Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pleasant Pornography

The saga of Miley Cyrus has been fascinating to me. It is, of course, a tragic story. But the real tragedy is just how common it is. Not everyone has their life played out in front of the cameras, nor do many young people experience the extremes Cyrus has in her life. She is, however, a prime example of the ways in which our culture tries to define and compartmentalize people.

She literally grew up in "the business," her dad doing music and tv and touring. Producers and PR reps have been as much a part of her life as teachers or neighbors. At eleven, she started doing a TV show, Hannah Montana, where she played a kid rock star with a double life. It's the ultimate image of the real American Dream: money, fame, popularity, and a normal life to boot.

From the very beginning she's been steeped in this idea that who you are has very little to do with who you are, or even what you do or believe, but it has everything to do with what you project - your brand. The problem is, when you grow up in such an environment, there is nothing for you to be except that brand.

A week ago, she gave an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC, where she talked about sex and aging and wanting to get in all her partying while she's young "because once you hit 40, people stop having sex." Beyond the simple equation of sex and fun, it belies a troubling lack of self-understanding, and a real tenuous grip on reality. A tenuous grip on reality is not exactly something new for celebrities, but few embrace it so openly, naively and honestly.

I read an article once, by a Hollywood type who at first expressed his outrage that Cyrus (at the time, something like 15) was dating a 20 year old model. He said his mind was changed when he met her, explaining that a 15 year old kid who's spent that much time in the business is forced to grow up differently - they have so much to deal with and face that "normal" kids her own age couldn't even begin to understand. You're sort of a grown up, when you're not really a grown up. (People of my generation: think MacCauley Culkin.) There is so much "business" inside these kids that there's no room for normal personal development. They just don't know who they are - and you really can't blame them.

People became outraged at Cyrus' sexual breakout, during the hideous MTV music awards performance recently. I wrote a little bit about that incident earlier. A large part of the outrage centered around the sexualization of an innocent Disney Channel star - that someone who provided a wholesome role model for kids was now doing exactly the opposite.

Recently, Sinead O'Connor released an open letter to Miley Cyrus, imploring her to stop allowing herself to be prostituted by the music industry. It's naive to think this sexual explosion has nothing to do with Cyrus herself. For a girl who never really had a childhood, let alone an identity of her own, this seems a natural expression of the stage of life she's in. Again, her case is extreme to the extreme, but I am not sure it's all that uncommon. At the same time, O'Connor is completely correct. The music industry cares about making money - and sex sells and there will always be another decent singer with a pretty face they can exploit.

Pornography (I promise the title is not just eye catching) is insidious not because of the way it thumbs it's nose at our collective sexual mores, the trouble comes in its dehumanization of people. This dehumanization is exactly what Sinead O'Conner was warning about. It's very easy for us - and so much easier for celebrities - to trade our human worth for money or fame or success or whatever seems worthy at the moment.

What I think we fail to recognize is that Cyrus' Hannah Montana period is just as pornographic as her current incarnation. Yes, it better fits our expectations of decorum and propriety, but it's just as dehumanizing.

For all the pleasant Hannah Montana narratives - that Cyrus was allowed to grow up in the lush countryside of Kentucky or Tennessee or wherever it was, and be shielded from the trappings of her very real celebrity: that she's a real life Hannah Montana (they even gave Hannah's alter ego the name Miley, as if to confuse young fans and their young star alike as to the boundaries of reality) - this is not a normal or an easy life. No one has a life like that.

I can barely remember being eleven. I have memories, sure, but they are so far removed from who I am now that it's almost impossible to relate to myself as a child. I think most people are this way. Who you are is developed in your teens and twenties. Miley Cyrus has never been able to be herself.

We often criticize people because we expect them to "know how to behave," and that they're choosing to do something different - that it's some sort of willful rebellion. I suspect Miley Cyrus is in the middle of willful rebellion, except the place she's come from and the place she wound up are just opposite sides of the same coin.

No one is normal - and the notion that normal exists is really just a pleasant pornography we use to escape the realities of our own lives - it's just a bit more sanitary and far more socially acceptable than watching sex.

The solution isn't changing your image or your habits or your life - it's recognizing that emptiness is, in many ways, just part of life. We only find true comfort when we discover people who affirm and value us for the messed up weirdos we all are. It's coming together in embrace of the truly un-normal, un-cool, un-spectacular reality of us that we can discover some foundation on which to build a life.

I hope Miley Cyrus gets there some day, I just hope it is because of and not in spite of our collective reaction to her.

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