Is Miley Cyrus a Master of Social Media?

Richard Dyer’s seminal work on stardom makes a necessary distinction between the construction of the star image and the construction of the work in a given medium in which the star image is situated. However, much of Dyer’s scholarship in books like Stars and Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society focuses on film stars like Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, and Paul Robeson, which renders a problematic implication that stardom for Dyer can only be achieved within the medium of film. Christine Gledhill in Stardom: Industry of Desire similarly reminds us that the film star is traditionally conceived by scholars as the only legitimate star worth acknowledging.

Scholars since Dyer and Gledhill have wisely included other mediums in the discussion of stardom, such as Susan Murray’s well-articulated study of early television stardom in Hitch Your Antenna to the Stars: Early Television and Broadcast Stardom and Laurie Ouellette’s analysis of pop singer Madonna in her essay “Let’s get ‘Serious,’ The Attack on Madonna Scholarship” (On the Issues, Spring 1993) to highlight just a few. Nevertheless, both Murray and Ouellette situate their discussion of stardom within a specific medium as if to suggest that a star image can only be located within a given medium, hence the critical distinction between “television” star versus “film” star versus “pop” star.

Scholars are certainly correct to acknowledge the construction of the star image as separate from the construction of the work in the medium in which the star image is situated, but we need an even bolder statement. That is, we need to rethink stardom not as a product of other artistic mediums like film, television, or theater, but as its own artistic medium in which the star image becomes the product. We must stop situating stars within artistic mediums and instead we must view stardom as its own artistic medium in which the star image is the artistic construction.

It’s apparent that digital technology has allowed stardom to become an art form, and that the star image in today’s digital culture is far removed from the work of the star within the mediums of film, television, or theater, and instead is linked to the daily activities of the star within what I will call the medium of stardom. It may at one point have been critically fruitful to separate stars into categories, as if to imply that a film star is different from a television star, but such classifications have become increasingly arbitrary in today’s social media landscape.

For the purposes of my argument, I will use pop singer Miley Cyrus to exemplify how social media has changed the way stardom can be conceived. It’s crucial to consider how the star image can be constructed within the medium of stardom, and the various tensions that can arise between individuals who co-author the star image. This is not to suddenly imply that stars do not rely on other mediums to maintain or complicate their star image, but I do want to argue that stardom stands alone as its own medium, and that in order to be a successful star in today’s social media culture, one has to work hard to construct a star image, and one has to know which tools to use and how to use them.

By tracing Cyrus’ ascension to stardom, with a special focus on the numerous scandals that have helped define her star image, we can see how Cyrus’ star image has evolved into what today can be considered the authentic Cyrus star image. By authentic star image, I mean that Cyrus represents a star who knows how to work well within the medium of stardom, and that her star image is the product of her artistic creation as well as members in her team who work behind the scenes as co-authors of her image.

An inauthentic star image, by contrast, would be an instance in which the star does not contribute to the artistic construction of the star image, and instead relies entirely on others to construct the image. I don’t believe that an inauthentic star image can exist within the medium of stardom in the digital age, but perhaps can be more prominently located within Hollywood’s notoriously constraining studio system.

That said, Cyrus has struggled to be taken seriously as a creative artist throughout her career. I don’t mean, however, that Cyrus found it difficult to sell records or open a film, nor do I mean that she failed to garner critical acclaim for her work. While all of this may be true, I am more interested in Cyrus’ initial difficulty to construct a star image that the public would accept and take seriously as her own.

Consider, for example, the infamous Vanity Fair scandal, in which the 15 year old Hannah Montana star exposed her naked back on the cover of the 2008 April edition. When news broke out of this photo shoot, everyone involved from Cyrus, photographer Annie Leibovitz, and even the president of entertainment for Disney Channel Worldwide had an opinion on who was to blame, as if Cyrus’ decision to expose her bare back on the cover of a magazine could never be acceptable.

