Tuned In

Dead Tree Alert: Montana or Molehill?

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In this week’s Time, it fell to me to write The Moment—the mini-column that opens the magazine—on Miley Cyrus. Think of it as a last-minute asterisk on her Time 100 entry, written before the Vanity Fair incident, by the frighteningly prescient Donny Osmond (“Miley’s fans are not thinking about the fact that she will grow up too. As she does, she’ll want to change her image, and that change will be met with adversity”).

My bit begins thus:

“I think it’s really artsy. It wasn’t in a skanky way.” Thus did America’s big sister, Miley Cyrus, describe a Vanity Fair photo by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz of herself, tousled and clutching a blanket to her torso. Many parents of fans of Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana, on the other hand, saw not an homage to classical portraiture but a topless 15-year-old. Um, no, they demurred. That was totally in a skanky way.

Cyrus later apologized for the “embarrassing” pic, but calling it “artsy” may have been a greater cultural misstep than the photo shoot itself (which she did with the blessing of her manager mother and the participation of her co-star father). As with the Janet Jackson incident at the Super Bowl, the dustup revealed a chasm between those who shrugged off the photo and those who saw it as an assault on common decency. The artsy/skanky gap, if you will.

You may have already guessed that I’m more on the molehill side of this divide, but even to someone who thinks the Cyrus photo was an overblown, largely media-driven scandal, the real anxieties and cultural gaps it touched on are still interesting. Or at least they were way back on Wednesday, when I wrote this. Ah, I remember it like it was the day before yesterday.