Miley Cyrus apologized to America yesterday for appearing in a Vanity Fair photo spread, her torso wrapped only in what appeared to be a bedsheet, her hair tousled, her lips painted bright red. Viewers of her Hannah Montana are mostly aged 6-14, and their parents worry this is just another attempt to sexualize their young kids. It's true there was something unseemly about the whole thing, in particular Vanity Fair gloating in its Cyrus profile that "the topless but demure portrait accompanying this article could be seen as another baby step, as it were, toward a more mature profile" and asking, in a caption, "Um, was Cyrus-or Disney-at all anxious about this shot?" But there's also something absurd about the outraged reaction to the whole thing, including allegations of exploitation by Disney and a parenting website suggesting readers burn Hannah Montana products in a bonfire.
Cyrus is hardly the first teenaged minor to adopt a sexual pose, however vague, in the media, and Vanity Fair is hardly the first glossy to run topless pictures of an underaged minor — the Times' T Magazine did that in December in a move staunchly defended by the editor of the main Times Magazine.
The difference between Cyrus and teen stars who have gotten away with this sort of thing is that Cryus is supposed to be making $1 billion annually for the Walt Disney Company by selling a wholesome image to younger girls.
A Disney spokeswoman called the Vanity Fair shoot "a situation was created to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines." As opposed to, say, a situation created to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell a television show or the products advertised in them.
Cyrus seems to have no trouble appearing in sexualized pictures without Annie Leibovitz whispering in her ear, as at the Vanity Fair shoot (where her mom and other minders were present). Pictures surfaced last week of Cyrus exposing her bra and midriff and cuddling with a boyfriend. Not that the star should be ashamed of her tame teenaged experimentation.
This isn't about exploitation or morality. It's about, on the one hand, a move studio looking to preserve the profits that come from selling a particular character increasingly divorced from the actress who plays her, and on the other a set of parents freaked out about anything remotely sexual and unwilling to serve as an intermediary between the media and their children.