This Just In: Hannah Montana May Have A Clitoris!

April 30, 2008 | By | 6 Replies More

What are we to make of this latest flap over a teen icon revealing herself as a potentially sexual being?

I was only dimly aware of Hannah Montana till the Vanity Fair scandal (if scandal is the word). Now it seems I can’t get away from her, which is, of course, the goal of marketing—to make something inescapable for the general public. There are elements of the incident that require less froth and more examination. The accusations of “whose idea was it in the first place and how was Mylie Cyrus manipulated?” are loud and in many ways naive.

First off, Hannah Montana is a Disney product. I don’t think we’re yet quite comfortable with the idea of a person—even a fictional one—being a “product” like a box of soap or a car, but this is indeed what the character is. Designed, engineered, and road tested, Hannah Montana is a money-making machine for Disney and the various participants in the show and franchise.

Pause for a moment and consider: Disney.

It is difficult to imagine a marketing machine that is better at what it does. Which means the chances of something being done with one of its properties that it (a) doesn’t know about and (b) doesn’t approve are next to zero. Especially when you add to that:

Vanity Fair.

Big magazine, famous magazine, a magazine people in show business lust to get into. In the vernacular, Lot A Bank there.

So we’re talking about two major corporate entities, huge public presence, who are involved—without a doubt contractually—in a presentation of a property. Again, the oddness of talking about a person as property is unsettling, but this is a show business idiom quite common. Agencies discuss “properties” all the time and they’re talking about musicians, actors, artists.

Throw into the mix Annie Liebowitz, who is arguably iconic herself. From the early days at Rolling Stone up through the present, Annie is a public figure. Meaning that, especially “in the business”, everyone knows what she does. She would also have been involved in the arrangements between Disney and Vanity Fair.

So far so good. Everyone knew what was going on.

Now, the photoshoot was crowded. Lots of people there. Including Mylie Cyrus’s parents. Not sure who mom is, but dad—Billie Ray—is an entertainment industry insider. He’s been around a long time. He has survived quite well. He knows the ropes. He is not a “stage dad” in the sense of not knowing what’s going on.

I’ve laid this out at some length to show how utterly unlikely it is that the photographs of 15-year-old Mylie in a pose more appropriate to a 20-something were an accident. That no one knew what was happening. It’s not like this was done in a basement studio, digitally, and the shots immediately posted to the web. Disney would have had to clear the shots. I cannot imagine it wasn’t in the contract that someone at Disney would get to look at them and say, one way or the other, whether they could be published. Of the two, Disney is by far the bigger gorilla—Vanity Fair was not likely to hold them over a barrel.

So what then is the Big Deal? And, if this is so inappropriate, why was it allowed?

Control over a teen-age superstar is doable. Look at Leann Rimes. Her burgeoning sexuality, while certain present and eminently marketable, was not “unleashed” till she was over 18. Her parents kept a handle on it. We can doubtless find other examples. Reese Witherspoon. Jody Foster. Helen Hunt. Even earlier, Annette Funicello.

(Though Annette is a curiosity—she never really stopped being a Mousketeer. Her emergent sexuality—blatant and impossible to get around—somehow failed to take her into “adult” consideration. Management may have been too tight and she remained—popularly—the girl on the beach who never went past the first kiss. This happens—actresses who have the audacity to “grow up” and find themselves trapped in an adolescent image. Sally Fields is a case in point. She went from Gidget to The Flying Nun, completely bypassing a mature sexual phase, and nearly remained stuck with it. She made a minor film—I forget the title—in which she appeared nude. In an interview, she admitted that the decision to do so was calculated to shatter the Gidget/Flying Nun image so she could then be taken seriously as an adult actress. The tactic might be questionable to some, but the result was a critically-successful career.)

Managing the property is the whole game here. And Hollywood (and Nashville, etc) have a problem with starlets like Mylie. Once they establish them as an icon for preteens to teens—what is called “tweens”—what do you do when they grow up and start acting like women?

Age here isn’t the issue. Let’s face it, sexuality strikes in the teen years, some sooner than others, and the limelight of a successful career seems somehow to advance the timetable. We are all-too-familiar with the meltdowns in instances where the transition is, well, bungled—Lindsey Lohan and Britney Speers are the poster girls of crash and burn.

What happens here is when the studios have a young woman shoved into a role who either rebels or outgrows it and starts doing things to escape the constraints, consciously or unconsciously. The ravening hounds of media parasites (yes, the metaphor is a bit mixed, but so are these predators) do all they can to capitalize on the disparities between public image and private reality.

And at 15, playing the woman is both natural (role playing, which we ALL do when we’re growing up) and attractive when it is clear that there is a certain amount of power in the pretense.

The thing that is missing—and this may not be Disney’s fault, or any studio’s or management companie’s fault—is that we do not have a viable transition phase for this. By that I mean, when you look around at the culture, we go from Kids to Adults overnight. The tipping point for young girls like Lindsey Lohan and Mylie Cyrus is precipitous and total. One day it’s 12 years old and all that that entails, then the next it’s thongs and late evenings at night clubs. (Not actually, but imagistically). The awkwardness of adolescence has no viable media presence unless it’s as The Nerd, which does no one any good when it comes to this. Between the ages of 13 and 18, kids are acquiring all this Stuff—hormones and hair and peer groups (rather than just friends)—and we have to learn what to do with it. But that is rarely ever discussed in the media.

