Twerk or die
Miley Cyrus’s performance with Robin Thicke at the MTV VMAs was the latest example of a Disney princess’s full-on reinvention of herself. Is there any other way for tween stars to become Hollywood starlets?
Twerking around: Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke. Photograph: Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Pay attention: Britney Spears and Madonna kiss at the 2003 MTV VMAs. Photograph: Kevin Kane/Wireimage.com/Getty
Twerking, we’re told, is one of those suggestive new-fangled African- American-influenced dances. Like the Twist. Or the Hucklebuck. The word, sometimes represented as twerkin’, has just entered the online Oxford dictionary alongside such other voguish confections as “bitcoin” and “selfie”.
The ascendance of “twerking” into a thesaurus near you could not be more timely, coinciding as it does with Miley Cyrus’s appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs), an annual shindig dating back to the era when music television actually played some music. Cyrus, the former Disney Channel princess and erstwhile star of Hannah Montana, did indeed twerk for the occasion, a spectacle that launched a billion OMG-themed tweets and two billion tabloid headlines containing the words “criticised for” and “overtly sexual overtones”.
Regular newspaper readers may be permitted a loud and long yawn at this juncture: yes, these are the same hackneyed phrases that appear, like clockwork, after every episode of The X Factor, phrases that seldom pop up without the optional bolt-ons “deemed too raunchy for TV” and “family show”.
Really? Anyone who thinks that the MTV VMA showcase is aimed at “family audiences” clearly wasn’t paying attention when Madonna performed Like a Virgin back when the telly valves had to warm up first. Or when Diana Ross felt up Lil’ Kim, in 1999. Or when Madonna (again) and Britney Spears kissed during the 2003 edition. Or to any similarly themed broadcasts from this or any other decade. (See also wardrobe malfunctions and the Super Bowl.)
Anyone who thinks that Will Smith and family – the savviest media clan on earth – were, as reported, genuinely aghast at Miley’s “antics” doesn’t know Will Smith and family.
Surely we expect our tween stars to spontaneously gyrate and stick out their tongues upon entering their 20s. Surely making suggestive gestures with a giant foam finger is part of a rite of passage. Surely the good girls are required to “go bad”. Let’s hear it for Spears, who has spent most of the past decade battling addictions and terrible wardrobe choices. And shout out for Lindsay Lohan, who has practically secured her own revolving-door entrance to LA’s jailhouse.
Disney (and occasionally Nickleodeon) princesses are apt to emerge from their pubescent chrysalises with a radical haircut (see shaved Spears circa 2006) and with parts of their bodies exposed that we didn’t know previously existed. Back in the day Debbie Gibson swapped squeaky clean for soft-porn movies and Tiffany ditched her trademark fluffy jumpers for a Playboy spread.
’Twas ever thus, and so it shall remain. Never mind the twerking: Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens got up to far more shocking activities in this summer’s controversial Spring Breakers, a poetic movie critique of American student debauchery from the reliably shocking Harmony Korine.
Disney princesses grow into Hollywood starlets in the same way that the former Mouseketeer Ryan Gosling gets serious and seriously buff. Therein lies a terrible and old-fashioned double standard: nobody blinks an eye when Justin Timberlake gets down and dirty, but Spears, his former girlfriend, was a whole other story. And another double standard: from the chaste romances of Life With Boys, that crisp Canadian teencom, to the Jonas Brothers spraying foam on eager audiences, the trick to being a presexual star is to be as sexual as you can decently manage.
Still, gender biases and double coding don’t entirely explain why Cyrus’s gyrations have taken up quite so much bandwidth. Was it merely a slow news week?
In part this tsunami of Cyrus-bashing memos is just another manifestation of Twitter-engineered hysteria. As Amanda Bynes, another “fallen” tween queen, will attest, negative tweets can beget many more negative tweets awfully quickly. Suddenly, the tutting and frowning that might once have been confined to the scarier corners of the playground and common room can congeal and snowball hysterically into a planet-sized gob of disgust.
Cyrus, who accidentally tweeted about taking a Xanax last June, knows well enough how social media can go horribly wrong.
There is, however, a genuine sense of betrayal sounding through much of the capitalised Cyrus outrage. For millions of girls raised in front of the hit Disney Channel show Hannah Montana, Cyrus was supposed to be something like a Real Live Girl. She had the snaggle tooth and Tennessee accent to prove as much. It didn’t matter that she was the daughter of the country superstar Billy Ray Cyrus or that her birth name was the less cool-sounding Destiny Hope or that she first appeared in Big Fish, a star-studded Tim Burton film, at the age of six. Hannah Montana’s central conceit – ordinary brunette schoolgirl by day, glamorous blond pop singer by night – allowed impressionable viewers to believe that Cyrus was both things at all times.
The casting of Billy Ray as Cyrus’s onscreen dad blurred the distinction between Real Cyrus and Disney Cyrus even further, as did the show’s use of Noah Cyrus, her younger sister, and various real-life country stars, notably “Aunt” Dolly Parton.
Since 2010 the former child star has bounced from one all-grown-up story to another. Her role in the Nicolas Sparks romance The Last Song – the film that introduced her to her on-again, off-again Australian fiance, Liam Hemsworth – was cited as her induction into more adult themes. In 2011 back-to-back appearances on Saturday Night Live and MTV’s Punk’d were cited as her induction into more adult themes. Last year musical collaborations with Snoop Lion (aka Snoop Dogg) and Pharrell Williams were cited as evidence of her induction into more adult themes. And so on.
It was Pharrell Williams, ubiquitous musical polymath, who suggested that Cyrus, now aged 20, might like to chop off the locks once used to signify the Hannah Montana dichotomy. She says her new do gave her “a newfound sense of confidence and forward momentum”. The “haters” say it was the beginning of the end.
Strands of concern
They’ve never forgiven her. For good or ill, many little girls are defined by their curls. When the heroine of F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story Bernice Bobs Her Hair emerges from the salon she is soon ostracised for her radical short locks. Between the intemperate outbursts and mock outrage scattered about various media, there’s a genuine strand of concern from former Miley minions. Will she ever grow her hair back? Can’t she just get a weave?
The answer to both queries may lie in Cyrus’s new bun nubbins: yes, of course. Crucially, however, by the time the tresses reappear the same voices of concern will likely be screaming for One Direction.
For the moment Cyrus can afford the slings and arrows of “OMG” and “What is she thinking?” In terms of celebrity binary, of being talked about or not being talked about, her “raunchy performance” has attracted more attention and YouTube hits than Hannah Montana could ever have dreamed possible. In the Darwinian hinterland of the former tween queen she might just have ensured her own survival.