They Never Asked to Be Role Models

by Kohleun

Brittney, Lindsey, Hilary, Miley.

I’ve avoided the Miley Cyrus VMAs conversation for a while, since, frankly, I don’t give a flying fart in space over what she wore or how she danced. And while I’ve got your attention, why should I know anything about the Kardashians?

While, yes, I think Ms. Cyrus’ performance—especially considering that wardrobe screen time she will never get back—was deeply unattractive (there’s twerking, and then there’s twerking poorly) and inappropriate for programming supposedly aired for young folk, I don’t think any of us have a right to feel let down by Miley, or to pile on her any responsibility for forming the behaviors of youth culture or our daughter’s values. I’ve seen several posts about Miley floating through cyber-space, about how she is the manifestation of a sad and weep-worthy youth culture, or that she is perpetuating sexual commodification and low self-respect among young women.

Miley and her predecessors are young women growing up in the public eye, and they have been invested with more power and responsibility than they have ever asked for and far more than parents and teens should ever expect them to deal with.

Miley is a performer—a musician, an actor, an interview persona, and sometimes a dancer. Miley is not an intellectual, a political leader, a humanitarian, or a philanthropist, unless you count that clothing line she launched for Wal-Mart in collaboration with Max Azria. As such, there is no reason why we should hold her up as a moral model for young people since she all she signed up for was to be a performer, who is paid to have a fashion-forward image and hone her acting and singing skills.

Yes, Miley is financially successful and famous, but who with sound logic would then assume that those traits bestow on someone role model status at a moral level? The only thing I would think my hypothetical, future children should emulate of Miley is her pursuit of developing her talents. I don’t hold it against her, however, that she isn’t a humanitarian. I just know who not to call if I ever join the non-profit sector and need to do a little fundraising.

It’s hard not to lament the images of Miley, Brittney, et. al. being super sexual while navigating their teens, singing “baby, hit me one more time” and the like. But let us not forget that Miley is not a child anymore. She’s twenty years old, and should be experiencing her twenties (albeit responsibly would be great). She’s gonna do things that twenty-somethings do, not that teenagers do. Don’t ask a twenty year-old woman to represent an entire subculture of teenaged girls. And please, please don’t ask a teenaged girl to emulate a twenty-something’s behavior and then be upset when she places herself in adult situations with adult decisions, and the presence of adult-only substances. It’s not Miley’s job to raise your child.

It’s even more difficult to avoid the images of young women a la Girls Gone Wild in mainstream media at all. These personas permeate our culture, and are therefore influential on our kids regardless of whether we asked them to be. So, does this mean that we become passive consumers of our culture? Who took away your power to at least critique the culture in which you live, to live differently than a celebrity, to celebrate the relative privacy and lower social pressure that your life affords, or to tell young people, “Hey, ya know what, having oodles of money and fame doesn’t make you a more valuable person, or more worthy of our time and attention”?

I grew up learning to live in some very counter-cultural ways, and in many areas of my life I still do, thanks, yes, to my parents. I’m also counter-cultural in ways that they are not, but in a world where a fit body and coquettish smile should raise my cultural currency, my parents also encouraged my educational growth, my art, my writing, and my love of good food and hospitality. When I get to embrace all those aspects of myself I am most happy and satisfied with who I am. I don’t need to aspire to be in the movies, or as the Pussycat Dolls succinctly put it, to “have boobies.” There’s nothing wrong with enjoying pop culture, but it is a fluid thing, and it’s better to create a life for ourselves and young people that enjoys what pop culture brings while finding our abiding satisfaction in the realities in which we actually live.

Miley will grow up and presumably get her shit together, just like unfamous women eventually do, just like Brittney Spears is trying to do right now. Miley and her successors will continue to be seen on the big and small screen, in magazines and billboards, and on red carpets. Good for them. And other young women—people like us—will continue to work difficult jobs, pursue educations, have healthy and unhealthy relationships, develop and overcome or not overcome eating disorders, get boobies, fall in love, plant gardens, do socially inappropriate things, learn from our mistakes, grow up. Good for us.

Here’s a little pop culture critique of itself, coming from the Pussycat Dolls. Listen to the chorus. Sound familiar?