Leibovitz and Vanity Fair defended the photograph, calling it artistic and misunderstood (“Photographer defends Miley Cyrus photo”, CNN, 28 April 2008). Beth Kseniak, a spokeswoman for Vanity Fair, implied that Cyrus’ team deserved blame for being on the set and approving the photo shoot (ibid). A Disney spokeswoman Patti McTeague, on the other hand, blamed Vanity Fair for “deliberately manipulating” a 15-year-old girl in order to sell magazines (ibid). Then Gary Marsh, the president of entertainment for Disney Channel Worldwide, held Cyrus accountable for her actions, as he said, “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.” (“Revealing Photo Threatens a Major Disney Franchise”, by Brooks Barnes, The New York Times, 28 April 2008)

The words of Marsh are prophetic and they symbolize Cyrus’ struggle to construct her star image under Disney, precisely because the Disney brand is marketed to an adolescent audience and Cyrus’ authentic star image is too rebellious for that audience. The Vanity Fair scandal and the reaction to it from various groups demonstrate the disconnect between Cyrus’ authentic star image and the audience to whom her professional work with Disney is marketed. As Lin Burress argued on her parenting blog, the Vanity Fair cover was disturbing to parents because many young girls are Hannah Montana fans and looked up to Cyrus as a role model. (“Miley Cyrus AKA Hanna Montana Going Topless For Vanity Fair”, Telling It Like It Is 27 April 2008). Around the time of the photo shoot, for instance, several Wall Street analysts explained that the Hannah Montana franchise would reach $1 billion in retail sales.

If we view the Vanity Fair scandal as a singular instance, as James Kincaid has done in “Hannah Montana’s Bare, Unprotected Back: Miley Cyrus’s Vanity Fair Outing”, then we might argue that Cyrus was a young girl who was taken advantage of by Vanity Fair and Disney in order to sexually exploit her star image for a profit. (The Velvet Light Trap, Number 65, Spring 2010) However, if we observe this scandal within the context of Cyrus’ career and the evolution of her star image, then we can see that Cyrus was, for the first time in her career, giving the public a glimpse of her authentic star image.

There are various reasons why this assumption is appropriate. For instance, Cyrus herself apologized for the photo, and took full responsibility for her decision to expose her bare back on the cover. At the time of the apology, it seems as if Cyrus was conflicted on how to present her star image. On the one hand, the Vanity Fair cover signifies the kind of rebelliousness that Cyrus would continue to inspire after she cut ties with Disney. On the other hand, Cyrus wasn’t quite ready to stray from Disney, most likely because Disney had garnered her so much success, so she apologized in an attempt to make nice with her adolescent fan base and her employers who were outraged over the cover shoot. In addition, and perhaps more tellingly, this scandal is not a stand-alone instance.

Other than the Vanity Fair scandal in 2008, there are two specific instances during Cyrus’ time at Disney in which Cyrus’ authentic star image was presented to the public and met with resistance by the Disney fan base. One of these instances involves the emergence of various sexually suggestive photographs of Cyrus to the internet in 2008, and the other involves Cyrus’ casual encounter with marijuana in 2010.

In April 2008, provocative images of Cyrus in lingerie were released to the internet by a teenager who hacked into Cyrus’ email account. This occurred a few weeks before the Vanity Fair scandal, which leads me to believe that Cyrus intended to participate in the Vanity Fair photo shoot, even if she wasn’t quite ready to cut ties with Disney and accept the professional consequences of her rebellious image. Although Cyrus took the images of herself that were leaked to the internet, it’s important to point out that Cyrus did not release them.

Nevertheless, the photos, along with the Vanity Fair scandal, helped construct an image of Cyrus that countered the conservative, pure image of innocence that Disney wanted her to promote to her Hannah Montana fan base. Just as she did after the Vanity Fair cover, Cyrus apologized to her young fans for taking the pictures that were leaked, describing them as “inappropriate”. However, this apology, like the one given after the Vanity Fair scandal, seems to be a statement on behalf of Disney as opposed to an apology from Cyrus herself.

This is a logical assumption because ever since these scandals created controversy in 2008, Cyrus has used Twitter to upload various suggestive photographs of herself for the public to see, and she has also participated in several more photo shoots in which she exposes her body. These Twitter uploads and photo shoots have occurred more recently, and they are projections of the Cyrus star image post-Disney. That is, the Cyrus star image has only become more sexualized since Hannah Montana ended its run in January 2011.

