most-watched show. She and her character are beloved and idolized by millions of tween girls (on the Hannah Montana website emails from fans give ages from 8 to 12). Many parents have been relieved there's a teen star who didn't follow in the hyper-sexualized footsteps of Lindsay, Britney, Paris and countless others. Guess it's time to re-think that relief.

I don't blame Miley - she's a media star in our oh-so-tired popular culture that still values women (and increasingly younger girls) for sex appeal and little else (no matter what it says, the images tell the truth). And she's at an age when exploration of her sexuality is appropriate and important.

But her exploration shouldn't be fodder for Annie Leibovitz, Vanity Fair or anyone else. That's called voyeurism and it's creepy. Which is exactly the feeling I got looking at the photo. Not only does it look like she's been surprised in bed, her posture and expression make her look even younger than 15, giving the photo a very disturbing whiff of child porn.

Cyrus has already issued a statement saying she's "embarrassed" about the photo and the story.
For my part, I wonder why her parents didn't issue that statement - in Vanity's Fair's "behind the scenes" slide show of the photo shoot, they were there when the pictures were being taken. A great deal has been made of her "common sense" parents in previous coverage of Miley. And what about Annie Leibovitz? Is she embarrassed? What about Vanity Fair?

Seems like there's more than enough embarrassment to go around and yet only the 15 year old is expressing it. Something's wrong with that! Who are the adults in this scenario anyway?


Lisa @ Corporate Babysitter said...

It was only a matter of time before Miley got sexed-up. I'm sure it was in Disney's marketing plan. A whole set of girls and parents have been let down, but couldn't we see this coming?

Jill said...

Oy. :(

Hi Nancy - Jill Zimon here (we met at WAM!).

I hate to be the messenger, but the online Vanity Fair? Even more.

Not sure what I think but ironically, I'm on deadline and finishing up an article about how to raise kids with integrity.

The job might be getting a little bit harder, hm?

Thanks for bringing attention to this.

Nugget said...

My immediate reaction to the controversy surrounding this image was actually disappointment with finger-pointing at the media. As the magazine states in its article, Miley, her parents and her "handlers" (speaking of creepy... that word has icky connotations) were fully complicit in the photo's publication. They had reviewed a digital image of it, and, in all likelihood, had demanded on that review as a precondition of working with Vanity Fair.

I get the sense from Miley's subsequent statement that she (and her entourage) misread what the public reaction to such an image would be. Now that it has shown itself to be negative, she is coming forward to say she is embarrassed by it and people are rushing to say she'd been manipulated.

I guess I have a hard time buying that.

Janna said...

Honestly, Miley Cyrus has been sexed up for a while. Ever seen her at red carpet events? And looking at those behind the scenes photos, she's modelling much more provocatively in the clothed shots than the infamous "naked" shot. I don't know, I don't think it's a good thing for a 15-year-old girl to be participating in, but I just am not sure this one photo is as big a deal as some people are making it out to be. But like you said, it's not her fault.

Shaping Youth said...

I just finished posting about the Danica Patrick conundrum on role models and now this...sigh. My daughter is sick this week so I'm WAY behind, but thankfully, Shaping Youth's body image expert, Dr. Robyn Silverman just posted about it here:

So we'll probably content swap...and I'll point her to your blog to carry on the conversation as well...

sigh. And people wonder why I don't 'go for a celebrity spokesperson' for our org? Today's innocent is tomorrow's camp-n-vamp posterchild, and as Lisa said, we all 'saw this one comin'...right?

When entire SITES are devoted to 'a countdown' re: teen deflowering as entertainment fodder
I'd say we all have our work cut out for us...In fact, I think I'll need to alter my talk a tad at the Preteen Alliance on Thurs. where I'm speaking to toss the Miley matter into the mix. sigh.

Amy Jussel
Founder, Exec. Dir.

Nancy Gruver said...

Comments Nancy got via email today on this post - roughly in chronological order:

Jill Zimon said:
What I can't figure out is Vanity Fair's angle: How many kids Miley's age
actually read VF, right? So who are they trying to attract to look at it?
And when I think of who that might be - I think of men, most of whom are
going to be older, and I would think considerably older than Miley. It's
not giving me a good feeling. lol But like Nancy - I would really like to
know how others see it.

