News Column

EDITORIAL: Role change

August 29, 2013


Aug. 29--Since the mid-'80s, the antics and outfits of stars at the MTV Video Music Awards have earned the annual show its reputation as a spectacle of shock. It's theater of the "too much," an expo of excess that somehow manages to keep topping itself to the delight and horror of viewers.

This is the show where Howard Stern flew across the stage in backless pants as "Fart

man," where Lady Gaga wore a dress made of raw meat and where, in 1994, Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley shared a kiss that creeped out the nation.

One performance at Sunday's 2013 show still managed to set Facebook a-twitter and Twitter a-tweeting: Miley Cyrus and her now infamous "twerking."

The former star of the Disney Channel's "Hannah Montana" performed in a leotard she pulled off to reveal a flammable-looking flesh-colored bikini. Rather than the choreography one might expect of a performance before millions, Cyrus stuck to a slew of sexual gestures -- all done while sticking her tongue out so much, it started to look like her co-star. This was all capped off by Cyrus bending over and twerking -- jiggling -- onto the front of Robin Thicke, a singer 16 years her senior.

Throw in dancers in huge teddy bear suits and a foam finger Cyrus used as a prop and you get the gist. As Brooke Shields, Hannah Montana's TV mom, said, it was "a bit desperate." It was embarrassing. But it's an embarrassment Cyrus shouldn't bear alone.

As a 20-year-old woman, Cyrus' decision about her performance is ultimately hers. It isn't the first time she's raised eyebrows. But stretching back at least to the 2003 VMAs, when former Mousketeers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera locked lips with then 45-year-old Madonna, there have been enough sexualized exhibitions by former child stars to suggest Cyrus' stunts aren't a simple case of "Disney-girl-gone-wild."

It's not just Disney or MTV. Mackenzie Rosman -- the now-23-year-old actress who played a reverend's daughter in the series "7th Heaven" -- posed in her underwear in the September issue of the men's magazine Maxim. Several years ago, Keshia Knight Pulliam -- that's right, Rudy Huxtable from "The Cosby Show" -- stripped to her bra in a music video. Wonder what "The Wonder Years'" Winnie Cooper is up to? Actress Danica McKellar, a mathematician and author, has also been in "Maxim" and more recently could be seen kissing Avril Lavigne in the video Rock 'n' Roll.

While these former child stars seem intent on shedding, along with their clothes, the good-girl images of their past, they also might be doing something much more in line with what they've done since childhood. They're still making money playing a role we buy into, which inevitably shifts from "all-American cutie" once they're too old to wear the mouse ears.

Simply "tsk-tsk-ing" Cyrus' actions ignores our own contributions to a culture that puts women on sexual display. And while Cyrus' interpretation of "sexy" struck many as anything but, this societal norm has hurt countless young girls and women in less obvious ways than the train wreck of her performance.

Within all the criticism Cyrus is fielding will probably come the refrain other stars have faced as they age from girls to teens to women: What a disappointing role model she turned out to be. That's fair. But who is guiding her? She's clearly not the only one who will cash in on all the twerking, teddy bears and tongue gestures.

And as we give child stars the enormous -- and unwarranted -- responsibility of being figures our own kids can look up to, we ought to give some thought to whom we prop up for these young celebrities to follow. Because the Miley Cyruses of tomorrow will be watching.


(c)2013 The Keene Sentinel (Keene, N.H.)

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