Defending Miley

I don’t often find myself agreeing with Miley Cyrus.  The famous former Disney star has blazed her own path in the few short years since aging out of Disney’s star-making machine.  The carefully cultivated girl-next-door image necessary for maximum marketing purposes has been replaced with a considerably non-family-friendly persona.

So it is more than tempting to dismiss Cyrus’ claims that her early fame messed her up mentally.  But – perhaps for the first and only time – I empathize with Cyrus, and suspect that her claims are closer to reality than even she suspects.  For a young child to be subjected to that sort of pressure to look and act a particular way – I can’t imagine what that must be like.  Or, perhaps more accurately, I sorta can.

Like most Americans I went through public school most of my life.  I walked the hallways of a junior high school and high school where there was enormous pressure to fit in, to find your niche and then to stay in it.  While there were some people who successfully remade themselves midstream, it was an exception rather than the rule. Often those changes were in rebellion to other roles, more of a rejection of being a jock or a preppie.  But regardless of how you got there,  roles were expected to be as clearly defined as cultural touchstones like The Breakfast Club showed them to be, even as it tried to deconstruct those roles.  Cyrus’ struggle is not unique, but is amplified and exaggerated by her very public presence.  I suspect she echoes the dissatisfaction and rage that some young people experience as they recognize how relentlessly they are bought and sold.  A whole new generation continues to discover for itself what it means to turn on, tune in, and drop out.

The tragedy is not the rebellion itself, nor even the marketing frenzy that tries to hammer us into roles that can be accessorized by consumer consumption.  These are hallmarks of being human.  We all seek identity and purpose and meaning.  We all struggle for a measure of autonomy as well as cohesion in a larger social setting, whether our immediate family or our larger culture.  We all have tendencies to exploit others and in turn to be exploited.

The tragedy lies in not having a better alternative than selling out on your own terms.  The tragedy lies in not having a better alternative than shock and awe in a way that demeans yourself and those who idolize you.  There is an alternative to having your identity pre-packaged for you by commercials or a television contract.  There is an alternative to self-destruction and embracing the extremes of the human condition in flight from commodification.

That alternative comes in acknowledging our core identity as creatures, not accidents.  To recognize that we are loved not because of what we wear or say but simply because we are.  To recognize that just our bare existence speaks to a love that pre-existed us, that knew us and crafted us for something beyond being bought and sold.  The alternative comes in the increasingly radical assertion that not only am I not yours to be exploited, I am not even my own.  Seeking out a healthy identity in that context becomes truly possible.  Still not easy, perhaps, but possible.

So I empathize with Miley.  I applaud her for being willing to call the exploitation what it is.  It’s a reminder to parents that they are responsible for protecting their child and equipping them to protect themselves.  I can’t imagine how complicated that must be in the entertainment industry.  I hope Cyrus will find herself in an active role as a proponent and defender of other young people still in a marketing pipeline (whether Disney’s or another).  But she has at least reminded me that life and youth and celebrity are very complicated things individually and together.  I hope she can blaze a path suitable not just for herself, but for others to follow, and ultimately an identity bound up in the God who created her and sacrificed himself for her.

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