Consider, for example, a photo she tweeted on 15 August 2013, in which her see-through shirt reveals a dark-colored bra, or another photo she tweeted on 30 July 2013, that reveals dark-colored lingerie through a see-through dress. Because Cyrus is no longer associated with Disney, she doesn’t apologize for her these tweets, which suggests that the photographs in 2008 were Cyrus’ decision, and that the apologies she offered were forced upon her by Disney in order to keep peace with the Disney fan base and angry offended parents who claimed that Cyrus was “too young” to be promoting sexuality.

Another example of the Cyrus star image involves marijuana promotion. In 2010, for instance, TMZ released a video of Cyrus smoking a substance from a bong on her 18th birthday. Cyrus subsequently claimed that the substance in the bong is salvia, and she again apologized for her actions, saying, “I made a mistake. I’m disappointed in myself for disappointing my fans.” (“Miley Cyrus Bong Video Apology: ‘I’m Not Perfect'”, E-Online, 10 February 2011.)

Since the cancellation of Hannah Montana, however, Cyrus has used social media to promote marijuana. For example, on 20 April 2013, Cyrus tweeted “Merry 4/20” to the public, which suggests that she associates herself with a cannabis subculture that identifies 4/20 as a celebration of marijuana use. Again, like the sexually suggestive photographs she uploads on Twitter, she does not apologize for her promotion of marijuana as she did during the Hannah Montana years.

Combined, the sexually suggestive photographs and marijuana promotion exemplify Cyrus’ provocative star image. During her Disney days, Cyrus often tested this star image to an unreceptive Disney fan base, if only to put in motion her gradual ascension into adulthood, and with it, her authentic star image. Cyrus’ star image contrasts the pure, innocent image that Disney wanted her to promote to her Hannah Montana fan base, and this often led to tense battles over who would have creative control over Cyrus’ star image.

While Disney certainly stifled an amount of Cyrus’ autonomy by seemingly forcing her to apologize after each scandal, the scandals themselves prove that Cyrus wasn’t powerless over the construction of her star image. In addition, social media has allowed Cyrus to take control of her constructed star image since the Vanity Fair scandal, and today Cyrus remains a star who uses social media as an artistic tool to modify, update, or maintain her star image. With each tweet, photo upload, and “twerk” video, Cyrus artfully crafts her star image, always maintaining our interest in how she presents herself. She may not be the sole author of her image, but she has more creative control today than she had during her Disney days.

We can never know the real Miley Cyrus, just as we can never know the so-called actual personalities of any star, but we do have the ability to come to terms with the authentic Miley Cyrus star image. This star image is not a product of Cyrus’ professional work within the mediums of television, film, or the theatrical stage, but an artistic construction of the everyday within the medium of stardom. It’s a conscious attempt on behalf of Cyrus and her team to constantly promote an image of the star in the public sphere, using social media as tools to craft the image.

It’s not clear if Cyrus’ authentic star image will always be synonymous with rebellion, or if she will reinvent her image as other stars have. For now, though, Cyrus seems content with the current image she presents to the public, and she implies that this image is her own construction (see her recent VMA performance, below). Therefore, Disney may have attempted to manufacture Cyrus’ star image in a certain way, but to take a line from Cyrus’ 2010 single, Disney was unable to tame the young starlet. As Cyrus says in the March 2013 edition of Cosmopolitan, “Some of the worst things that have happened in my career, like [pictures] getting leaked, have actually been what’s best for me — I never played the Disney game of smiling and being a princess.”

What is illuminating, ultimately, is not that Cyrus’ star image remains provocative, but that the provocation during the Disney days came from Cyrus, and that Cyrus knew from the very beginning what she wanted her star image to represent. Whether we like it or not, the image of Cyrus on the Vanity Fair cover comes closer to identifying Cyrus’ authentic star image than anything else she has done before or since.

The question remains: Can this updated theory be applied to stars other than Cyrus? The answer, in my view, is an unequivocal “yes”.

Here’s how you can test it: Pick your favorite star, go to their Twitter account, and note what they post. Their social media might make you feel closer to them, and might make the relationship between star and fan seem more immediate and accessible. But make no mistake, this tweet is as calculated and crafted as any of your star’s performances.

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