The online version has many more photos than the print version -

Ironically, I'm online deadline to complete an article about how to raise
kids with integrity. Maybe I'm not the right one to write it!

Nancy Gruver said...

Interesting question about Vanity Fair's angle. But I guess I don't
even care to understand *why* they did it. The only reason I can come
up with is that they did it to up the ante in a visual reference to
child porn by featuring the biggest teen girl celeb of the moment.

Pop culture images that use the tropes of porn are already very common.
Maybe they don't have enough prurient zing anymore and VF needs to
resort to child porn to attract attention?

Whatever the reason, it's exploitation pure and simple - very

It just shouldn't have been done. There are more than enough adult
women whose sex appeal VF can and does use to see mags - it's just plain
wrong for them to use a 15 year old girl in that way.

Jill Filipovic said...

I think whether Miley "likes that sort of look" is entirely beside the
point. She's 15 years old. This isn't about what she likes or doesn't like;
it about the decisions that *adults* make about children and young people.
And that's the most important point here -- we know that girls will dress-up
and try to be sexy and grown-up, but what does this photo spread say
about *actual

Yes, girls have agency. Miley has agency, and she can make her own
decisions. But I do think it's up to adults to *not want to see girls
sexualized*. It's up to photographers to not style young girls like this.
It's up to consumers and advertisers to not create a demand imagery like
this. The issue isn't that a 15-year-old girl is responding to all the
social pressures to be attractive, and that being an attractive female =
being sexy. Wanting to be perceived as attractive or sexy is normal for
girls and women of most ages (we can certainly argue that that's a bad
thing, but that's the current reality). But just because a 15-year-old wants
to be sexy (or agrees to pose in a sexy way) doesn't mean that adults should
sexualize her. It is the photographer who styles her clients. It was Annie
Liebovitz who chose to style Miley with tousled hair, pouty red lips,
wrapped in a bed sheet with her back exposed. The fact that those choices
were made is a problem.

Also keep in mind the dynamics here: You have a very famous adult
photographer, taking Miley's picture for one of the most important magazines
in the world -- was Miley really in a position to negotiate what she wanted?

This picture doesn't say anything about Miley. But it does say a whole lot
about grown-ups -- and that's disturbing.

Joanie D said...

Has anyone forgotten that she is 15? She is a minor. Why do we put adult responsibility on someone that age? The adults, and VF in particular, should take responsibility. They have portrayed a 15 year old girl in a very sexualized style, mainly for the benefits of adults.

It's one of many images these days of sexualized teens. Can't they just be teens? I just got back from Asia. There, teenage girls look like teenage girls. Here, we have pressure on them to look beautiful and sexy, starting at age 13 and it's getting younger all the time. It's very disconcerting, to say the least.

Amie Newman said...

Very well stated. And, Nancy, thank you so much for bringing this up (full
disclosure: I am a ridiculous fan of New Moon - my 5 year old daughter has a
subscription & my 9 year old son reads most issues). Clearly we have created
a market for sexualizing young girls. VF knew this would sell. Why else
would VF do a story on Miley Cyrus in the first place?

But VF and Liebovitz did not invent this. Cyrus typifies current media
practices around portraying young girls - most billboards, magazine ads, tv
commercials portray either extremely young women in sexual ways or women are
made up to look like teens - sexualizing the "young girl" has been around
for years now. It allows "women" to be portrayed as relatively powerless and
unassuming. But all in all the younger these portrayals are the less
threatening and more easily malleable the women seem.

I'm not sure what it's going to take to convince people that this is a
national shame, that this is a chronic problem that continues to wreak havoc
on young girls but, really, wreaks havoc on society. This has been going on
for years and years and yet we paint every isolated incident as a problem
with one media outlet or one photographer. This is an institutionalized

For what it's worth, targeting young people in the way that New Moon does is
probably one of the most crucial tactics we can take to combat these
problems. We need to raise children that will not offer themselves up as a
ready-made market for media like this but be SAVVY media consumers - if we
don't teach our children how to consume media intelligently and how to
analyze and dissect in exactly the same ways in which we are starting to
teach them about the environment, where our food comes from, etc. then they
won't have the tools to change their own behavior later on in life.

