The blogosphere has been abuzz with reactions to Vanity Fair’s picture of a provocatively posed Miley Cyrus. Cyrus, the star of Disney’s Hannah Montana and generally lauded for her performance in her role a role model for young girls, has now apparently started the transition toward Britney’s status.
At least that’s one interpretation of the provocative photo. Douthat thinks she’s gaming the machine, which is charitable, but (I think) improbable.
There’s another problem: Miley Cyrus is not particularly gorgeous. I mean, she’s a nice-looking girl, but the country and the world is teeming with girls that look that nice too. Public beauty as we’ve constructed it has less and less to do with the actual physical beauty of ‘prime specimens’ than it does with the social-status trappings of appeal and the arts and sciences of beautification. The innocence factor can’t but plummet under conditions like these, because the beauty that makes Miley’s picture possible and that makes this commentary possible is manufactured; yes, she herself has something to do with it, but hardly all and probably not most. So what we are worshipping turns out to be less Miss Cyrus’ marvelous fresh fecundity and youthful radiance and more the erotic appeal of a giant confection. In an earlier era, this picture would in fact be a painting of a nameless young girl, and it would be a work of art. In this era, it’s a brick in a long, high wall.
The idea that the model in such a photo would have remained nameless in previous generations is interesting. As an audience, we are no longer confronted by artists attempting to demonstrate the beauty of a nameless model or the female form. Rather, we are confronted by that person, with whom we–through the magnifying effect of modern media–have some familiarity. The collision between Miley Cyrus’ public persona and our personal lives is the fuel upon which the media machine runs, and the fuel which stokes the fires of outrage.
Ultimately, that transmission between media stars and their fans is erotic in nature, though not necessarily sexual (at the beginning). Miley Cyrus, to her male fans, is a person with whom (they imagine) they can identify and relate. She is the proverbial “girl next door” that once upon a time young boys would dream of meeting and marrying. Such stars attain cult-figure status because of the identification fans make with them–there is a sense in which the star is “ours.” Hence the inevitable copy-cat status by real girls in the world, who have to attain the near-impossible standard of looks, personality, and money that Cyrus attains.
This identification makes the transition to sexual icon by such stars more exciting for their fans. In the case of the wholesome children who make the leap, their sexuality experience is set within a broader (albeit still fabricated) context, which more closely approximates how the sexual experience should operate and hence is more erotic. It is at the beginning, anyway. When that broader context falls away and only the sexual persona remains, intrigue dies and the star is inevitably forced to do more and more outlandish things to retain fewer and fewer fans. This was Britney’s journey (though there were others before her) and will be Cyrus’ if she continues down the path.
Of course, what this means is that it is not only fans who identify themselves with stars. When the machine takes hold, stars inevitably judge themselves upon their reception by the audience, which is why insecure young women who experience puberty almost inevitably move toward exposing themselves sexually. In doing so, they experience the validation of their whole person–including their sexuality–they so desperately long for.
Ultimately, however, the machine depends (and this is Poulous’ point) upon the creation of persona’s, then inevitably proceeds to their destruction. It is a mark of unrestrained eros, which devours and consumes those who pursue it. The machine builds the mystery, unveils it, then repeats the process upon its next victim.