Friday, December 2, 2011

Why I’m (Pre)Occupied by Miley Cyrus: Does Hannah Montana Still Matter?

I don’t know how you feel about the Occupy Movement or about Miley Cyrus. As for me, having spent the past decade speaking out against the corporate takeover of childhood, I tend to be sympathetic to the 99% message and beyond unsympathetic to the contribution Cyrus-as-Disney-star-Hannah-Montana has made to the commercialized sexualization of very young girls.

So how am I supposed to feel now that she produced a rather moving music video in support of Occupy protests all over the world? It does a great job of using its genre to celebrate the democratic right to protest and bear witness to its (sometimes brutal) repression. If Cyrus is still popular among young people, it probably has a shot at awakening interest in organized dissent. For a certain (young) age group it might make civic activism cool.

I emailed my Occupy/Miley dilemma to some of my wiser colleagues. Actually, my email read, “Does this mean we have to start liking her or stop liking the Occupy Movement?” One immediate response was, “I never disliked her. Blame the handlers, not the kid.” Here’s another, “It's great she did this video. It will draw in a lot of young people, I hope. Miley is used and exploited too.”

And of course they’re right. We can expect that the suits at Disney knew exactly what they were doing to little girls by marketing Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana. We might expect that the other adults in her life knew, too. But we can’t expect a girl in her early teens to know.

Cyrus was only 12 when she auditioned for Hannah Montana—and 13 when it became one of Disney’s biggest hits, with the attendant toys, clothing, accessories, video games, jewelry, and so on. She was just 15 when she posed apparently covered only by a sheet for Annie Leibowitz. My colleagues would say that she was objectified by adults who profited obscenely from her objectification. And because celebrity culture carries so much weight, even with the very young, the glorification and amplification of her image has vast consequences. We only have to search as far as YouTube to see girls as young as 2 playing at being Miley Cyrus playing at being a teenage rock star playing at being an adult playing at being a certain kind of sexy.

But does making a video that promotes civic action transform Cyrus into a positive role model for girls? Well. . .maybe, depending on age. I can just about imagine having a nuanced conversation with my 9-year-old granddaughter about the pros and cons. But I doubt that her 5-year-old sister could old grasp the nuance of someone being a great role model in some ways but not in others.

So where does this leave me, Miley, and Occupy Wall Street? For the first time, ever, I find myself wondering about her. I wonder what she thinks, or will think in the future, of how Hannah Montana was marketed to children. I wonder why she made this video. I wonder what her managers/agents/handlers think about it. I wonder if they weighed the cost/benefit to her career before it was posted. I wonder if she even tries to reconcile her ties to Disney, one of the biggest entertainment conglomerates in the world, in light of the Occupy Movement’s spotlight on greed and the abuse of corporate power.

The Yiddish word “farkakte” means simultaneously “crazy, screwed up, and gone bad”; Sometimes it’s the only word that will do. It’s a farkakte world where 1% of the population gets richer at the expense of everyone else; where corporations purposely sell four year olds on fake sexuality; where thousands of unknown viewers can watch repeatedly the parent-posted videos of tiny daughters as Hannah Montana imitators shaking whatever booty they have; where kids are indoctrinated to celebrity culture before they even enter preschool; and where a 19 year old’s celebrity means that her political opinions matter.

But I have to say—I like the video. I’m glad she made it. Thanks for this one, Miley Cyrus.

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