Miley Cyrus is part of the machine but I second, third and fourth the
question - where are the adults? This IS embarrassing but not for Miley as
much as for adults in this country who allow this kind of exploitation to

Katha Pollitt said...
I feel very sorry for her. she's only 15. her parents should have
protected her. According to VF they or other minders were there for
the whole shoot and saw the photos. there's also a slightly creepy
photo of Miley with her dad btw.
Annie Leibowitz likes to take edgy photos.
This is for the dirty young/middle-aged/old men who read VF, a
magazine read mostly by women, I believe.

Jill Zimon said...
Katha - that is exactly what I thought (" there's also a slightly creepy
photo of Miley with her dad btw.Annie Leibowitz likes to take edgy photos.
This is for the dirty young/middle-aged/old men who read VF, a magazine read
mostly by women, I believe.") and raised the point about the editorial
choices that obviously and ultimately okayed it all for publication.
Remember last year when the girls' panties that suggested no girl needs
Santa because of what's between their legs? Same thing - the first
questions for me were about who bought the design, someone had to place the
order at WalMart for that product and okay putting them on the rack.

The editors at VF made these decisions and okayed the final publication.

I don't even know where you begin to root out the issues that contribute to
the string of "okays" that had to happen.

Jill Filipovic said...
"Yes, the adults should take
responsibility that posing teens in that style is wrong, BUT teens
should also realize that that is wrong, and that they should not

So now we're blaming 15-year-old girls for going along with trusted adults
when those adults have them pose provocatively? Come on. The problem with
this analysis is that it individualizes a complex and systemic problem.
Young girls are sexualized. We are taught, as women, that our physical
appearance matters more than just about anything else. We grow up seeing
images like this, and seeing ourselves in them. Miley is trying to make a
career in an industry where women are required to have a particular body
type, to be beautiful, and to be sexy. How in the world can we blame her, or
put all the responsibility on her, to buck that pressure?

And the use of the word "appropriate" is interesting here. Why is
*Miley's*behavior inappropriate? I don't think that a 15-year-old girl
dress-up or wanting to be attractive or even wanting to be sexy (or feeling
sexy) is inappropriate. I think it's normal. What's inappropriate is adults
capitalizing on that, and adults sexualizing a young girl.

Girls and women are in an impossible position. We're told by most of society
that being beautiful and sexy makes us worthy; then when girls act
*too*sexy, they're told that they're slutty or "inappropriate" or
behaving badly.
It's really unfair. We're all trying to navigate these waters, and I have a
big problem with putting the onus on the backs of the women who are faced
with incredibly difficult choices. As feminists, I think we have to be extra
careful about keeping the critical eye on fucked up social structures and
power imbalances, instead of individualizing wide-spread problems and
arguing that "she should have known better."

Katha Pollitt said...
Miley is 15 years old. she is underage. she can't drive, vote, or make
a contract. Her parents would have had to sign the permission slip.
Either the parents are exploiting her, or the photos looked different
in the little viewfinder of the digital camera, or they got carried
away by Annie leibowitz's charisma. I was photographed by her -- she
is a very charming woman, and has gotten many famous people to do
silly things.

Onnesha Roychaudhuri said...
I agree that we need to be looking at the adults responsible and the
infrastructure at large that set this photo shoot in motion. However,
I think Amber makes a good point -- not that we should chastise those
who do things we think we would know better than to do or would
perhaps think more deeply about, but that we should be sure to include
teenage girls/women in the conversation and call on them to think
critically about how their images are being used. The fact that Miley
has already said she is embarrassed about the photos reveals that she
is having second thoughts about how her images are being used. What
she has to say about her experience, and how she changed her mind
about the photos could be the start of an important conversations
among teenaged women. Can we hold Miley entirely responsible for the
decision to do the photo shoot? Of course not. Should we be interested
in what she and other teenage women have to say about the
responsibility they feel towards the representation of their bodies?
Of course.

