Transcript

Miley Cyrus: Reaction and Effect

Sharon Lamb
Professor of Psychology, Saint Michael's College
Tuesday, April 29, 2008; 2:15 PM

The now famous picture in Vanity Fair of 15-year-old tween pop star Miley Cyrus looking at the camera and posing in what appears to be a sheet covering part of her body with her back exposed has been greeted with concern and outrage. Is the picture in bad taste? Did Cyrus or her parents approve? Was she coerced by celebrity photographer Annie Liebovitz or the magazine? What effect will this have on her career and her fans?

"It's not uncommon for packagers of tween idols to eventually repackage them as sexy young adults. They jumped the gun here to the disappointment and detriment of her fans and she's sending a very poor message about what it means to grow up and become a sexual person in this society today," said psychology professor Sharon Lamb in an interview with washingtonpost.com.

Lamb was online Tuesday, April 29, at 2:15 p.m. ET to discuss the psychological effects of the Miley Cyrus incident on young girls who consider such pop stars role models.

A transcript follows.

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Sharon Lamb: The Sexualization of Girls Task Force Report suggests that this sexualization of girls is happening earlier and earlier. Miley is only 15 and they're already trying to extend "her brand" to a larger audience by sexualzing her. Who reads Vanity Fair? Not her fans. I wouldn't be surprised if they feel sold out by her but it's not her. It's her packagers and it's too bad they can't trust in the popularity of her current image.

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Richmond: The buck stops at her parent's feet. They OKed the pics. They want to transition Miley from the tween market to the regular grown up market. Again tween stars don't last long. Her fans don't read Vanity Fair, which is why her parents put her IN Vanity Fair, to EXPAND her market reach, duh. I bet Billy Ray is shocked -- shocked to see that they're getting LOTS OF EXTRA PRESS and the aging tweener is being perceived AS A GROWN UP sex symbol. Shocked I say.

Sharon Lamb: Yup. I too am pretty cynical about her handlers, including her father, with regard to this possibly being a stunt for publicity. On the other hand, those in Hollywood-land and those in the small corners of the art community (Annie Liebovitz) just may not be tuned in to the rest of the country and its reaction.

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washingtonpost.com: Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls

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Fairfax, Va: To the men who look at these pictures (and I know, it's not just men, it's everyone): does your opinion of seeing a 15-year-old posing sexually change once you have daughters, or is this my wishful thinking?

Sharon Lamb: Not the man, just the expert, but I've seen Dads get pretty upset about the sexualization of girls in the media... I think one of the photos looks like a 6 year old girls --with the red lips and puffy cheeks, like Brooke Shields in PRETTY BABY, playing a child prostitute.

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Washington, DC: Why is this news? With Lindsey Lohan, Britney Spears, Jamie Lynn Spears, etc. Miley has already had her fair share of little controversies (flashing her bra in pictures, risque shots with her boyfriend, and other questionable pictures with a female friend). So, why the hype over this particular photo when her reputation was already going down?

Sharon Lamb: I think that's a great question. Is there something in our culture that wants to bring her down? I mean, she's a 15 year old girl who of course is looking to understand what it means to grow up sexual in this culture today and that might mean some mistakes with boyfriends or even bra flashing as a kind of a joke. What's different about this is what seems to be a kind of exploitation, I think.

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Woodbridge: Please I beg you to stop this nonsense. The economy is in recession. We are in the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression. We are losing two wars in the Middle East. And all you can talk about is a 15-year-old actress who is solely a media creation. She is an actress not a role model. "The children" are not traumatized because her back is exposed. And any one who thinks this is a sex scandal because she posed with her father must have some warped feelings they are trying to repress.

Sharon Lamb: One picture does not a trauma make (in most circumstances) however the APA Sexualization of Girls Task Force report is about the BOMBARDMENT of girls with this phenomenon... I think we need to take it seriously, along with the war and gas prices.

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Waldorf, Md: Prof. Lamb, I agree the blame lies with her parents/packagers, not her. But blame needs to be also assigned to the editor and publisher of Vanity Fair, for their irresponsible editorial decision to publish the photos. Do you agree?

Sharon Lamb: I do agree. We can't keep saying that anyone can do anything to make a buck. Someone has to take some social responsibility and think about the greater community -- even editors.

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Burke, Va: If you'd just been leafing through Vanity Fair on your own, and stumbled across the Miley Cyrus pictures, would you have known to be outraged without the media instructing you in advance?

