May 5, 2008

Move On, People, Nothing To See Here (A Continuing Series)

I've about had my fill of this "Hannah Montana topless" business. (If you're the parent of a nine to fourteen year old girl in English-speaking North America, chances are you've had your fill of Hannah Montana, whether topless or not, quite some time ago.)

I won't ask "What's the big deal?" because the "big deal" is quite obvious -- the controversy flirts with the idea of mass-market child pornography. I won't bother posting the picture of Miley Cyrus holding a towel over her chest, baring her back to the camera as she looks over her shoulder with a strange look on her face. You can find the picture easily enough on Google. I'm not clear that the picture is sexual, and it certainly is not sexually arousing. I am clear that a lot of people see that the picture reflects this young lady's blooming sexuality, though. And I am clear that a lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea of a fifteen-year-old girl having sexuality.

But of course, fifteen-year-olds do have sexual facets to their identities. Fifteen-year-olds are quite old enough to understand where babies really come from, for instance, and by fifteen years of age, they have begun to recognize the changes in their bodies that go along with aging into sexual maturity. Most girls have had their periods by age fifteen and many have begun to notice their breasts developing. The boys certainly have. The boys have noticed changes in their armpits and their junk. Leave aside questions of behavior, such as whether fifteen-year-olds date and kiss -- and, let's not forget, some of them even have sex. They do all of these things without looking at Vanity Fair magazine, and they always have done these things, too.

What Vanity Fair adds to the mix is its mass marketing power. It forces you to acknowledge this uncomfortable fact, one that by social convention we adults are apparently supposed to ignore. (Note that I did not say "act upon," because that is a far different sort of social and legal convention, one that exists for a multiplicity of very good reasons.) But ignorance of an uncomfortable fact is rarely a good way to deal with it. Where do things like teen pregnancy and promiscuity come from? It's easy to blame the mass media and it's difficult to blame human nature.

As for the young Ms. Cyrus herself? In the picture, she looks exploited. Obviously still a child, not yet comfortable with her new-found sexual identity and apparently consumed and victimized by an adult world eager to take advantage of it. That's what the picture looks like to me. If I were to get angry over it, it would be because her parents were right there when the picture was taken and approved its use. If this destroys the built-on-innocence Hannah Montana franchise, they have only themselves and the warped judgment of the entertainment industry into which they have injected themselves to blame.

But I'm just not all that angry about it. I suppose if I had a daughter myself I might be a little bit more angry than I am. Even if so, I hope that I would look at it as a "teachable moment" for my daughter rather than a subject of impotent outrage at the culture at large.

But the whole thing seems to me to be a rehash of other controversies. Exploiting sexual imagery and inviting controversy is not so unusual, particularly in the world of haute culture in which Vanity Fair resides. Brooke Shields was only seventeen when she was filmed bragging that nothing came between her and her Calvins, for instance. We all somehow did not immediately devolve into a society of ruthless pedophiles because of that advertising campaign. I suspect that this is a problem of similar magnitude -- that is to say, negligible -- and we all should just move on already.

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