Developing Sexualities: Feminist Look at Adolescent Girls Through the Lens of Miley Cyrus
Kerrie Dochen

Miley Cyrus has been a rising figure in the pop culture sphere since she appeared on Disney’s Hannah Montana in 2006 at the age of 12. Now 18, Cyrus has bared the brunt of countless critiques due to media scandals over the past few years. The first major one was the semi-topless photo of her in the magazine Vanity Fair. The renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz was in charge of the shoot. The picture shows Cyrus with minimal makeup, messy hair, and covering her chest with a sheet.

The following year was her “lap dance” for 44-year-old producer Adam Shankman at a wrap party for the film The Last Song. She stood in front of him grinding against his pelvis to the music. Shankman being openly gay and the effect this has had on the conversation warrants its own paper entirely.

The final scandal I would like to focus on is her “pole dance” at the Teen Choice Awards when she was not quite 17. Despite receiving six awards, media coverage focused primarily on a single dance move in which she dipped down while holding onto a pole atop an ice cream cart. As she performed her song “Party In The USA,” she stepped onto the cart and was moved across the stage by backup dancers. For the most part, she was simply holding onto the pole to avoid falling off, but the single dip that spanned nearly three seconds was what received the attention.

These three examples are but a handful of the “scandals” that have gotten Cyrus criticized by the public and the media. Others have included a video of her smoking salvia, and a few pictures of her with cigarettes. These occurred after she had turned 18 and were thus legal. There has also been a good deal of talk about the more overtly sexual nature of her more recent music videos “Can’t Be Tamed” and “Who Owns My Heart.” This uproar seems to be a pushback against her maturing--and in particular sexualizing. Others have responded by claiming that Cyrus is simply being a teenager.

This is by no means the first instance of famous adolescent girls being criticized as they navigate their teenage years. Lindsay Lohan is now more famous for her drug use, court hearings, and rehab stints than her extensive film career. Likewise, Britney Spears’ career has been rivaled by her dramatic relationship with Kevin Ferderline and nearly dropping her children in public a few times. Also, since her divorce from Federline, she has been seemingly active in the party scene around L.A. leading many people to question her current parenting style. Other pop scandals include Spears’ sister Jamie gaving birth to a daughter at the age of 17, Christina Aguilera getting arrested for being drunk in public, and Mary-Kate Olsen checking into anorexia rehabilitation at 18.

It is also noteworthy that very different critiques are made as boys develop. There tends to be more discourse around the careers and talents of the male pop stars than around their sexual development. If Justin Timberlake’s song “SexyBack” from his album FutureSex/LoveSounds is any evidence, then it is fairly safe to say that this society presents developing boys and girls with very different standards. Unfortunately, delving into these standards is outside the scope of this paper.

What this paper does attempt to cover is what the current discourse is around adolescent female sexuality and the ways in which it may be added to by studying cases such as Miley Cyrus. I specifically want to explore how society frames female identity as one of either the “virgin” or the “whore,” and the use of pop stars as scapegoats or “failed role models.” I will begin with a review of select feminist literature in order to isolate the main feminist critiques that are being made around adolescent women in the media, and on what grounds these critiques are made. This is in order to bring forth the intense complexities that are at play. I then offer a more in depth look at the controversies surrounding Miley Cyrus to highlight these complexities. I do so to provide a different lens through which to look at the phenomenon of teens maturing in the public eye. I argue that what is being demonstrated here is our continued inability to theorize the processes of development that takes place as young girls transition from what we see as innocent child to sexual adult.

Literature Review
One line of feminist thought is that girls are framed pornographically in the media and that this silently endorses “the sexual exploitation of girls…the fetishization of girls and women…and foster[s] an overall climate that does not value girls’ and women’s voices or contributions to society” (Merskin, 2004; Kincaid, 1998). This, Merskin claims, “reinforces the powerlessness of women and children in American society.” These scholars make the claim that, as girls are portrayed and viewed pornographically in the media, this leads to society treating and viewing girls and women as sexual objects. Many feminists assert that this appropriates young girls for male consumption and justifies “the voyeuristic way men look at women” (Evans & Gamman, 1995, p. 13; Mulvey, 1992, p.27; Merskin, 2004). These theorists also make the claim that this pornographic objectification perpetuates the idea that women are always sexually available (Merskin, 2004). Thus, not only are young girls in the media adding to the objectification of other young girls, but also to the objectification of all women in general.

