Miley Cyrus: Daddy's little hurl

Scandal surrounding underage female sexuality swirls, and fathers are way too involved.

Published April 30, 2008 8:20PM (EDT)

I've been home sick for part of this week, and I'll admit to logging some couch time with my favorite daily tabloid of choice, the dastardly New York Post.

And that's how, even in my lozenge-soothed stupor, I learned of this week's major celebrity scandal: the purportedly jaw-dropping Annie Leibovitz photos of partially unclothed 15-year-old "Hannah Montana" star Miley Cyrus in the upcoming issue of Vanity Fair.

I looked at the pictures of her in the weird back-baring stole thing. I agreed with my colleague Sarah Hepola that you generally see more skin at prom, and that this smacks of the kind of "Outrage!" often voiced by those who cheerfully participate in questionable pop-culture habits -- like consuming teen sexuality as served up by every television network, magazine, record company and movie studio -- until the moment at which a large national spotlight is shone on them. Then they scream "Eek!" and start preaching about values.

Sure, Cyrus is being sexualized, and I guess it's all kind of gross. But come on -- in a world in which we market push-up bras (and "Cheetah Girls"!) to preadolescents and 'tweens, in which Vanity Fair throws naked or lingerie-encased women on its covers whenever possible -- are we really so appalled by the sight of a less-clad-than-usual 15-year-old who has already been packaged, marketed and unrelentingly sold, sold and sold to America's daughters?

This is but one of the problems with how we treat developing female sexuality in this country: With every Barbie, every Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, every music video and every new style of miniskirt and tube top made in junior sizes and worn on "Hannah Montana," we send the message to young girls that their job and their worth as young women will depend on their ability to look and act sexy, preferably while mouthing words they don't yet understand about virginity and purity. Then, when they get to an age at which they might exhibit feelings or behaviors related to actual sex, we castigate and censor them.

It's undoubtedly a deeply troubling and twisted cycle of hypocrisy and mixed messages, one that is worth examining, but not via faux puritanical outrage over a stole-wrapped teenager, especially when that teenager is owned and operated by a corporation currently selling racy underwear to children in China.

But what is mystifying to me about the whole mess: Why the outcry over the nude-back photo and very little uproar over the truly upsetting shot of Cyrus with her daddy, Billy Ray? To me this image, in which daughter slumps on father's lap, his hand holding hers, her nearly exposed hip jutting out just next to his arm, is far more suggestive than the tousled backless image, which at least leaves open the possibility that this young woman might be trying out her sexual agency on her own, not playing it up to enhance her father's masculinity. Yech. The image, in fact, is shiveringly reminiscent of less artsy-fartsy recent photos of Miley acting foolish with her boyfriend.

But the still image of Miley and Billy Ray has nothing on the very much more creepy behind-the-scenes video of the photo shoot, currently available on Vanity Fair's Web site. In it, the Cyruses -- père et fille -- are shown posing together, his hand resting on her inner thigh as he nuzzles her forehead and she gazes up at him adoringly. The camera skims up her legs as her dad simultaneously throws his arm around her protectively and does his best Le Tigre for Leibovitz's camera, which is, after all, resuscitating his career at the same time it frames and captures his offspring's blossoming allure. Talk about boosting your own credentials on the body (literally) of your daughter.

And it's not just this Cyrus thing.

How about these stomach-turning images of Hulk Hogan caressing his bikini-clad daughter Brooke?

And in this week's other New York Post scandal, about baseball star Roger Clemens' reported affair with country singer Mindy McCready, whom he met when she was 15 (she is now 32), I couldn't help noticing that McCready's father acted as her spokesman, and was comfortable clarifying -- not to say publicizing -- details of his daughter's sexual past to a newspaper. "I've been talking to Mindy about this a lot, and I can assure you that nothing went on between them physically until well after she had moved to Nashville," Tim McCready assured the Post, adding that "with Roger, there was a definite attraction between them. But it was an on-again, off-again thing ... For Roger, one spring training comes around and the season starts, he is dedicated to baseball. So they had about three months a year when they could see each other."


How about, instead of slapping the wrists of those (Vanity Fair, Disney, the Cyrus family) who will blush or wag their fingers all the way to the bank thanks to this Cyrus story, we take a moment to make a salient point:

Family values -- as defined by Walt Disney, the church, the Republican Party or anyone else -- do not include a father's ownership of his daughter's body or sexuality, or his treatment of her sexuality as his property or financial or personal resource.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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