We're hardly the type to play scolds for risque media attention-getting stunts. But there is such a thing as a bright line that you simply don't cross. Consider this quote in the NYT from a Vanity Fair spokesperson:
"Miley's parents and/or minders were on the set all day. Since the photo was taken digitally, they saw it on the shoot and everyone thought it was a beautiful and natural portrait of Miley."
Is that so? Here's a radical notion: stop bullshitting us. Everybody recognizes sex when they see it. Humans are hardwired for it, and media outlets are experts at pushing our buttons in that particular arena. Does anyone—at Vanity Fair, among its readers, or even Annie Leibovitz herself—believe that the master photographer didn't give any thought to sexing up the 15 year-old pop star in those photos? That the bedsheet was totally innocuous?
Another radical notion: the media and its proxies bear some responsibility for what is published. There are rare times when it falls to the photographer, or the publisher, to save someone from their own bad judgment. We live in a highly sexualized culture as it is; the least we can do is keep kids out of its spotlight until they're of age. Cyrus and her parents are either poor judges of PR, or were ignorant as to how the shoot would end up looking. Either way, VF and Leibovitz owed them the courtesy of not letting this happen in the first place.
Yes, a free press extends into the celebrity arena, and yes, we're all for openness in reporting, obviously. But Leibovitz, who has earned over the course of her career the right to call the shots on the photos that fill our country's glossiest magazine pages, has lost her perspective. It's a matter of very simple decency, and one doesn't have to be a prude, or a conservative, or even someone frustrated with the sheer vapid nature of these things, to steer clear of sexualizing children for the sake of selling more magazines.
Vanity Fair, sadly, would probably never deign to turn down a photo spread like this. But Leibovitz should know better. As technically skilled as she is (and there is no denying that), she has become primarily a machine for generating ginned-up controversy. And not always controversy that is provocative in the service of a larger ideal, or that seeks to shock us out of old and tired conventions. Just controversy, set up artificially, for the sake of itself.
A parallel to the current uproar is the outrage that ensued over Leibovitz's recent Vogue cover featuring Lebron James in a King Kong-like pose, holding supermodel Gisele Bundchen. Leave aside, for a moment, the argument over whether she was consciously using the shot to position the basketball star as King Kong redux. What's certain is that she's far too experienced not to recognize the images such a photo would call to mind, and the controversy that would ensue. And did her work accomplish anything? Was it a great stride towards racial equality in the elite fashion media? No, it was essentially a "Tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Which is what Leibovitz excels at. And which is what she and Vanity Fair were going for with the Miley Cyrus shoot.
Leibovitz just released this statement:
"I'm sorry that my portrait of Miley has been misinterpreted," she said in a statement. "Miley and I looked at fashion photographs together, and we discussed the picture in that context before we shot it.
"The photograph is a simple, classic portrait, shot with very little makeup, and I think it is very beautiful."
Debatable. But even if such a photo would be considered beautiful hanging on the wall of her parents' den, a huge photo spread in Vanity Fair is quite a different story, and requires a bit more careful thought. Somebody has to be the adult. Furthermore, the celeb-shocker bit is no longer shocking. It's just wearying. Leibovitz is now firmly entrenched in the establishment, and it's time for some new blood to rush in. It is possible to say something interesting and useful about the celebrity machine. We believe!
We don't want to railroad Annie Leibovitz out of her profession based on one mistake. We just want some new ideas—for the sake of everyone. It's a safe bet that she doesn't want to be remembered as a child-exploiting one trick pony, either.