Lindsay Beyerstein said...
I don't understand the high moral outrage over these particular
pictures. Miley Cyrus is definitely post-pubescent, and she's
definitely not naked.

She's older than a lot of the models we see on catwalks and in
magazines every day. Cyrus's handlers are trying to make the marketing
shift from child star to starlet. The whole thing has a whiff of
manufactured controversy. It's as if this were a kind of guerrilla
marketing stunt to launch Miley's new sexual persona.

If we're going to be mad about something, let's be mad about a star
system that only has two marketing niches for young female musicians
seeking a mass audience: asexual kid or sex object.

Gawker is throwing around words like "pedophilia" and dragging
Leibovitz's sexual orientation into it:

> There's a technique called "grooming" that pedophiles use on their
> victims (yes, we just learned about it today, thank you). One
> definition says "Grooming behavior is intended to make the victim or
> potential victim or victim's guardians feel comfortable with the
> molester and even interested in interacting with him." And here's a
> characteristic of a regressed child molester: "They place pseudo-
> adult status on their victims and then view them as they would their
> peers." Now take a look at the following behind-the-scenes pictures
> from Vanity Fair's controversial new Miley Cyrus photo shoot by 58-
> year-old lesbian photographer Annie Leibovitz and ask yourself if
> any of that rings a bell. We're not accusing these stylists of being
> pedophiles, we're just saying... ugh:

A personal aside: A friend of mine just released her second album.
This woman is an incredible vocal talent and a composer who can hang
with some of the best instrumentalists and improvisers of her
generation. It made me sad that all her promo pictures marketing her
in submissively feminine poses, sexualized poses that are physically
incompatible with singing: Lying down, sitting with chin resting on
knees and head cocked. I've shot album photos for some of her male
colleagues, and nobody ever asks for the come hither shit. I've half-
jokingly suggested shirtless poses to some of them, and I never get
any takers. Instead, the guys says stuff like "Nobody would respect me
if I did that." My singer friend's a grownup and perfectly capable of
managing her career, and it wouldn't be my place to say anything. But
I have offered to take some pictures of her, in the hopes that I can
show her a look that's more original and (to my mind) dignified.

Jill Zimon said...
Hmm - do some on the listserv remember when Brooke Shields was in Pretty
Baby and then of course the Calvin Klein ads? I'm pretty much the same age
as Shields - I don't remember what I thought at the time other than it
seemed she was doing something unlike anyone I knew had ever done. But it
still stands out in my mind - mostly because the media made a big deal of
it. That, and Shield's mother's participation in decision-making.

Joanie D said...

But do we have to say "welcome to stardom, now get naked" to these girls? She is posing as an adult woman would, not as a teen. Is that the message we should be sending? The very idea of a naked 15-year old only covered in a sheet gives me the heebie jeebies.

Moreover, it's just one image of many in today's world - the soft porn of American Apparel, young models, sexy Halloween costumes for tweens, movies (American Beauty showed both teens' breasts - that gave me the heebie jeebies, too), teen prostitutes, etc. Maybe this is backlash to the onslaught of these images?

Adults are making money off of teens' bodies, yet how are we being responsible towards them? They aren't getting proper sexual education, may not have access to family planning, may need consent forms, etc. We should be consistently treating them with respect and dignity, not exploiting them for our own purposes - treating them as adults on one hand, children on the other.

Lindsay Beyerstein said...
The Disney-approved depictions of Miley Cyrus are at least as
problematic than the Vanity Fair pictures. They've been marketing her
as a sexy tween for a long time. That's partly why I suspect this is a
manufactured controversy.

The Canadian Press has similar suspicions:

The corporate outrage seems a little forced, considering the Disney-
approved depictions of Mills.

If you want to talk about sexualizing children, this is textbook
"little girl playing dress up." Look how the photographer juxtaposes
Miley's fresh "no-makeup" face and her pale pink t-shirt with bedroom
hair and a swimsuit model pose. The composition draws your eye to her
flat chest. This is a straight up porn aesthetic.

498K View Download

Here's a Disney approved public appearance on the red carpet.

Anonymous said...