Another line of feminist thought regarding adolescent girls in the media is that they are being made-up by adults who map their own ideas of childhood onto these girls. Those ideas of childhood may be anything from an idealized innocence to the embodiment of beauty. In the case of portraying an idealized innocence, “the child has become an object to be consumed by an adult audience obsessed with childhood and youth” (Wood, 2004). Adults are viewed as longing for a perfect childhood that was lost as they aged. “As with the literal meaning of ‘nostalgia’ (a pain associated with home, which is of course not remembered but imagined), this adult construction of the child assuages the adult’s imaginatively-created pain of lost childhood with an equally imaginary archetype of what childhood even was.” (Wood, 2004) Adults attempt to reconstruct that imagined archetype at the peril of the child they are using--whether it be a teen pop star or a girl posing for a magazine.

The other idea of childhood that adults map onto girls in the media is the embodiment of beauty. Our culture constantly unites beauty and youth as evidenced by the countless products to remove wrinkles and spots from skin, thicken hair, color hair that is turning gray, and seemingly infinite books with titles like How To Stay Young, Strong Women Stay Young, and Stop Aging Now!: The Ultimate Plan For Staying Young And Reversing The Aging Process. Our obsession with youthfulness inevitably becomes convoluted with sex. If young is beautiful, then young is sexy, and if adults are attempting to look young in order to be sexy, then young people must embody that ideal sexiness. As Asher notes, “girls packaged to sell products or ideas to an adult marketplace are not making active choices to be sexual” (Asher, 2002, p. 22). Advertisers, etc. exploit these girls by oversexualizing them in order to profit from our culture’s obsession with youth. “In the nineteenth century, [the] romantic vision of childhood was the dominant image in advertising, while in the twentieth century both the child as innocent and as sexual nymphet are used interchangeably in both advertising and other forms of mass media” (Wood, 2004).

Portraying girls as “sexual nymphets” creates a false self for the girls in the media, and encourages girls outside of the media to do the same. If they do have a “lack of agency…in the process of becoming desirable” (Merskin, 2004), then they are playing roles that are not true to themselves. As Merskin says, “on the inside, she might be shy, innocent, and insecure. However…the self she might show to the world might be seductively posed, use seductive language, and her appearance might be suggestive” (Merskin, 2004)--“she learns to fashion, adopt, and present a false self” (Goffman, 1976).

There is also the perspective that the girls in the media are not only denied agency, but also denied a voice. The women and girls in advertisements are silent, and “even the voices of pop and media stars are, if not silenced, effectively contained by trivializing what they do have to say” (Wood, 2004). The “voice” that is heard is the voice of the advertiser, the record label, or perhaps the Disney Corporation. The women and girls are simply vehicles through which these agents speak. “By removing the voice of the child, the viewer’s understanding of the work is limited to the point of view (and nostalgia) of the creator” (Wood, 2004).

All of the previous ways of theorizing adolescence and sexuality in the media have been overwhelmingly negative and can be summarized as the media perpetuating a loss of innocence in childhood, or perhaps the loss of childhood itself. As Cunningham puts it, “in the second half of the twentieth century [there] has been a sense of an erosion or even disappearance of childhood…mostly related to the power of the media and…the forces turning children into consumers” (Cunningham, 1995).

A different point of view is that girls in the media and elsewhere should take hold of their sexualities and emphasize their own desires, pleasures, and their subjectivity (as opposed to being objects) (Fine, 1988; Tolman, 1999, 2002; Bay-Cheng, 2003). Many feminists agree that “when sexual desire is truncated, all desire is compromised--including girls’ power to love themselves and to know what they really want” (Debold et al. 1993). These scholars note that there is a lack of agency for girls and women, and the best way to achieve it is by reclaiming their sexualities. Thompson states it nicely in saying, “sexual subjectivity (the ability to feel confident in and in control of one’s body and sexuality) shapes one’s ability to be agentic (the ability to act, accomplish, and feel efficacious in other parts of one’s life) and vice versa” (Thompson, 1990).

Tolman and others claim that this would help debunk the stereotype that girls and women are sexually passive, which “permeates much of our understanding of gender differences and has been associated with greater freedoms and privileges for men” (Hollway, 1995). Thompson and Tolman also purport that sexually empowered girls are “not likely to let sex just happen” (Lamb, 2010). Some of these same feminist scholars take this notion a step further in saying that the empowered girl would be better adept to protect herself from abuse, victimization, and rape. Without this power “girls find it hard to distinguish choice and coercion, and they aren’t at all certain of how to make such a distinction” (Thompson, 1990).

