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Miley Cyrus’s recent performance on the VMA awards was, depending upon who you ask, an important feminist statement, the act that set feminism behind a thousand years, an important cultural moment, or a serious breach of trust.


It really was none of those things. Or maybe all of them. But moreover, there is much more to learn about ourselves as pop culture consumers from the reactions to this incident than from the incident itself.


Of course, the critiques began coming in immediately (via Twitter) and are continuing today in the slower-to-write media, including this essay. Many of the reactions read like this:


She made so many references to her crotch you would have thought maybe she had a ***** & was trying to show everyone! It was horrible, everyone that has morals was shocked. A young girl Rubbing up on a married mans crotch, that’s a act for a stripper show not MTV’s VMA’s. Sorry it was nasty n distasteful for a young girl to do.


This is Miley Cyrus at her worst. This is just humiliating. Women don’t have to act cheap to have talent. I am disgusted.


Gradually the conversation has developed into, well, a conversation. But about what exactly?


The vitriol is not necessarily over Miley, but over some fictional version of her, a representation; moreover, this fictionalization might actually be harmful to the actual her.


At this point, let’s be clear about something—there is a human female born 20 years ago named Miley Cyrus, and there is a superstar act/ product/ entertainment package also named “Miley Cyrus”. This idea of persona has been explored and theorized recently in popular culture research, and anyone who has ever, for instance, seen what a thoughtful, articulate man Alice Cooper is when he sits down for an interview knows that the artist-as-a-character and the artist-as-a-person are not necessarily the same thing.


There were probably people watching the VMAs that night who had never heard of Miley Cyrus, and might have taken her performance as over-the-top, but not necessarily the beginning or end of an epoch.


There were others who follow pop culture or at least Miley, and have seen her transformation and probably understood the VMA performance as the next logical step for her, whether anyone thinks it’s a good thing or not. The group probably most worth worrying about are those who only knew Miley as Hannah Montana, and somehow were expecting the Disney chanteuse to appear on MTV that night.


Though it really is hard to imagine parents of tweens being naive enough to sit their kids down in front of the VMA awards and not expect a few family-unfriendly moments. Miley didn’t dupe anybody.


On the other hand, maybe parents didn’t really want their kids to watch, but let them anyway, or maybe didn’t let them watch at all. What seems to matter is that Miley/Hannah was once a “positive” role model and now Miley as Miley is not. This begs the question not of why she changed, but why Miley/Hannah was ever someone realistic to emulate in the first place. Arguments about whether televisual entertainment entities should also serve as children’s role models notwithstanding, Hannah Montana was, from its first episode, always about being one person by day, another by night. It’s a folkloric trope that has been in circulation for a very, very long time. But when the “everyman by day” is a supposedly average teenager that is really not all that average in the first place, and the “hero by night” is something as unattainable as a pop star, doubly reinforcing the viewer’s inadequacy, it’s hard to argue the show as promoting anything other than its merchandising campaign. 


Back to the MTV event, a mom of two teenaged boys lamented to CNN, “It’s a damn shame that Miley is doing this to herself, making a vulgar joke out of her talents and her beauty, but it’s a much bigger shame that she’s doing it to her young fans and other young people [who] see her in the media.” Her first point is egregious enough, but what exactly did Miley “do” to her young fans and, evidently, their moms? The tween demographic proper has now been around precisely long enough to see its progenitors enter early adulthood, yet the artifacts of their early pubescence still remain very much in circulation (that is, for sale).


Should people attack Miley for things “Miley” has done? Or assume Miley is actually the same person as “Miley/Hannah”? Maybe, maybe not. But there seems to be no effort to treat the two Mileys independently, and some of the insults have been quite personal—trollop du jour, sleazy, trailer-trash—these are not criticisms of her artistic merit, they are assessments of her personally, yet based upon a performed persona.


However, Miley’s own comments about the performance suggest she herself might be suffering some confusion over what happened . To MTV she claims that she and Robin Thicke knew they were “about to make history” with the performance.


