When the press and fellow performers* despise your performance and think it is out of bounds--with some labeling it as an indication of a psychological disorder--you would seem to be in a bad spot.
I thought what Miley Cyrus did was self-assertive and demonstrated potentially life-saving psychological strength.
It's tough to devise a post-Disney career or to emerge from a child star identity. And nobody has ever done it better than Miley. She has segued from Disney Channel teen star to singer to movie actress, linking one connection across to the other, while trying to guarantee that when no one would possibly believe she was a teen any longer, she still has a career and, literally, a life. How has a kid been able to figure this out so well? Remember Dana Plato, who never found direction (along with her two young co-stars) folllowing "Different Strokes" and committed suicide at 36? There are many more examples of that trajectory than of Cyrus's--which, in many ways, stands alone.
Cyrus has provided a textbook case of how to accomplish this mission. A Disney teen idol at 13, she released her first album on the strength of her Hannah Montana character at 14, and sold three million copies! I wouldn't dream that a teenager figured all of this out. The title of the album, "Hannah Montana 2: Meet Miley Cyrus" sounds like a corporate-planning group's answer to the question: "How do we make sure that Miley doesn't become absorbed by Montana?" Cyrus then continued moving between filming and recording, seemingly always with an eye on the goal of achieving an adult recording and screen identity, which was evident in her 2009 "Party in the USA." She has never looked back after reaching a stratospheric #13 ranking, at age 17, on the 2010 Forbes Celebrity 100.
So when I viewed Brooke Shields (who played Hannah Montana's mother) clucking over the wisdom, the sanity, of those running Cyrus's career, I had to wonder how Shields' career was going that she could ignore just how phenomenally successful Cyrus has been thus far. Of course, many talented people have gone down with even the cleverest managers, and so we need to give Cyrus herself credit for her selection of management, following their suggestions, and performing consistent with their direction. I also believe that, at age 20, she is very capable of influencing this equation and is doing so. But that's a good, not a bad, sign. Stars who are led by the nose are often not contented, fulfilled people (think Elvis).
It takes guts for anyone to offer such an outre performance as Cyrus did at the MTV Video Music Awards before a multi-million-person audience and the leading commercial musical figures in the country. It takes tremendous attitude and confidence in yourself and your body to put yourself on the line like that. And she's 20! Of course, she might think differently--in fact, you can bet she will--about such a performance at ages 30, 40, and 50.
I'm personally not interested in Cyrus's music and acting and VMA performance. It's not the type of entertainment that appeals to me. As a psychologist, however, I'm stunned by Cyrus's audacity--I can think of almost no one who would chance what she did. As a result, she was able to steal the limelight from Lady Gaga, the #1 performer Cyrus might emulate. What child star ever accomplished something like that before? Someone told me they were on a photo shoot with a young actress who burst into tears. "But she's on film and video all the time!" I exclaimed. "She lacks confidence, and she needed a tremendous amount of encouragement to work." I don't sense that's true of Cyrus.
Many of those attacking Cyrus do so on psychological grounds--most notably Mika Brzezinski, who surmised, among other things, that Cyrus had an eating disorder. "She's a mess. Someone needs to take care of her." Brzezinski has recently published a book describing her lifelong eating disorder, one that she claims to be remedying currently before the cameras on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" as she has put on weight. On "Today," Brzezinski doubled down: we are witnessing "a 20 year old young woman literally in the process of her undoing."
Some of those criticizing Cyrus's performance ARE psychologists. I look at things from a different angle than they do, however. I'm not quick to label people as addicts or as having disorders needing treatment and who may still never recover from what the clinician labels a lifetime condition. (Think Dr. Drew.) I don't believe our treatments are very much help, for one thing, and they may do harm. For another, most young people recover from addictions and mental conditions on their own.
Remember when Drew Barrymore was on People Magazine's cover as America's youngest addict at age 13? And now 25 years later she's a major Hollywood performer-producer with a seemingly good home life (she was recently married)--one in which, by the way, she enjoys wine. That's actually the typical outcome for youthful substance abuse, although our world is set up not to recognize this is so. In any case, my approach in combating addiction in the young is to launch them on a positive trajectory, like Drew achieved, through satisfying work and good relationships, self-respect, positive life feedback.
That's not to say Miley is fighting an addiction. And leaving a substance problem behind is a less complex task than planning a lifetime career. I wouldn't say I was completely comfortable with Miley's on-stage persona. It teetered on the line of self-respect. My daughters would never do something like that+, and my son wouldn't let them. But her performance certainly indicated she knows what she's doing, and is not simply irrationally acting out the way we have seen other stars her age do.
* I understand the Smith family's pictured reaction was to Lady Gaga's performance, and not Cyrus's. In any case, that the Smith kids were so aghast at what they were seeing is a sign that their parents are bringing them up right! (Although perhaps they shouldn't have been at the show at all? At the best of times, it's R rated.)
+ Although my 20-something daughter Anna (who writes about popular culture) felt that Brzezinski's criticism of Cyrus's performance was out of line and out of touch, which influenced my reactions to both.
P.S. (September 4):
Miley responds, and seems unperturbed: Miley Cyrus breaks her silence on VMAs performance: People are 'overthinking it'.
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