Despite sexual empowerment and subjectivity being held up as the cure for stereotypes, passivity, and victimization, Sharon Lamb comments on how these expectations are far too idealized for adults, let alone adolescents, to achieve. She satirically points out the unrealistic standards many scholars have offered by describing their idea of a healthy sexuality:

The adolescent female thus must combat objectification, victimization, and the stereotype of passivity. She ought to learn about, understand, and identify desires, feel sexual feelings in her genitals, use full reasoning ability in making choices, be uninfluenced by romance narratives and beauty ideals from TV, books, or movies, pursue her own pleasure as much as or even more than her partner’s, and exist always as a subject and never as an object. She can not be passive, and must be an agent; she ought to know both how to consent and how to refuse sex; and perhaps more importantly, unambivalently know if she want to consent of refuse (Lamb, 2010).

Lamb worries that this creates “yet another path to perfection” that people are insisting girls trudge down. She sees proponents of “girl power” as assigning the teen girl “projects, and the teen girl is brought into the culture of adult sexuality with a project to work on: herself; her subjectivity; her pleasure” (Lamb, 2010). This kind of project is something adult women struggle to accomplish, and given how tumultuous adolescence is know to be, perhaps asking them to become perfect sexual agents is somewhat unrealistic.

The notion of being a subject as opposed to an object, and being active instead of passive, also reinforces the binary paradigm. Giving women (and men) only two choices of how to embody sexual beings denies the “myriad of roles one can take within a complex and changing sexual relationship that is mutual and respectful.” This also helps to reinforce the stereotypical male/female sexual dichotomy and “encourages girls to be more ‘male’” and this stereotyped view of what a male should be “may be sending teen boys to the pharmaceutical companies to artificially create an imagined power-male sexuality in the bedroom” (Matthew, 2005).

Finally, Lamb touches on the phenomenon of some women taking on traditionally oppressive forms of sexiness in the name of empowerment. The lines are being blurred between sexuality and pornography in the mainstream media, and as Lamb warns, “this porn image of sexuality is marketed to younger and younger girls as a teen sexuality they can aspire to” (APA 2007; Lamb, 2006; Lamb and Brown, 2006; Levin and Kilbourne, 2008). Within this paradigm, adolescent girls “can feel empowered by choosing to lap dance, strip tease, strut it, flash it, flaunt it…because she’s an autonomous agent who is having fun.” Lamb asserts that any empowerment these girls feel is only has a narrow scope: “it is a feeling of being empowered to be a sexual person…sexual primarily and possibly only through imitating one kind of being sexual, a kind oriented towards being a sexy object for someone else” (Lamb, 2010).

She offers up two reasons why the pornographically “empowered” paradigm could look healthy or fulfilling, though it is not. First, the girl exists in a system that is patriarchal, so her choices are influenced by the rewards she receives from the system are based on her performing a sexuality pleasing to men. Second, the girl may have simply developed a false sense of subjectivity. She may feel like she is making an autonomous choice to strip, “but this choice is restricted by discourse and traditional ideologies of what it means to be heterosexual, sexual, and sexy for a women” (Lamb, 2010).

Lamb’s conclusion drives home perhaps one of the most important points about the framing of adolescent sexuality: “When we feminist theorists are done saying what good sex should not be, we can only create an unachievable ideal of what it should be” (Lamb, 2010). She acknowledges that, while scholars cannot come up with a satisfactory-but-realistic sexuality, there should be more open and direct discourse about helping girls and women work towards a healthier sexuality. She calls for the “discussion of values as well as practices, through a sex education that examines cultural models for sexual performance…asking students to think about how these ideologies are represented in the media, [and] in the world around them”(Lamb, 2010). Not only does she feel that there needs to be more cultural critique, but she stresses that we need to include the interpersonal, gendered, and ethical relations represented in sex. She concludes by saying that the idealized image of sexuality is rarely achieved, but at least with more discourse and critique of these sorts, girls and women can enlist their partners and each other in imagining and hopefully constructing a healthier sexuality.

Everyone, from scholars to the public, tries to define in what sexuality is, how it develops, and what it looks like when it’s “done right.” Our collective understanding of sexuality is largely centered on the physical changes that take place during puberty. Trying to pin down the workings behind the emotional, psychological, and sociological aspects is nearly impossible as demonstrated in the theories briefly outlined in the previous section. This is why it is important, however, to continue theorizing and exploring sexuality and its development--if not for a more complete understanding of sexuality, then for another valuable piece of it.

