Barack Obama recently took heat for his comments to fundraisers in San Francisco. Those remarks, for some reason, were never interpreted with a bit more cynicism and much less conventional wisdom: why can’t we just speculate that Sen. Obama was simply pandering to what a particular, rich, liberal constituency wanted to hear (the rubes don’t really believe that… religion and guns are simply symbolic painkillers to stop the sting of the economic Real)? It was the same pandering process that all the candidates have done, and must do, in order to get elected (see also: Senator Clinton and boilermakers; Senator McCain and John Hagee).
Sen. Obama’s statements were construed as some sort of lazy (to his opponents on the left… “elitist” to his detractors on the right) allusion to Marx-cum-Gramsci base/superstructure theory masked in Thomas Frank jargon. So the talking points became simple: Obama’s an elitist and a Marxist… oh my!
So at the expense of betraying my “Marxist” sympathies (and hopefully some of yours, too!), I had a great time laughing at the news of Miley Cyrus’ spread in Vanity Fair. Annie Liebovitz’s portrait hit Drudge and at 7am Monday morning Hannah Montana went from “tweenie-bopper” to “tworn-star.”
And that’s precisely the point where some of that basic, good, old-fashioned Marxist thinking about the “commodity” is helpful and can explain what the hell happened. This dust-up points to the fact that Miley Cyrus’ body is a commodity that is controlled by two different sets of interests and agendas: those of Disney and those of her family.
Disney has an interest in making sure Miley Cyrus’ body remains “Hannah Montana,” franchise par excellence, for as long as possible. I can only imagine the intense and numerous aneurisms felt throughout the Magic Kingdom when they saw this issue of Vanity Fair. They’re very aware that this sort of thing happens often in our paparazzi-and-tabloid information age: the slippery slope of slut. Brittney and Lindsay went from bankable faces to disheveled snatch-shots. And now another golden-goose franchise is approaching the point where the Disney execs must awkwardly peek into the abyss and see the advent of their leading lady’s libido. Based on recent trends, this can’t be good (ahem: paging Jamie Lynn Spears). They must now contemplate the uncomfortable: how do you reconcile this development with the inconvenient truth that the Hannah Montana demographic, statistically speaking, has yet to even have their first period? If you’re Disney, you make sure that your lawyers and a battalion of PR reps quash this disaster, ASAP.
On the other hand, the Cyrus family has an interest in maintaining the 15 year-old’s body as “Hannah Montana” in the near and intermediate future, but from there they obviously need to be more flexible and shrewd. They must make sure that Ms. Cyrus can still work her moneymaker when this HM gig runs its course. The “Hannah Montana” empire has to make the delicate transition to the “Miley Cyrus” career. And (pace Simpson, Lohan, Spears) that task is a bitch. Yet, since womanhood is inevitable, the Cyrus family handlers made the (mis)calculation that Miley should begin some sort of long-term transition via the lens of the esteemed Annie Liebovitz.
But if you’re feeling bad for Miley at this point, you may be expending too much sentiment for her, and not enough for your own kid. After all, the Mouse and Mr. Achy-Breaky-Heart wouldn’t be doing any of this if they weren’t trying to grab your cash.
Hanna Rosin, writing in Slate, made several points worthy of consideration while explaining her feeling of violation at the sight of Miley’s bare back. In particular, though, I want to pay special attention to her remarks on the fact that it is, indeed, a hard call to judge the effects of the content of franchises like High School Musical and Hannah Montana on the attitudes of a/her tween audience. Specifically, her concern is:
Now there are shows we all consider clean: Hannah Montana and High School Musical, for example. And by any watchdog’s standards they are: no sex, no exposed flesh, no cursing. This ensures that children as young as 6 or 7 (such as my daughter) will know all about them and love them. She doesn’t see anything bad. She just listens to lots of teenagers sing and dance and go on and on about who’s dating whom and who’s in love and who broke up, etc. They are innocent and knowing at the same time. I can’t easily say to her: Don’t watch that, you don’t want to be like that underage sexpot, do you? Because the actors look as cute and innocent as the Teletubbies. But something about all this sanitized high school chatter leaves me uneasy. Why does a 6-year old need to know so much about dating and breaking up?
Now I recognize that I may be a tad too reactionary and live with a post-Culture Wars hangover, but Hanna’s suspicion seems correct. The sanitized, uncomplicated, and relationship-centric storylines of these TV shows are vehicles for mega-advertising dollars. In this case, the tween revenue stream is up for grabs and (surprise, surprise) the content of the shows prepare 8-10 year olds to recognize that adolescence, in general, and dating and breaking-up, in particular, are properly understood as consumer events that they will soon experience. Relationships aren’t complicated interactions between human beings (how “silly”), but occasions to buy/wear the right clothes, conform to specific cliques, and spend the ‘rents money on dinner at the Cheesecake Factory and dates to the multiplex.
And let’s not forget how these easy, chaste plots are good training for future consumption habits: if you keep the tweens around long enough with HSM and HM, then eventually they’ll switch to Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy when melodrama with a character singing her “own” songs just doesn’t compare to ABC-approved bands soundtracking the hijinks of those crazy “adults.”
All I can do is shudder. Obviously, my response is a consequence of me not having kids. When I do have kids, I’ll realize that life’s not just abstracted, continual analyses of which commodities are better to support when one is given a limited set of possibilities from which to choose. Additionally, I’ll find out, first-hand, how it sucks to have to be a responsible parent and strike a balance between letting your kid stay informed of the pop culture they share with their peers and, at the same time, help them develop a sense of ironic detachment from the incessant attacks from advertisers.
But while I’m able to have the luxury of watching this from the sidelines, I’m content to talk snark at the commodification of Miley Cyrus and the exploitation of the tween demographic. After all, they’re targeting 8 year-olds, dude.