Miley Cyrus's brazen video not as bad as moves on 'Dancing With the Stars'

The past year has been one of change for tween sensation Miley Cyrus, star of the Disney Channel hit "Hannah Montana."
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 17, 2010

At some point soon, the parents of America are going to have to let Miley Cyrus go and come to grips with the fact that she is no longer the Hannah Montana character for whom their wee obsessive girls went into high-pitched paroxysms of admiration.

Cyrus once again has demonstrated that she is a performer and a businessperson -- not the protector of childhood innocence. Parents are distressed because she recently released a music video for "Who Owns My Heart" in which she is dressed skimpily, made up heavily and, at a certain point, dancing enthusiastically -- but not vulgarly -- in a crowded nightclub. Her movements are sensual and suggestive, but they are less provocative than the grinding rumbas that are regularly showcased on an evening of "Dancing With the Stars," during which contestants -- some of them teenagers, some senior citizens -- are vehemently admonished by the judges for not being sexy enough. Cue to the audience's applause.

Leading the Miley-is-a-bad-bad-girl charge is the Parents Television Council, whose president, Tim Winter, noted: "While we understand the desire for a teenaged performer like Miley Cyrus to break free of the typecast roles that made her a star, it is unfortunate that she would participate in such a sexualized video like this one. It sends messages to her fan base that are diametrically opposed to everything she has done up to this point."

It's true that Cyrus, now 17, rose to fame and fortune thanks to Walt Disney and the adulation of zillions of prepubescent girls. But she is outgrowing that demographic, and if she is to continue on an upward trajectory -- and not become a creepily stunted child star -- she has to cultivate an older fan base. And like a fashion designer who has to exaggerate a point on the runway so people remember the message, she has been yelling quite loudly from the concert stage, the pages of Vanity Fair and in her videos that she is barreling toward adulthood. What must she do to be heard? Pull an Erykah Badu striptease in the middle of the Magic Kingdom?

It's debatable whether the best way for Cyrus to make her impending adulthood clear is to writhe about in boy shorts and chain-mail halters. Still, our popular culture is known for neither nuance nor subtlety; we require a smack over the head -- a Lady Gaga-size, meat-dress drubbing -- before we start paying attention.

Cyrus is on the cusp of womanhood and figuring out, albeit in a very public way, precisely the kind of adult performer she is going to be. This is always more complicated for girls than boys -- as singers like Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears have learned. Yet no one batted an eye as Justin Timberlake traveled the road from teen idol, to bringing "SexyBack," to offering up the gift that keeps giving in arguably one of the funniest "Saturday Night Live" skits of all time.

It would be odd, quite frankly, if Cyrus were not flexing her sexuality in ways that some might perceive as beyond what is appropriate for someone her age. She is, after all, growing up -- not standing still. The difference, of course, is that her teenage fantasies are acted out in professional videos posted on YouTube. Most teens have to be satisfied with amateur flip-cam versions of their bedroom dance parties.

Still, if parents have a gripe against Cyrus -- reactionary though it might be -- they should remind themselves of the raunch-fest on "Dancing With the Stars." Don't look, kiddies! At least Cyrus's video dance partners are fully clothed. The professional male dancers on "DWTS" regularly strip off their shirts to gin up as much sexual frisson between themselves and their often awkward -- see Bristol Palin -- young dance partners. And the teen dancers are regularly asked to perform numbers -- such as a tango or rumba -- that require a far more sophisticated understanding of sexuality than does Cyrus's freestyle, hormone-infused, nightclub bounce-arama.

For all the fretting Cyrus has sparked among parents, one wishes there was more discomfort with the role Florence Henderson has chosen for herself on ABC's dance competition. Just recently, the former Mrs. Brady and her dance partner, Corky Ballas, took great pleasure in plotting how they might shock the audience and judges. So they made a point of being downright skeevy. Henderson rightfully believed that she would get a pass for her dirty dancing -- indeed, that she would be applauded for it. And mostly she was.

The judges, however, gave her a little talking to. Her dancing was fairly awful, and the sexual bravado was meant to cover that up. For them, it all just stirred up an ick factor.

From the first episode of the season, this 76-year-old has been trying to demolish the stereotype that a mature woman can't be sexy. And yes, like Cyrus, she has an image she wants to update. The grinding was her way of announcing to the audience that she should not be confused with the "lovely lady who was bringing up three very lovely girls." So get over it.

But instead, she played directly into the cliche of a sexually avaricious older woman. On the show, she has become the senior citizen who does the darndest things. She is, like Betty White, the inappropriate grandmother. Henderson could have used age to her advantage, underscoring a knowing and confident sex appeal. Instead, she gave a performance marred by both insecurity and desperation.

Raunchiness at any age is distasteful, but deep into the AARP years, it's especially disappointing. Not because Henderson should know better, but because she deserves better. Arguably she has experienced enough life and passed through that stage of sweaty and self-conscious bump and grinding to have reached an enviable level of confidence. Where was the controlled eroticism? The cool heat?

If Cyrus's brazen sexuality is discomforting because it seems far too mature, then Henderson's frat-house antics were incredibly immature. With time, Cyrus may well grow into herself. By then, one hopes that Henderson has grown up.

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