Teen starlets are a perfect population of girls in which to study adolescent female development since their lives are documented in fan blogs and interviews to music videos, TV shows, and publicity photos. Every aspect of the starlet’s life is potentially up for public scrutiny and documentation, and open to wide-scale social discourse. Miley Cyrus is an especially excellent case to study because her critics have had a particularly hard time pin pointing overtly “bad” things she has done. To our knowledge, she has not been arrested, gone to jail, been unfaithful to a partner, gotten pregnant, and allegedly still has not engaged in penile-vaginal intercourse. This makes her a particularly good case study because her behavior is within the range of normal for average adolescent girls in the U.S. Also, her “clean record” removes many compound variables that allow the public to write off stars like Spears and Lohan, allowing us to look at their reactions to her developing and sexualizing.

Vanity Fair Photos
In 2008, when Cyrus was asked by the famed photographer Annie Leibovitz to do a photo shoot for Vanity Fair, Cyrus was overjoyed. Both of her parents were present throughout the shoot, and some photos feature Miley and her father together. The photo that was controversial, however, was one featuring Miley alone. It was a semi-profile of a topless Cyrus holding a sheet to cover her chest, but her back was exposed. Her hair and makeup were less than glamorous causing many people to question whether or not she was made to look as though she had just had sex.

At the time the photos were taken, Cyrus was 15. Many people were appalled that a 15-year-old would be portrayed in this way. They saw the photo as an inappropriate manipulation of an innocent child in order to sell more magazines. These people labeled her as the victim and scholars of this view would likely agree with Merskin in saying she was framed pornographically. Others defended her in saying that she was simply exploring herself or having fun. While some people did indeed express outrage toward Cyrus herself, the general public seemed to write this off as something outside of her control.

These reactions exemplify the limited scope through which the general public tries to understand sexual development. Blogs and magazine articles covering the photos failed to touch on the complex dance between sexual exploration, media exploitation, and the often-overlooked influences of growing up in a patriarchal system. Her critics were far more likely to pick a narrow talking point and focus entirely on that one aspect.

The Last Song After Party
In the summer of 2009, shooting for the movie The Last Song had just been completed in Savannah, Georgia. There was an after party at which Cyrus was caught on film dancing provocatively with the 44-year-old, openly gay, producer Adam Shankman.

This time, fans and critics were more likely to direct their anger and discomfort at Cyrus herself, though many still placed blame on people such as Shankman and Miley’s parents. Her father responded by saying, “it’s what people her age do” and that she was “just having fun.” There was very little framing of this being an expression of sexuality, and more of an emphasis on her being a free-spirited young person having a good time. There was also a great deal of people framing this as a pedophilic act on the part of Shankman.

Teen Choice Awards Performance
A few months later in August of 2009, Cyrus was invited to perform her single “Party In The U.S.A.” at Fox’s annual Teen Choice Awards ceremony. During her performance, she stepped onto an ice cream cart and briefly dipped down while holding onto the attached pole. This has been considered a “pole dance” by nearly every media source and was framed pornographically. Many people compared her to a stripper to justify their claim that the performance was inappropriate. Others saw this as Cyrus conveying a message of sexual empowerment. Still others framed it as her asserting her adulthood through sexuality.

In all three of these instances, the discourse surrounding them has been heated yet limited. The critiques that have been made tend to be one-sided and shallow, and there have been very few suggestions for what Cyrus could have done that would be more acceptable to her critics. As Sharon Lamb noted of feminists, the general public, too, seems to be more adept at telling Cyrus what not to do and then leave her with unrealistic expectations of what she should do (i.e. not be sexual but still mature). The messages coming from the public and the media to Cyrus as well as to adolescent girls in general are contradictory. There is a double standard that these young women should be popular and beautiful, but chaste lest they want to be considered “sluts.” The contradiction comes from the messages sent about what it takes to be beautiful and popular. Looking back at these three “scandals,” we can see that she was generally regarded as either the embodiment of “the virgin” or of “the whore,” and neither are satisfactory to her critics. These contradictory expectations make it possible for people to take Miley Cyrus and quickly write her off no matter which she is seen as because she cannot possibly embody both.

We keep struggling in vain to deal with this perceived transition from innocent to sexual because in reality there is no transition that is taking place. It’s simply a matter of these girls moving from covert to overt sexual expression and trying to find the balance point. This is what we all do in adolescence and throughout our adult lives as well. Since this is the case, it is impossible to justify critiquing them while they are in the process of sexual self-discovery. Instead of criticizing them, maybe it would be more useful to use their very public and viewable process as a grounds for dialogue between parents/teachers and (pre)adolescents in which ideas can be explored around personal sexual development. Then, perhaps we could have more room to help these girls navigate adolescence in a healthy (or at least present, mindful) way.

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