Saturday, July 3, 2010

What's With Miley Cyrus?

If you are a parent, or knows someone who is, or in fact have eyeballs, you are probably aware that Miley Cyrus is rather emphatically casting off the Hannah Montana persona for one of a definitely not Disney-approved nature. Her latest (and as she tells it, last) album, 'Can't Be Tamed', is full of barely-veiled shots at the House of Mouse. There were some warning signs beforehand, most notably the 2008 Vanity Fair shoot where she was photographed barebacked and topless- but as of late she has projected just about as wild and sexual an image as one can do prior to their 18th birthday (which comes November 23).

So what's going on?

In 1987 Daniel Wegner of Trinity University conducted a three-part psychology experiment. In the first part, students were asked to just say whatever they thought for five minutes. This was easily done.

Then in the second part, they were told to do the same, except they were told to try not to think of a white bear. Every time they did so, or said 'white bear', they were to ring a bell in front of them. Of course, now all the students could think about was the white bear. They'd try to block it out, but it was easier to do when they just, you know... didn't think of one. Now that they were told to suppress it, here it is and it won't go away. They'd end up ringing the bell rather often.

Then in the third part, the students were given permission to think about white bears. The result was that their thoughts just became 'white bear white bear white bear'. The white bear utterly overwhelmed them.

Compare to Miley. Early in life, Miley was pretty much any other pre-puberty girl, except that she happened to be the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus. She'd go to a Baptist church, wear a purity ring.

Then she moved to Hollywood in 2005 and became Hannah Montana, and along with it an army of Disney makeup and wardrobe people, and a rock-star persona. She also got a Disney personality construct: no overt sexuality, no excess showing of skin, nothing about boys that's not Disney-approved (she wound up dating a Jonas Brother). All white bears that Miley now had to suppress, while being made- and developing her own accord- into an attractive young woman.

The Vanity Fair shoot came about amidst all this. Ding. Prior to that, pictures surfaced of her flashing her bra strap and draping herself over an unidentified male. Ding. She broke up with Nick Jonas and decided to "just figure out who I really am." Ding.

But now she nears her 18th birthday, Hannah Montana will soon wrap, and now she, like all Disney teen idols, must strike out into the entertainment industry without Disney's assistance. Or to put it another way, she is now free to express herself however she sees fit.

White bear white bear white bear white bear white bear.

What does Miley need to do? Well, now that the white bear is here, it's pretty tough to make go away. But she does need to dial it back. Dolly Parton may be fine with the image, but she's had years of her own to properly develop, at her own rate. She started thinking of the white bear naturally, and just generally knows what she's doing. Miley didn't and doesn't. She is at risk of having it consume her at a young age, and needs some sort of proper guidance that, clearly, she is not getting.

None of this is to say Dolly is not worthy of advising Miley. In fact, Dolly Parton is probably the best mentor Miley could possibly have concerning this kind of thing. Like I just said: Dolly knows what she's doing. She knows how to convey a sexual image without having it consume her. She's actually a corollary to another aspect of the white bear experiment: some subjects were told from the beginning that they had permission to think about white bears, without any prior suppression. They thought of the white bear less frequently than those who had been suppressing it.

If sexual expression is the direction Miley wishes to go, Dolly's just the person to tell her how to go about it properly. But all the sound advice in the world does no good if it is never given in the first place.

It's a very delicate time in Miley's life, as it is with any child star, particularly Disney child stars. The most dramatic example is Britney Spears, a former Mouseketeer. Her mental derailment after leaving the safety of Disney is well-documented, which progressed to the point where she began making prominent appearances in death pools, in which people make predictions on which celebrities they believe will die in the next year. She recovered, but only after her father asserted legal control over every aspect of her life, control that is currently ongoing.

Miley, obviously, is nowhere near that point, and this should not be regarded as a statement that she will ever reach that point. Christina Aguilera was a Mouseketeer as well, and made the transition expertly. But Spears is to be regarded as a cautionary tale. Control the white bear, or the white bear will control you.

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