Sharon Lamb: Yeah, I would. I've been collecting these photos. The NYT Magazine from two Sundays ago had a bunch of grown models in sexy little girl poses. I'm frankly getting tired of this... as I said before, it's a bombardment that makes it so that girls are understanding that what it means to grow up is to become a sexy object for adult male viewing... there's more to becoming sexual than that.

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Sharon Lamb: I wanted to add that it upsets me when the media keeps calling her a young woman instead of a girl or a teenager. She's a girl, a teen, an adolescent. This blurring of the distinction between childhood and adulthood -- we're all complicit and we need to protect youth from it, no matter how much they want to play act at being adult.

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Houston: There are several reports that her parents not only approved of the pics, but were PRESENT as they were taken. If true, they really do not get to complain. THEY WERE IN THE ROOM.

Sharon Lamb: Yes. That's what I read too. Everyone okayed them so Vanity Fair says. I think her parents could have protected her from this but as an earlier writer guessed, they may have thought this was a win win situation -- publicity for being a beautiful sexy young teen OR publicity for a scandal...

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Silver Spring, Md: Everyone here is out for themselves -- the parents, for the continued fame and promotion of their girl's career; the photog, an elitist who cares more for her own image than the ones that young girls will see; the magazine who wants to sell newsstand copies. The losers - young girls, continually bombarded with the message that the triviality of being overtly sexual and famous is what counts, not your character or abilities. Ugh. Nays to all involved.

Sharon Lamb: Just to possibly defend the artist for a moment -- probably doesn't think of the context into which this photo will be sent. And yet a quote from Miley said something like, when she looked at me with those puppy dog eyes, I couldn't say no. That sounded a little coercive to me... a girl in a photo shoot who felt like she couldn't say no!

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Olney, Md: This dad is livid about not only the media's, but corporate America's, sexualization of young girls. Have you seen the clothes being sold to kids at J.C. Penny's/Target/etc?

Sharon Lamb: Absolutely... we write about J.C. Penney in particular in PACKAGING GIRLHOOD. It's everywhere "little flirts" "eye candy" etc. Compare to boy t-shirts.

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Montgomery Village, Md: To what degree is our outrage about this photograph a Rorschach test for our own sensibilities? In other words, how much are we projecting our own insecurities about seeing beautiful sexuality presented by a minor? I don't tend to believe that Miley was forcibly coerced or scarred by the experience of shooting the image. The image is not blatantly exploitive, but in our minds, where she seems naked in a bed, the image takes on exploitive and criminal magnitude. In the end, what will scar her is the damage to her reputation as a squeaky clean kid. While I think the image is inappropriate for a 15-year-old, is the entire incident more a reflection on Miley or our own protective instincts towards adolescent girls.

Sharon Lamb: You raise good questions about this. I think that our sensibilities are starting to change and that the more we all get protective about adolescent girls (not as sexual creatures but as only worthwhile as sex objects for others' viewings) the better off we'll be. There are plenty of Smiley pictures of Miley on her fan Web site that are sexy in a 15 year old way. These photos pose her in a way that blurs the boundaries and possibly contributes to laxer attitudes about sexual abuse etc...

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small corners of the art community (Annie Liebovitz) just may not be tuned in to the rest of the country and its reaction. : Most prime time TV shows are more risque than Annie Liebovitz. And those shows are on because they get high ratings. Yes, MOST of the U.S. is watching those shows and approving their content by watching. If they want change, they have to turn off their TVs and stop voting with their remotes.

Sharon Lamb: Good point. I did wonder if she watches TV. But I don't think I've seen a lot of blatant sexualizing of GIRLS on TV. Lots of exposure of girls to overly sexualized adult women for sure.

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Philadelphia: Aren't her "packagers" her parents? How does that change things? I'm sure they're loving the outrage - attention is attention, and a lot of people believe no publicity is bad publicity. I saw some of the behind-the-scene pictures of the photo shoot and it appeared to be a family outing. To be honest, the pictures I found even more disturbing the ones where she and her father were draped together in a pose similar to how "couples" are posed for fashion shoots. The ones with her wrapped in a sheet make her look -- to me, at least -- like a girl trying to be sexy. Disturbing, but not as creepy as the ones suggesting she and her father are couple material. Anyway, with this photo shoot, is there any chance at all she'll just, you know, go away? Has any young teenager turned into a sex object by her parents turned out okay since Brooke Shields, who had the advantage of getting a real education (and talent) to help her?