Disney—through a character like Hannah Montana—can’t talk about emergent sexuality in a meaningful way because they have latched onto a demographic that is seen as protected. Hannah Montana appeals to 5 to 11 year olds. Hannah can’t meaningfully address the 14 to 18 year olds about dating, fashion, masturbation, birth control, drinking, peer pressure without either talking over the heads of her demographic or offending the parents of that demographic and losing her audience. By the time she can talk about those things, she will have been moved into adult roles as a mature woman, and by then her influence among those who might just need a positive role model for what they’re going through will be over because she’ll be pg-13.

And what about Mylie? Reports on her confused reactions make perfect sense from the perspective of a 15-year-old. Upon seeing the photograph initially, she thought it was really cool. She looked to the adults around her for validation of this assessment and apparently—at least from initial reports—got it. They were all in a brief bubble wherein the beauty of the subject and the treatment could be considered entirely on their own merits.

But then came the publication and the reaction of the fans. Not the same. So Mylie feels embarrassed. Anyone who has ever been a teen-ager or who knows them well can see exactly what happened. At that age, so much of what we are is dependent on the opinion of others—because we’re changing, because we haven’t figured it out yet—that what seems perfectly great in one circumstances becomes personally suspect in another. Mylie may well not know how to feel about it because her initial reaction seems to run counter to Everyone Else’s. And she doesn’t know yet how to ignore, how to filter, how to assess. The lines blur.

Instead of figuring out a way to create a character that can address this phase meaningfully, for now we seem stuck with these awkward and often scandalous transitions where the actress and the icon begin to part company. I do, however, find Disney’s reaction laughable. In my opinion, they knew very well what the shoot looked like and approved. The controversy may well allow them to “position” Mylie for a transition into a more adult role later, something they’ve tried to do with Lindsey Lohan. Scandal sells.

The problem is, in all this marketing and talk of product and property, everyone forgets that there is a real person involved, one who is really not as cynical and sophisticated as the image being created.


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Category: American Culture, Art, Communication, Consumerism, Culture, Current Events, Entertainment, Media, photography, Psychology Cognition, Sex

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (6)

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  1. Obbop says:

    When will we see some tentacle action? Plenty of artists working for Disney.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    I was barely aware of Hannah Montana before this, even though I have a 13 year old niece. Now is not much different. Another child start grows up. But because this was brought to my attention, I did some looking around. Here is a discussion of this recent piece of young celebrity news that basically says, teenagers [eff word]: Duh.

    Back in Ozzie and Harriet times, people were able to pretend that Peyton Place was "somewhere else", and that Kinsey was just dirty minded. But in this age of easy information, it is hard to understand why people still pretend that back when the marrying age for girls was typically under 14, people were different. Once those hormones start running, you can't really stop teens from acting on them.

    As long as we live in a culture that tries to hide things like death and sex from kids, they will be forbidden fruit in the temptingest sense. And there will be those who profit from the dichotomy.

    The nominal line between child and adult always will be fuzzy. But it would be nice to live in a culture that publicly allowed kids to look ahead and see the joys and the dangers of both the fuzzy line itself, and what lies beyond in adulthood.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Mark: She wears a bra too, as you can see in this incredible, breathtaking photo. Apparently, this young woman has breasts. Oh my God! How . . . how did this ever happen!?

    Even more incredible, huge numbers of Americans pretend that dressing up women in attractive ways and having them perform by dancing, acting, singing and charming others has NOTHING to do with sex. These are the same people who think that female cheerleaders are not, in any way, making sexual displays. They further believe that there is a stark line between innocent beauty pageants and lust-fueling sexual displays involving nudity and inviting the exchange of body fluids.

    These binary-thinking people are so incredibly wrong. From the heterosexual male viewpoint, sexuality is a continuum running from the non-sexual (e.g., a locomotive, a brick, the American flag, a wristwatch) to the sexual (anything having to do with a physically healthy young woman or adult woman) to the sexy (young women or adult women dressed in ways that are socially recogized to be unambiguosly sexual). Along that continuum, we find things like little girls being dressed up in ways that advertise sexuality, strange religious rituals and grotesque beauty pageants for little girls.

    We're clearly in the post-fact era these days. Americans constantly encourage each other that things are the way they want them to be rather than the way they actually are. In keeping with this mass delusion, many Americans fervently want to believe that a young woman is not sexual until some magic moment pre-ordained by someone (or some corporation), at which point somehow a switch is flipped, and presto! Nothing objective has changed, but everything has somehow changed!

    The consequences of this denial of the continuum of sexuality can destroy young minds.

    This mass denial of the continuum of sexuality reminds me of the abstinence-only form of "sex education," where advocates contend that the best way to deal with something is NOT dealing with it. On this topic of "abstinence only sex education," check out this Jon Stewart video.

  4. Vicki Baker says:

    I asked my 12 year old daughter what she thought of Hannah Montana, and she replied "Who?" .

    Could it be that middle-aged men are paying rather more attention to this whole thing than adolescent girls?

  5. Vicki made me laugh. 😀 And yeah, I find this topic not to be that thrilling. While I usually appreciate Mark's eloquence this post bored me. I skimmed through it so quickly that I do not even really know what the intention of his post is.

    But because I like to give my uninformed 2 cents on everything – anybody who grew up in the showbusiness, with a dad who is in the showbusiness, is certainly not a little innocent girl that is not aware of her sexuality or the effect she has on the public. And she should dress up a bit more if she doesn't want to come across as some little Lolita.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Mark: This is an obscure footnote, I know. But if you ever need an alternative rarely used plural version of clitoris, you can find it in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (and barely anywhere else). This archaic plural form is "clitorides" (accent on the second syllable). I ran into this word about 15 years ago and I've been trying to find a smooth way to work it into a conversation ever since.

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