Topic: Sports & Entertainment

The Ethics of Child Stardom, Part Two: Miley Cyrus in Vanity Fair

It should cause ethical whiplash. Here is former teen comet Britney Spears, still not sufficiently stable to have control of her own financial affairs or to see her children regularly, trying to rebuild her shattered reputation with a guest role on a TV sitcom. Here she is posing with her apparently proudly pregnant little sister, whose own bubbly tween show is once again running on cable’s Nickelodeon. Here is Dina Lohan being honored as a “Mother of the Year,” as she relentlessly pushes her 14 year-old daughter down the same path that led older daughter Lindsay to nude magazine photo shoots and rehab stays just a few years after her last Disney movie. And here is 15-year-old Miley Cyrus, Disney’s squeaky clean and wholesome “Hannah Montana,” posing for Vanity Fair in poses that make her look like an aspiring LolitaÂ…especially one that appears to show her naked, wrapped only in a bed sheet.

The revelation of the photos, taken by famed (and reliably provocative) photographer Annie Leibowitz, ignited a multi-front controversy. Disney, seeing its wholesome meal-ticket being prematurely sexualized, regarded the photos as an affront to its audience and bottom line. Miley Cyrus apologized, suggesting she was pressured and duped by the magazine and Leibowitz to take photos she was now ashamed of. Vanity Fair pointed out that Cyrus’s parents and advisors were on hand throughout the shoot. Leibowitz commented, sadly, that she was sorry her innocent photo was being misunderstood, as it was just “a simple, classic portrait.”

Of course, Leibowitz probably thought her Vanity Fair cover photo of Demi Moore naked and pregnant was a simple classic portrait. But to some people who would not normally be called hysterics, photographs of semi-nude 15-year-old girls looking as if they has just been de-flowered are called “child porn.”

There is almost too much dishonesty, bad judgement, irresponsibility and hypocrisy to catalogue in the Cyrus-Vanity Fair “scandal.” Some of it, however, is easy to grade in ethics terms:

Vanity Fair: Exploiting the sexuality of a 15-year-old girl to sell magazines is obviously not regarded as an illegitimate strategy in the editorial offices, and its effect on the psyche of the teenager involved, her career, her reputation, or the attitudes of her young fans is simply not on the magazine’s radar screen. In other words, there is no ethical consideration here at all. Ethics Grade: F

Photographer Annie Leibowitz: Ditto. In her case, all that matters is continuing her reign as America’s edgiest, most talked about celebrity photographer. Cyrus? To Leibowitz, she’s like a bowl of fruit to a painter, a lump of clay to a sculptor, or an electric guitar to a rock singer: just a means to an end. The only difference is that you don’t have to persuade bowls of fruit, lumps of clay or guitars to be an artist’s means to an end. The fact that Miley Cyrus is a human being and a very young and vulnerable one evidently doesn’t enter into the equation for Leibowitz. Again, there was no ethical reasoning going on behind the camera, none at all. Ethics Grade: F

Billy Ray Cyrus, and others: Not that it excuses Vanity Fair’s conduct, but Miley Cyrus was failed by those the law and nature holds are her guardians and protectors: her parents and professional representatives. Not only did Papa Cyrus not prevent exploitive and disturbing photos of his daughter, he participated in one which depicts his relationship with his daughter in a sexually suggestive manner. The father of the teen superstar, perhaps to enhance his own career visibility, was a full participant in the sexualization of his daughter’s image. Then he allowed his daughter to do the public apologizing. Ethics Grade: F minus

The Excusers: Many show business types, from Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa to Rosie O’Donnell, weighed in with the opinion that the whole flap was over nothing, that the photo was nothing to get upset about. The general thrust of their arguments was a version of one of the Scoreboard’s least favorite rationalizations: “This isn’t the worst thing.” Yes, it’s true: a photo of Cyrus naked and frolicking with a goat would be worse, for example. It isn’t Lindsay Lohan’s mug-shot, and Cyrus isn’t an unwed mother like Jamie Lyn Spears. The fact that we can imagine worse doesn’t make it healthy for Cyrus and the culture for her to be portrayed, while still a child, in a sexually suggestive pose. As for those who deny that it is a sexually suggestive pose, they are either being dishonest, dense, or working in Hollywood simply obliterates any sense of shock or outrage. These are the people who refuse to draw any ethical lines at all, encouraging values and public sensitivity to inappropriate conduct to dissolve into vapors. Ethics Grade: F

You will find no criticism here of Miley Cyrus, who is a minor trying to cope with the dazzling, corrupting and confusing world of big money entertainment at an age when most kids are making extra money baby-sitting. Who knows what advice she is getting, and from whom? The journey from innocent child star to adult actress is extremely perilous and uncertain, and competition is fierce. Who in Hollywood can be counted upon to argue will say that “Seventh Heaven” star Jessica Biel’s decision to pose topless for a skanky men’s magazine while still regarded as a “good girl” teen role model wasn’t a better career tactic than the decision of Larissa Oleynik, then the star of a Nickelodeon hit, to make her film debut playing another squeaky clean teen? Today Oleynik is a working actress but hardly a star, while Biel is a full-fledged femme fatale superstar. It is a good bet that Cyrus has been hearing that she needs to start attracting male stalkers before it’s too late.

The early sexualization of TV actresses whose fans are young teens and pre-teens has a strong rippling effect across the culture, encouraging girls to go where their idols appear to be going. In the case of “Hannah Montana,” their idol is inviting someone to have sex; in the case of “Zoey,” Jamie Lyn Spears, their idol is actually having a baby. For decades, well before the popular culture became the behavioral juggernaut is today, it was accepted wisdom that the images and reputations of young girls who were media stars required special protection, so that culturally dangerous messages weren’t broadcast to their impressionable fans. Today that wisdom is largely ignored in pursuit of commerce, but it is no less valid.

Miley Cyrus’s Vanity Fair photograph session once again suggests a question that nobody wants to ask, much less answer: If young actors make so much money for so many people that their images are inevitably exploited by those who should be looking out for their welfare, and if their visibility and influence as objects of affection and admiration is used to corrupt the values and conduct of our children, why should our culture permit children to work in the entertainment field at all?

If the entertainment world, the media, and parents do not get serious about preventing both of these by-products of child stardom, and quickly, that question will be asked with increasing intensity and frequency.

Read related commentary: The Ethics of Child Stardom, Part 1: Rewarding Irresponsible Conduct

Comment on this article


Business & Commercial
Sports & Entertainment
Government & Politics
Science & Technology
Professions & Institutions

The Ethics Scoreboard, ProEthics, Ltd., 2707 Westminster Place, Alexandria, VA 22305
Telephone: 703-548-5229    E-mail: ProEthics President

© 2007 Jack Marshall & ProEthics, Ltd     Disclaimers, Permissions & Legal Stuff    Content & Corrections Policy