Takeaway culture critic Mary Elizabeth Williams on Miley: Girl gone mild

Tuesday, April 29, 2008 - 12:00 AM

Nobody, not even an earthy, teenage girl from Tennessee, gets her picture taken for Vanity Fair by Annie Leibovitz by accident. A multiplatinum-selling, world-famous, near-billion-dollar industry unto herself certainly doesn't.

Miley Cyrus may be the biggest thing to happen to Disney since the mouse. Her Disney network sitcom is a cable sensation. Her 70-city "Best of Both Worlds" music tour sold out in about the time it took me to type this sentence. Ask any eight-year-old girl about her, and be prepared to scale unimagined heights of hyperbole. I should know. My eight-year-old daughter Lucy loves Cyrus, and, by extension, Hannah Montana, to "infinity." (Her regard for her parents, I suspect, isn't nearly so spectacularly quantified.) Lucy's four-year-old sister Beatrice holds the Disney star in roughly the same regard.

Yet were any of us in our household shocked and appalled, when the teenage singer appeared in the new Vanity Fair, seemingly clad in just a satiny sheet and an enigmatic, heavy-lidded half smile? Put us down for a "no."

What's been more shocking has been, frankly, the shock. Since the photos from the VF story emerged over the weekend, the blogosphere has erupted in molten ire over the seemingly provocative accompanying shots. Message boards have groaned under the weight of angry posts that declare the photo a "horrible mistake" and "clearly soft-core porn."

Cyrus, ever savvy, has moved quickly to damage control, issuing an apology to her fans. "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. "I never intended for any of this to happen and I apologize for my fans who I care so deeply about."

Yet in the story itself, she says, "Annie took, like, a beautiful shot, and I thought it was really cool."

It's certainly a teenager's prerogative to change her mind, but the cynical part of me wonders which statement is the truer one.

Cyrus, whose television and performing alter ego Hannah Montana is every bit as a big a star as she herself is, won't remain frozen in adolescent amber. She's growing up, and if she wants to take her fans into adulthood with her — and have the career longevity her charisma and talent could bring — she has to grow into a more mature persona. 'Mature,' by the way, doesn't have to mean 'slutty.' Cyrus hasn't been staggering around Brentwood, bottle of Everclear in hand. She didn't lift her top for Joe Francis to procure some beads and a trucker hat. She posed, with her parents and her professional entourage close by at all times, for a famous photographer who has been taking pictures of people in various states of undress for decades. Cyrus posed for Annie Leibovitz, the woman who snapped a nude John Lennon and a nude David Cassidy for Rolling Stone, who shot Vanity Fair's notorious cover of a naked, pregnant Demi Moore.

Of course there will be skin. That's Leibovitz's thing. And even if we believe for a moment that Cyrus was in the dark on that matter, one suspects that the folks at Disney have done their homework. They seem the thorough types.

It may be that both Cyrus and her Disney colleagues simply underestimated the American capacity for outrage. The photo, after all, is rather tame. Even The New York Times acknowledges that Cyrus appears "topless, albeit with her chest covered," which is like being barefoot, albeit wearing socks. Stills from the photo shoot, which are readily available on the VF site, show Cyrus modestly swaddled in the shiny fabric and a pair of pants. The controversial photo itself bares mostly back. There is, undeniably, the promise of flesh, the implication of sensuality. But skin is not sex. A glossy photograph is not akin to going wild. And the picture looks disappointingly like just about everything else Leibovitz has shot for the last two decades. It's lovely, but about as sexy as a mid-nineteenth century French salon painting.

Last month I went to The Morgan Library in New York to see Irving Penn's portraits. Penn, like Leibovitz, has an unmistakable style. But his photos have a humanity and distinctiveness lacking in almost anything you'll find in Vanity Fair. A Leibovitz photo, even one of a deshabille teen superstar, reveals little of its subject, who's just another overlit prop. Maybe on some level that's the source of all the fury. It's not that Cyrus resembles a girl on the brink of womanhood, with everything sexual and physical and emotional that implies. It's that she looks like what she may well be to the handlers who were at the shoot, to the photographers and magazine editors and yes, parents like me and their voracious daughters — Just a very pretty product.

Mary Elizabeth Williams is The Takeaway's culture critic. Williams has written for The New York Times and Salon.com, where she hosts Table Talk. Her first book, "Gimme Shelter: True Tales from the Housing Bubble," will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2009.

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