On the other hand, to the UK publication Sunday People, she admits she has “issues”, that her life isn’t normal, and repeatedly refers to herself as “messed up”, going so far as to say that “everybody does dumb stuff when they are messed up.” So, was the performance history-in-the-making or just dumb stuff? And to confuse matters worse, in the same interview where she claims historical status, she admonishes critics for “overthinking” the performance: “You’re thinking about it more than I thought about it when I did it. Like, I didn’t even think about it ’cause that’s just me.” Well, just who are you, Miley?


Miley Cyrus did not have a normal childhood. Not by a long shot. And some of the stages every kid gets to go through in the course of their growing up Miley went through publicly or simply didn’t have the chance to go through at all. The following is neither an attempt to excuse nor diagnose Miley, it is simply a discussion of what psychological baggage child stars may carry with them on the road to adulthood.


A chief concern among psychologists is that of nature vs nurture, biological vs social factors. Typically developmental psychologists agree that both nature and nurture have a part to play in each issue, but what they want to know is how much is nature and how much is nurture.


Psychologist Erik Erikson was one of those who focused on how contextual forces and biological changes interact. In particular, Erikson articulated eight stages of human development from infancy to adulthood, and posited that in each stage the individual is faced with an essential crisis, and how that crisis is resolved remains with us throughout our lives, for better or worse.


As an example, infants have the crisis of trust vs mistrust, and they come out of that stage tending toward one or the other, depending upon how their biological and sociocultural needs were met. Erikson’s fifth stage, more relevant here since it typically encompasses ages 12-18, is called Identity vs Role Confusion, and while in it, adolescents face questions about themselves (identity crises). During this stage the biological changes adolescents undergo are coupled with and complicated by societal demands. 


While people have obviously been passing through the ages 12-18 for quite some time now, thinking of that period as “adolescence” is pretty much a recent phenomenon, a result of the relaxation of the expectation for teens to get married, have children, and fully participate in the adult world. This relative lack of responsibility creates a space in which adolescents can “try on” different roles and personalities. According to Erikson, there are three things that might go wrong during this process: identity diffusion, identity foreclosure, and negative identity. It’s the last two which might help us make sense of Cyrus’s situation.


Identity foreclosure occurs if an adolescent establishes her sense of identity before enough role experimentation has taken place. In Miley’s case, her teen years were spent playing the role of Hannah Montana. Was that role more than just an acting role? Did it become a surrogate, perhaps unchosen life? And now that she is no longer Hannah Montana, who exactly is this Miley Cyrus? Maybe she doesn’t even know but is determined to find out, while taking us all on the ride with her in the only way she’s ever known—publicly.


Being in a state of foreclosure typically leads to some sort of fracture or crisis, and Miley is responding to that crisis with her actions—perhaps as a means of asserting the control she lacked for so long. The type of response we’re seeing from her suggests she has created a negative identity.


To understand what negative identity is, one might consider the stereotypical example of a preacher’s daughter: she’s expected to go to church, dress appropriately, act morally, be a good role model, have certain beliefs. The daughter may not feel she has an acceptable identity in this environment (maybe constantly being chastised for any mistake, etc). So after trying and failing so many times to get positive recognition, the daughter then goes in the exact opposite direction of her upbringing: dressing provocatively, experimenting with drugs, shaving her head, sticking her tongue out… sound familiar?


Since Disney created the Miley/Hannah persona for the real-life Miley to fulfill, it’s not surprising she was unable to explore her own identity. Being a tween actress postponed Miley’s self-exploration, and now, as a 20-year-old, has emerged from the Identity vs Role Confusion stage more or less on the confused side. That doesn’t mean she’s stuck there forever: she can still gain the “virtue” of a stage (in this case identity) later in life, but having come out on the unhealthy side of one stage makes the rest progressively harder. 


And those who bought into the Miley-as-Hannah role are partly responsible for her foreclosure. Even though Miley agreed to play this role (both on TV and in reality, for a time) consumers perpetuated it. As if consumers’ and Disney’s investment in her meant she became their collective property, she was expected to act a certain way and was chastised if she did anything other than what we expected of her. She wasn’t allowed to experiment, to find herself. She had to be Hannah Montana.