Sharon Lamb: Great points for sure. I think her packagers are her parents or at least her Dad but she's a billionaire now and believe me there are plenty of others chiming in and making money off of the "brand" as they like to put it.

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Shepherd, Mich.: It has been acknowledged that Miley's parents left the set before the "infamous" shot was taken. This left Miley with her grandmother and another. To me this seems like Vanity Fair and the photographer jumping at a chance. If they saw nothing wrong with the photo, why did they wait until after her parents had left to shoot it? Does this not indicate they knew the parents would say No?

Sharon Lamb: Interesting!!!

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London: Okay, everyone take a deep breath. It's her back. I've seen more flesh on Burlington, Vermont's Main Street in March.

Sharon Lamb: Hey there. I'm from Burlington Vermont and we were knee deep in snow in March!!! Now come back in July and we'll talk.

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Fairfax, Va: These pictures were taken by one of the world's most respected portrait photographers, with a room full of people present, including her parents, and for publication in a mainstream, well-respected magazine. Cyrus agreed to the make-up, the hair, and the draping of the sheet. I'm at a loss as to where the scandal here is.

Sharon Lamb:"agreed to" is one of the problems since she's 15. On the other hand, it's not this one particular incident that should be blown out of proportion. This incident is just part of a whole bunch of these images. The problem here is that she's really looked up to by kids 3-13 and sometimes older... and that's really great. Why do all of their stars, Lindsey Lohan for example, have to repackage themselves as sexual (right before rehab... I might add).

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Burke, Va: Doesn't this go beyond what entertainment industry foists upon us? I think it's much more repulsive that parents dress their six year-olds up like tramps and enter them in "beauty contests" (a la Jon Benoit Ramsey). At least Miley is old enough to make something of an informed decision about what she's doing.

Sharon Lamb: Yes and no. Parents certainly have responsibility to watch out for their little girls but parents can also be fighting a losing battle when we look at how much media from all directions sells this version of hot sexy diva teen (see Bratz dolls too) to little girls and tells them that to assume this persona is empowerment.

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Silver Spring, Md, Again: Please don't defend the photog - she's almost 60 years old, has a rep for coercing people into "arty" poses. Arrogance, elitism and self promotion is her schtick, and even if she's a NYC artist, she has enough life experience to know that the rest of the country doesn't condone child soft porn. Don't defend her - she's eating this up with a spoon.

Sharon Lamb: Okay. I'll look into that more. I really am not an expert on this. Just know she's done some great art in the past.

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awww come on!!!: It's a bare back for pete's sake. She's 15 and she's trying to find a balance between being a teenager and a woman. Isn't it the parent's responsibility to teach their kids what's good behavior and what's bad instead of blaming it on a picture of a bare back? I think Britney Spears did worse when she was 16 and 17!!!

Sharon Lamb: Missing the point I think. It's not one photo. It's this photo by a girl who little kids look up to. NOT looking like herself at all, but posing as a bit of sex object for Vanity Fair readers... with red lips, puffy cheeks, and a serious expression, a pose many photographers use when they're trying to make kids look like sexy adults.

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Have you seen the clothes being sold to kids at J.C. Penny's/Target/etc: Those clothes would be done tomorrow if MOST parents didn't buy them. We have to accept accountability for the current state, not blame big business. All of these things are market driven and would not thrive without us buying them, watching them. We are voting with our patronage.

Sharon Lamb: We're all in this together... it's hard to find a t shirt with NOTHING written on it. I think parents don't realize that Cheer Bunny is one step away from Playboy bunny... we need to educate parents as well as teens about reading media and understanding marketers...

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don't think I've seen a lot of blatant sexualizing of GIRLS : Watch TV ads. Watch the tweener shows. I happened on one last week and was aghast to see a tweener acting more worldly that I did in my 30s. It was some middle school drama/comedy -- don't know if it was Hannah Montana or something else. She acted so grown-up it made me feel immature and I'm pushing 50. Mind games with the boys in class, dressing like the Desperate Housewives, dating more than I did in college...It's out there and parents are letting their kids watch.

Sharon Lamb: I should have clarified what I meant. Yes, I certainly see a lot of adult themes. Like Suite Life having girls be GoGo dancers at a club with "drinks" ??? Yes, it's everywhere... perhaps even I after researching this for 5 years am getting a bit habituated!

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Raleigh, N.C.: This was a bad decision made by adults. Her dad and the photographer are equally to blame. My daughter watches Hannah Montana and listens to the music. We will still watch the show, but this incident does bring the larger issue into focus - the messages sent to young girls are evil. Period.