I'm not as creeped out by the photos of Cyrus wrapped in a blanket (or crumpled paper?) or the bed-ready solo shots of her lounging around on her back, as I am of the photos of her with her father, which have a truly creepy He's-My-Old-Man-But-Not-My-Father vibe to them.

My 12 year old daughter is "so over Hannah Montana; she's really fake." When I showed her the photos she just shook her head in disgust. So if my kid the target demographic isn't interested, just who are these photos aimed at?

Nancy Gruver said...

Several comments from Amber Grof:
This is an interesting conversation. From what I've been reading, there's a lot of anger towards VF, but I think people are forgetting one thing: Miley chose o take those pictures. Her parents ALLOWED her to take those pictures. Exploitation is a strong word to use on VF when Miley obviously made a conscious decision to pose partly nude.
I'm sure she didn't want those pictures to be referenced towards child pornography, which is why she apologized. But the blame isn't all on VF, anyone ever consider the possibility that Miley likes that sort of look?

-Amber Grof

I completely agree that what's being advertised on young girls is wrong. No, Annie Liebovitz should not have styled Miley in such a provocative way. But as you said, it's up to consumers and advertisers to not style young girls like this. If people did not purchase these types of advertisements, than they would not be existent. If young females chose to not to be dressed in such a way, than it would not happen. Essentially, VF and other companies are going to try and advertise anything they think the public wants. But if people make a conscious decision to not participate in inappropriate spreads, than those companies will not do it. That includes Miley. As a young adult and celebrity who holds a strong voice in the media, she has the choice to either join in with these types of things, or advocate against them. And she chose to dress in an inappropriate manner, allowing other young females that look up to her, to think it's okay to do the same.

It's not just adults who have a say in what goes out in the media. The youth have a voice as well. Miley has a voice. She just chose to give in to what adults want, and that I find disturbing.


No, I have not forgotten that she is 15. I'm 18, and I know better than to pose in such a fashion. Yes, the adults should take responsibility that posing teens in that style is wrong, BUT teens should also realize that that is wrong, and that they should not participate. Miley should have realized that posing half-nude at her age, is not appealing and definitely not a good example to set on all of her fans who look up to her. But she chose to do it anyway.

I think that there is definitely an undermining of youth. We are not ignorant to what's out there. We know what is appropriate vs. what's not. And Miley should have been aware of that as well.


JMPS said...

When ever Miley's name is brought up (or the likes of her, Bratz etc...) I repeat to my niece that she is not good for young girls because she makes them think the only important thing they can do it to be pretty. I find it very interesting that any parent would have thought her to be a good role model and are only now turned off.

MJ said...

I am afraid people will throw stones at me for pointing this out, but Miley Cyrus doesn't need to "be sexualized." She is sexual. This is something that belongs to her, not something that is done to her. Why do we have to freak kids out about their sexuality? I think the worst outcome here is that by apologizing, Ms. Cyrus signals that sexuality is negative and shameful. I find that very unhealthy.

maiden usa said...

Dear Nancy,

I also attended WAM! and recently wrote a book about millennial girl icons, Maiden USA. I was interviewed for a piece that appeared today in The New York Sun on the Miley Cyrus photos in Vanity Fair.

That so many people bought the marketing spin about Hannah/Miley being packaged differently from Britney, Christina and Lindsay proves how eager consumers are to believe that the Cinderella myth can manifest without serious compromise! Many parents I spoke to read Hannah/Miley's lyrics as "empowering" and saw her father onsite as a protector in the studio! (He's making millions from his daughter's celebrityhood!) The YouTube video embedded in the Vanity Fair site spins a trashy, suggestive narrative, with pouty-lipped Miley lying down with her father, rolling around on his legs! "It's not that innocent!" It's downright creepy.

JMPS said...

She was draped and posed by the photographer, following the lead of pop culture. A teenager can be sexual but it was not HER sexuality she was expressing. I don't think anyone has a clear picture of what a teen age girl's sexuality actually looks like.

JMPS said...

She was draped and posed by the photographer, following the lead of pop culture. A teenager can be sexual but it was not HER sexuality she was expressing. I don't think anyone has a clear picture of what a teen age girl's sexuality actually looks like.