And now she’s making sure everyone knows she’s not Hannah, while ruffling some feathers along the way:


Had I wanted my family to see a hooker perform a live sex show, I would have taken her [sic] to Tijuana…


When an idolized, demon-possessed pedophilia victim has dry sex on live TV and receives a standing ovation from her mom, BUT my 10 year old son’s teacher angrily assigns him detention for silently reading “The Holy Bible” during lunch, is the painful day I became ashamed to be an American.



Frankly, Miley’s VMA performance bordered on pornography for only the most genteel of souls. However, pondering the ever-shifting boundaries of what might be considered “acceptable” in the media brings to mind David Foster Wallace’s essay “Big Red Son”. In that essay, Wallace critiques the porn industry in his typical sardonic tone, and, as usual, some of his most interesting stuff is in the footnotes.


In footnote 23, Wallace explains that certain porn directors (he specifically names Gregory Dark and Rob Black) create very hardcore, graphic, depraved films, and posits that this extreme, vile direction is where porn has been heading for the last decade. For Wallace, that decade was the ‘90s (the essay was published in 1998), and he saw the path of extremism in porn as parallel to that being taken in other televisual media (film, television, even the news), becoming ever more violent and shocking. Wallace takes porn seriously, as a “parody of Hollywood and the nation writ large.” Were he still alive today, he would surely still see the same arc.


With regard to Cyrus the entertainer, her performance can easily be explained away as her contribution to an industry trying to stay one step ahead of audiences’ quick and constant adaptation to the shocking and vile. But there’s much more to it than that. This is/was Hannah Montana we’re talking about here, not Marilyn Manson or Eminem.


Returning to the Wallace essay, he writes: “It’s also clear—w/ all moral and cultural issues totally aside—that this is an extremely dangerous direction for the adult-film industry to have to keep moving in. It seems only a matter of time before another conservative pol sees in mainstream porn an outrage sufficient to hang his public ambitions on.”


Wallace is literally worried that the porn industry will drive itself off a cliff. He really doesn’t seem to have been a nudie-film aficionado, but he did understand the cultural work the porn industry is doing. The problem with taking out or restricting forms of cultural critique is that even people who do not actively engage with those forms of expression (e.g., porn) still suffer the blow; they become a little less free, their worlds a little smaller.


Some claim this VMA performance is an “historical event”, others are certain it is not. The fact is, in the old days, no one knew until sufficient time had passed what was a “historical” event and what was not, and a lot of that depended upon who was writing the history in the first place.


But now, in the digital age, the entire web serves as one giant, undiscriminating repository of artifacts, where one can watch video of the JFK assassination and moments later footage of some kid named Charley biting his brother’s finger. The notion of anything media-related in the 21st century being instantly recognizable as meaningful or not seems a bit hyperbolic.


Everything is meaningful to someone, and, one of the greatest assets of the web today is also one of its greatest liabilities: the comment button. Those involved in this particular comment-fest include angry parents who feel betrayed, disgusted women who feel demoralized, African-Americans who are upset that twerking is supposedly an African dance which some rich white girl has no right to appropriate, and, of course, teddy bear manufacturers the world over, whose grievances are obvious.


Indeed, these groups (except the teddy bear people) may well instigate a conservative shift in pop culture by raising their concerns, much in the same way Tipper Gore’s PMRC got parental advisory stickers slapped on albums seemingly overnight. But, truth be told, simply tweeting and leaving comments on myriad websites scattered throughout the mediascape isn’t going to do it. It may make folks feel better to have complained, but those kinds of rants have a way shorter shelf life than the events to which they are attached, they’re going to have to do more than dump their vitriol on social media.


From Mozart to Michael Jackson to Miley Cyrus, child stars characteristically have a rough time once they grow up. No longer cute young kids doing amazing things, they find themselves competing with all the other adults in the room, while also dealing with some of the psychological issues outlined above. Attacking Miley for no longer being Hannah is not helpful; a good start would be to recognize that the stars adults and children idolize are real human beings, trying to figure out their lives just like everyone else. Only everyone else doesn’t have to figure things out quite so publicly and are not quite so unapologetically scorned.

Tagged as: mtv | psychology | vmas
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