Sharon Lamb: Yup...

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San Francisco: Annie Liebovitz, who may have been a visionary artist once upon a time, has devolved into just another cog in the celebrity machine. Her whole schtick is to pose famous people in provocative ways that get the rest of us talking. Duh. No one could have expected this to come out looking like a kid's high school yearbook photo. And there's a reason why Billy Ray Cyrus was a barely remembered, one-hit-wonder punchline before his daughter's career took off. He's a buffoon. Before these kids even get to the point of being sexualized, they're already forced into adulthood by supporting families and a bevy of handlers with their income. What are your thoughts on how the premature sexualization of young girls is related to our progress (or lack thereof?) in the women's equality movement. Seems like degrading treatment hasn't gone away at all, just got younger.

Sharon Lamb: Well I do think this is part of the backlash against feminism, helped along by a "new" brand of feminism that sees the "choice" to act as a sex object as an empowering choice. Fine for college girls who will have other options... sure, pole dance etc while you study to be a doctor. But I worry about the younger girls who will opt out of other alternatives investing way too much time into image and believing that becoming a good sex object will get them rewards in life.

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Arlington, Va: I am a 30-something mother, and for the life of me cannot understand what the big to-do is about these photos. I think that the photo with her exposed back is very beautiful, and not sexual to my eyes. It's style is reminiscent of a Vermeer painting.

Sharon Lamb: Yes and no. I can certainly see it that way. But it's released into a context, a climate in which there's rampant sexualization of girls. Why not photograph her with her clothes on? Why the need to show her back? The great artists of the past did not ONLY see the beauty in nudity -- there are a few art history dissertations on the use of women as sex objects in great art too!

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Reston, Va: I don't see what all the fuss is about. How is this any worse than Sally Mann's photography? She even got Time's photographer of the year in 2001. Everyone just needs to chill out and see it for the art that it is.

Sharon Lamb: I actually love Sally Mann's photographs and see a huge difference. This photo was a publicity shot for vanity fair.

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Arrogance, elitism and self promotion is her schtick: Oh lets not start demonizing intellectuals. Annie Liebovitz is a great artist who's job is to create a rare image. Sitters (most of whom are powerful people in their own right) are well able to defend themselves. It was Miley's parents' job to 'defend' her and they -- apparently -- passed on that responsibility.

Sharon Lamb: Agreed.

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Reston, Va Mom: I watched coverage of this "issue" on the news last night with my 7 year old. On purpose. To ask her what she thought of the picture -- not her handlers' behavior. She said it "was not right, she's a kid and should not be dressing like that." Period. She's being taught our values, and those are being reinforced to combat any bombardment from the media. Is it as simple as a one-sentence response? No...but lots of those short responses add up over time.

Sharon Lamb: My co-author Lyn Mikel Brown just talked to a group of 8th grade girls with the same reaction. They still love Miley but it's kind of confusing for them. They don't see it as just art or just a beautiful photo.

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Arlington, Va: Give me a break. Remember the fire engine, red, backless dress she wore to the Oscars? Her mom was her date -- apparently no one had a problem if her looking like an adult then. I'm guessing all was fine until someone at Disney saw the pics and raised hell because she was ruining the squeaky image of "Hannah Montana."

Sharon Lamb: True that she's dressing sexy on the show and in real life. I see that as part of being a 15 year old girl. They do that at our high school for proms and even choir concerts. They want to look cute for boys their age. It's part of growing up. It's not who they are. They try on these images... Something different, for me, in these photos that seem a bit pornographic, or in the very least, trying to make her look like a sex object for adult eyes.

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Sharon Lamb: So sorry I have to go now and pick up my son from high school. I'll keep an eye out for what typical 15 year old girls look like, dress like. I still don't think I'll approve of this photo. But remember, it's not just this photo or group of photos, it's the rampant sexualization of girls at younger and younger ages we're trying to fight against.

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Waterville, ME: Disney has always pitched itself as innocent childhood fantasy, although it's always amazed me how they get away with this given some pretty violent story lines and female characters built like Victoria Secret models and obsessed with romance (I mean, do 6 year olds really need that?), but I'm struck by how many of the "girls gone bad" started as preteens in Disney shows. Do you think this will tarnish their image? Disney is critical of the photos, but is this disingenuous?

Sharon Lamb: Sorry to have to run out. GREAT points. I hope that someone else here will respond to it!

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