I was asked this week what I would do if I were Miley Cyrus’s mom, and my first thought was to get the kid a new dad, one with shorter sideburns and fewer tattoos. Once we’ve replaced Billy Ray Cyrus with someone who looks good in an argyle sweater vest, we’ll talk.
I know you can’t judge a country-music star by his covers, and we can’t expect all TV dads to be like the venerable Cliff Huxtable. But isn’t anyone else on the planet a little uncomfortable with Billy Ray and Miley Ray (yes, she’s legally changed her name, effective May 1) draped all over each other, in skimpy black tank-tops and tight blue jeans?
The outrage over the Annie Leibovitz photos in this month’s Vanity Fair focused on the so-called topless photo of 15-year-old Miley, aka Hannah Montana, pop music’s shiniest bubble-gum star. But that image was, well, Disney compared to the video now showing on vanityfair.com, where normal people and pedophiles alike can watch father and daughter snuggle and caress each other in profoundly disturbing ways. We see lots of skin and curves and muscle, and close-ups of dad’s tattoo and daughter’s black toenail polish. It’s all very touching, but not in the Hallmark way.
The photo shoot, Vanity Fair tells us, was “a relaxed family event.” Even Miley’s mom, Tish, and her eight-year-old sister, Noah (cough cough), were there to watch the Queen of Clean smolder away for the camera in a strapless Balmain dress made with less fabric than a ready-made café curtain from Wal-Mart.
Even though Miley’s parents were there when the photos were taken, we’re told they were shocked and dismayed at how the pictures turned out. Miley issued a statement expressing remorse and embarrassment, apologizing to her pre-adolescent fan base and, more importantly, to the suits that bankroll her brand. Even Leibovitz has said she is sorry if anyone with, say, functioning eyes “misinterpreted” the photos.
Cameras — you just can’t trust them. They always add ten pounds and subtract an undergarment or two. But words, verbatim ac litteratim — therein is the truth. So let’s turn to the Vanity Fair article in which the first thing we learn about Miley Ray Cyrus, Disney’s billion-dollar baby, is that her favorite TV show is Sex and the City. Later, she reveals that Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears — Disney alumnae also, and leaders of the neverending tabloid sitcom Serial Mousecapades — need multiple rehab stays and psychiatric care because, you know, like, they’re normal.
Or so says Miss Cyrus: “ . . . I think most 21- to 25-year-olds go through this kind of thing. It’s just not on a platform — you know what I mean? Basically, they’re being normal 21-year-olds, especially Lindsay. I mean, most of that’s pretty normal. If you went to most high schools, I could point out Britneys and Lindsays.”
That assessment is pretty amazing, considering that Miley has never gone to a normal high school (she only does that on TV) but is tutored on the set for three hours a day.
Miley Cyrus, it turns out, has a Jeremiah Wright problem: The more you know, the more dismayed you become. So, if I were Miley Cyrus’s mom, there’d be a Chelsea Clinton rule: No talking to the press. Trees need not die so teenagers can prattle on about their lives for posterity. Who said better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt? Not the on-set tutor.
But I’m not Miley Cyrus’s mom, I’m not Chelsea Clinton’s mom, and to be honest, I don’t want to be. I’m tired enough already. I’ve got four kids of my own, and I keep waiting for the village to show up and do the laundry, but it’s always letting me down. Still, with careful time management, I can occasionally sit down in front of the TV (after the Tide goes in, and before it’s time to add the Downy.) And here I discovered that HBO, stricken by the need to atone for 15-year-olds who watch Sex and the City, has made available a fine historical drama, John Adams. Part of it tells the story of the fractured relationship between our second president and his ne’er-do-well son, Charles.
Charles was an irresponsible drunk who mismanaged money and behaved badly in college. (You know . . . normal!) Long before anyone compounded the words “tough” and “love,” John Adams knew the meaning. When he’d had enough, he went to Charles and, trembling with anger and pain, uttered three words: “I renounce you.” Charles crumpled, and wept.
Two hundred years later, where are the parents who would renounce a child, celebrity or not, for stupendously bad behavior? And where are the children who would be wounded by such a renunciation? Most baby-boomer offspring would roll their eyes, and say “yeah right” or “whatever” or “like I care.” The fault is both theirs, and ours.
I have a problem horse, which requires a wildly expensive problem-horse trainer, who is teaching me about bad horses, and by extension, bad children. Horses, like teenagers and young adults, are herd animals, driven by instinct to obey a pecking order. All rude behavior — kicking, biting, defiant disregard of court orders — derives from contempt of this pecking order. And contempt of the pecking order derives from disrespect.
If you want a horse to behave, you have to first command his respect. John Adams’s renunciation of Charles had power because the son, troubled as he may have been, admired his father, and so conviction could come in three stark words, not in court proceedings. Of course, gaining the admiration of one’s offspring is a lot easier when you’re a Founding Father. For the rest of us, it’s a bit trickier, and we’ve all got to figure it out on our own. But when they’re adolescents — and we’re told that period is now from 13 to 30 — it’s more about being their leader than their friend. It’s more about being a grown-up, exerting influence by stalwart example. Only in Hollywood (okay, and maybe in France) do the callow control the whole herd, a truth we can ponder as we celebrate our mothers on Sunday.
– Jennifer Graham is a writer in the suburbs of Boston.