(WOMENSENEWS)--The photograph captures its subject in that liminal space between girlhood and womanhood.
She sits naked, seemingly perched on an unseen bed, a satin sheet clasped to her chest as if caught by surprise. Her hair is tousled, her lipstick slightly mussed. Has she just woken up? If so, was she alone? She gazes at the viewer over one shoulder, her languorous eyes just a touch defiant.
In many ways, it is an artful portrait: the contrast between pale skin and dark hair; the sculptural folds of the sheet; the vulnerability of her emerging sexuality; the shock of her scarlet lips.
Maybe if the girl had been older--say 18, rather than 15--or if she hadn't spent the previous two years positioning herself as the world's most responsible role model for 8 year olds (a Faustian, if lucrative, bargain), it might all have been perceived differently. But she wasn't. And she had.
The girl, of course, was Miley Cyrus, also known as Hannah Montana. Until the publication of that photo in the June 2008 issue of Vanity Fair, she had represented all that was good and pure and squeaky clean about Disney's intentions toward our daughters: the promise, begun in the Princess years, that if parents stuck with the brand--letting girls progress naturally from Cinderella to the Disney Channel divas with their TV shows, movie spin-offs, and music downloads--our daughters could enjoy pop culture without becoming pop tarts.
'Safe' Image Tarnished
Remember the in-house survey at Disney in which moms associated Princess with the word "safe"?
That is how we're meant to perceive the entire brand, from toddler to tween. Safe. Innocent. Protective. Sheltering.
So when that image blazed across the Internet, parents felt not only furious but betrayed. "Miley Cyrus is younger than my daughter!" railed one daddy blogger. A second wrote, "Holy Hell! What on earth were her parents thinking?" A mom fumed, "She is a child for God's sake," and another, referring to the Everest of available Hannah Montana gear, wryly quipped, "Bonfire anyone?"
Poor little rich girl! Miley was quoted in the accompanying article as saying she thought her semi-nudity was "really artsy. It wasn't in a skanky way." She then later had to backpedal hard, releasing a formal mea culpa to her fans: "I took part in a photo shoot that was supposed to be 'artistic' and now, seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed. I never intended for any of this to happen."
Still there was speculation: How premeditated was this "slip"? Was she apologizing all the way to the bank? Were Miley and her master-"minder" father, the country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, consciously trying to nudge the singer's image, to prepare her for the next step of her career?
Growing Up in Public
In the Vanity Fair profile, the writer Bruce Handy asked, "How do you grow up in public, both as a person and as a commodity?"
I reread that sentence several times as I scrutinized the notorious photo.
Handy might more specifically have wondered how you grow up in public as a woman and a commodity, what Miley's attempts and missteps would mean not only for her but for her millions of worshipful fans.
By the time girls are 5, after all, the human Disney Princess du jour is meant to supplant the animated ones in their hearts. Miley. Lindsay. Hilary.
Even, once upon a time, Britney (who launched her career in 1993 as a Mouseketeer on "The All New Mickey Mouse Club"). All were products of the Disney machine. Each girl's rise became fodder for another media fairy tale, another magical rags-to-riches transformation to which ordinary girls could aspire.
But some 200 years after the Brothers Grimm first published their stories, had that trajectory become any more liberating?
The 19th century Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White served as metaphors, symbols of girls' coming of age, awakening to womanhood.
The contemporary princesses do as well, and though the end point may be different--marrying the handsome prince has been replaced by cutting a hit single--the narrative arc is equally predictable. In their own way their dilemmas, too, illuminate the ones all girls of their era face, whether publicly or privately, as they grow up to be women--and commodities.
Excerpted from "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" by Peggy Orenstein, published by HarperCollins Publishers.
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Peggy Orenstein is the author of the best-selling memoir, "Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night and One Woman's Quest to Become a Mother." A contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, her work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Vogue, Elle, Parenting, O: The Oprah Magazine, More, Discover, Salon and The New Yorker, and she contributes commentaries to NPR's "All Things Considered." She lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and daughter.
For more information:
Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture: