Let Miley Cyrus be the last lesson we need about how to treat young stars

Looking back at Cyrus’ 2013 VMAs performance, a lot has changed for starlets breaking into the mainstream

By Olivia Luppino


Published August 30, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Zendaya and Olivia Rodrigo (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Zendaya and Olivia Rodrigo (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

I was 12 when Miley Cyrus performed at the VMAs in 2013. What I remember most, besides thinking the giant dancing teddy bears and her matching onesie weren't great design choices, was moving closer to the television screen, almost trying to physically shield Cyrus from the criticism I knew would be coming from my horrified family members, and then the world. In the moment, I tried, unconvincingly, to defend her on feminist grounds: Cyrus was a young woman expressing her sexuality and there was nothing wrong with that! It's totally fine! I don't see anything wrong with 20-year-old Cyrus, wearing a latex bra and underwear set, twerking on 36-year-old Robin Thicke while he sings a song about date rape. But, please, don't look at the TV. Maybe now is a good time to refill your soda. 

Like Britney Spears, she was deemed another Disney starlet gone mad; another beautiful young role model turned into an unwieldy woman.

We all remember what happened next. Cyrus became a controversial media fixture for the coming years. She received backlash for both her performance and appearance, became the butt of jokes and received an open letter from a concerned Sinead O'Connor after releasing the music video for "Wrecking Ball" a few weeks later. At the time, Cyrus was already three years into her campaign to break out of her Disney Channel box, a career challenge that often draws curious onlookers wondering if a former teen idol can parlay their early success into an adult, mainstream career.

Cyrus' first big declaration to the world that she was growing up was her 2010 single "Can't Be Tamed." In the music video for the song, Cyrus is a rare bird breaking free from a cage. She's wearing dark eye makeup and a sexy outfit. It's decisive and makes a statement, but it doesn't quite feel like it's hers. Cyrus was so trapped in her former image that she projected one in the complete opposite direction, leaving any remnants of her girlish "Hannah Montana" days behind. The only way to be free was to use as much force and fanfare as possible, leading her to that VMAs stage singing "We Can't Stop," which is another song that's clearly a young person's take on asserting themself as an adult.

After the VMAs, Cyrus had accomplished her goal of moving past "Hannah Montana," but whatever kindness we would have given a young Disney performer was replaced with the disdain and spectacle reserved for the young women who won't meet our double standards. Like Britney Spears, she was deemed another Disney starlet gone mad; another beautiful young role model turned into an unwieldy woman. Like Spears and Paris Hilton, Cyrus was pushed to a public tantrum and became an open target for criticism. What followed was bleached hair and albums about partying and doing drugs and then headlines basking in the horror of it all. 

Cyrus' contemporaries, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato, also struggled with moving past Disney Channel. At 18, Gomez mostly drew attention for her dating life, specifically her relationship with Justin Bieber. Her music got more mature and her participation in the R-rated film "Spring Breakers" drew concerned critics just like with Cyrus. Lovato continued releasing music, but was suffering quietly at the time with a drug addiction that began while she was on Disney, something that she has now spoken at length about. In recent years, both Gomez and Lovato have spoken out about the toll that being in the spotlight has taken on their mental health.

It's been 10 years, and Cyrus, Gomez and Lovato have gone through many transformations since. Cyrus' music feels a lot more authentic (and a lot less racist) than her "Bangerz" era, and her latest single "Flowers" broke multiple Spotify records. Cyrus is 30, and I'm 22. I've watched Spears and Hilton and Megan Fox get their redemptions, and Gomez and Lovato tell the truth about how navigating Hollywood in their 20s has hurt their mental health. Spears received widespread public support and eventually was freed of the conservatorship she was involuntarily placed under in 2008. Hilton spoke out about the horrific abuse she endured as a young person placed into the troubled teen industry. Fox was welcomed back after being blackballed in an industry where she was hypersexualized and spoke against it. For all three of these women, we've been able to look back, acknowledge what they had to endure and celebrate who they are today. 

Amid these changes, Zendaya was the next star to go from Disney Channel to the big screen. Like most other things, she did it flawlessly. There were no public drug scandals or partying or even boys. (Zendaya's parents had a rule that she wasn't allowed to date until she was 16, helping to avoid another Justin and Selena media frenzy.) Even when she came out with her big adult project "Euphoria," Zendaya was one of the few cast members who didn't do nude or sex scenes. She has always been a poised, graceful and talented person — and also one of the few Black stars to transition from her Disney show to an acclaimed actress due to Disney's lack of onscreen diversity earlier on. Her growing up was a lot less reckless than Cyrus', but we know that Black women and women of color need to be near-perfect in order to avoid scrutiny, so she had significantly less room to experiment.

Today, the next generation of Disney stars are growing up. But, for Olivia Rodrigo and Sabrina Carpenter, the circumstances don't look the same. We've learned lessons from those who came before them. Now, Rodrigo and Carpenter don't have to be so quick to forget they are young. Rodrigo can go from wearing leather-heeled boots to babydoll dresses, from singing about eating strawberry ice cream to ending up in her ex-boyfriend's bed after lying to her friends about where she was going to spend the night. Carpenter can sing NSFW outros to her song "Nonsense" that get her performances removed from the BBC's website while wearing soft pinks and tutus. They're able to live in that "not a girl, not yet a woman" space that Spears sang about in 2002. Plus, in a moment when "Barbie" had the highest opening of the year and people are finding joy talking about "girl dinner" and "girl math" online, there's a resurgence in celebrating things that keep you connected to being young. From watching the older generations go through it (live, on stage at the Barclays Center while we try to convince our families that Cyrus isn't being completely embarrassing), Gen Z isn't so concerned with proving how grown up we are.

For young women like Cyrus there is only a narrow acceptable path to transition from girlhood to adulthood without drawing scrutiny.

On the 10-year anniversary of her 2013 VMAs performance on Aug. 25, Cyrus released her latest single "Used to be Young," and gave her perspective on one of the most controversial moments of her career. The video for "Used to be Young" resembles "Wrecking Ball," another scandalized Cyrus track. Instead of swinging naked from a piece of heavy machinery, this time she's wearing a sparkly red leotard over a Mickey Mouse t-shirt. The video consists of a close-up shot of Cyrus, who is in tears while she sings, "I know I used to be crazy / I know I used to be fun / You say I used to be wild / I say I used to be young." 

In hearing "Used To Be Young," I realized why I felt so compelled to defend Cyrus that fateful VMAs night: I was watching a young person embarrassing themself, and that is something that is totally fine. Excluding, of course, the elements of Cyrus' performance and music at that time that were downright problematic (which being young is not a satisfactory excuse for), young people do cringey things and act out and make mistakes, especially when they're in the public eye. They try to express their sexuality and find ways to get attention for who they're becoming, even if they're not quite sure who that is yet. What's different for young women like Cyrus is there is only a narrow acceptable path to transition from girlhood to adulthood without drawing scrutiny, and this scrutiny can cause you to act out or impact your mental health. May we never do that to another young woman again.

By Olivia Luppino

Olivia Luppino is a producer at Salon. Previously, she wrote about culture, fashion and lifestyle for The Cut and Popsugar.

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Britney Spears Commentary Miley Cyrus Olivia Rodrigo Paris Hilton Zendaya