Germaine Greer The Guardian, Tuesday 29 April 2008
The portrait of Miley Cyrus. Photograph: Annie Leibovitz exclusively for Vanity Fair
When Annie Leibovitz's picture of child star Miley Cyrus appeared in Vanity Fair her tween fans - and their parents - went ballistic. The naked back, the satin sheet, the damp hair ... how dare the innocent heroine of the hit series Hannah Montana look so provocative? Germaine Greer dissects the image itself, and we look at the people behind it: the photographer, Annie Leibovitz, and Disney, which markets the billion-dollar actor.
When Miley Cyrus was asked about the picture of herself clutching a satin sheet to her chest that Annie Leibovitz has taken for the current issue of Vanity Fair, she said it looked "pretty and natural" and that she thought it was "really artsy". If by this she meant artistic, rather than artsy-fartsy, she was right on the money. In western art most of the women portrayed semi-clad or totally nude are children. Their nipples are pallid and undeveloped, their breasts hard and veinless, their pubes unfurred. When Lucian Freud paints girl children, nobody cares; when Leibovitz photographs them, everyone goes ballistic. When Botticelli paints the yet-to-be-enjoyed goddess of love emerging from the sea, people come from all over the world to gape at her. The Greeks and Romans liked their goddesses meaty; our preferred Venuses are children. Hardy perennials such as Diane de Poitiers held their sway as long as they did because their bodies never matured.
Kate Moss has been able to earn millions only as long as she could continue to project the body image of a 13-year-old. The appeal of her nude portraits derives from the heart-breaking curve of her narrow hip-line and the tautness of her barely perceptible cleavage, not to mention the sulky innocence of her unfocused gaze. The icon of the 34-year-old mother qua 13-year-old virgin is even more disturbing than the sexy image of the 15-year-old Cyrus, because it is so much rarer and weirder. Sexually knowing 15-year-olds are normal. No matter how much energy Disney - which makes the TV show Hannah Montana, in which Cyrus stars - might put into denying the obvious, 15-year-olds are sexually aware. Any schoolteacher coping with a heaving mass of 15-year-old women knows that whatever their tribal culture or their religious affiliation, they are fascinated by sex. Girls' magazines pay lip service to health and friendship issues: their real subject is boys.
We train female children to be manipulative and to exploit their sex. From the time she is tiny, a girl in our society is taught to flirt. She is usually dressed like a mini-whore in pink and tinsel, short skirt, matching knickers, baby-doll pyjamas, long hair falling over her face. She learns to court attention and, when successful, to hide her face. If she's lucky enough to get to be a big sister she might get over this sleazy conditioning, but very few daughters these days get to grow out of being "daddy's girl". When the time comes she is likely to reject approaching womanhood, desperate to keep her thighs skinny, and nearly as desperate to acquire hard, high breasts. The idea of growing into her own body is charmless, frightening. One thing we know about the Leibovitz photograph is that Cyrus saw nothing amiss in clutching a satin sheet to her apparently naked bosom, and looking at the camera over her shoulder. Girls are taught to look at the world in that sidelong fashion from the time they come to consciousness.
For her photograph of the teenage celebrity, Leibovitz chose a palette strongly redolent of the dirty postcards of yesteryear, sepia embittered with black, a suggestion of eye-blue and lip-red, as if retouched by hand, with never - thank our stars - a hint of pink. The light is centred on the child's sallow, unformed cheek. Her eyes are shadowed and puffy, her lips slightly set, as if she is waiting out the slow shutter-click of an obsolete camera. Nobody has run a comb through her disordered mass of dark hair, which seems greasy and damp, as if with sweat. As one of her now ex-fans shrieked in his blog, "She looked like she is freshly f**ked in these photos!" The subject of Leibovitz's photo could be a child prostitute from Casablanca, vintage 1900, the camera in the hands of a sex tourist who is about to toss a few coins to the doorkeeper. It is Disney, after all, that is merchandising this child, and the suggestion of pimping will cling to it. Leibovitz may be cynical, is obviously cynical. She is also, as usual, justified.
Now Disney accuses Vanity Fair of drumming up controversy and deliberately manipulating a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines, as if its own motives were not identical. The photo shoot for Vanity Fair was probably carried out weeks ago but the brouhaha has been timed for the very day the magazine appeared on the newsstands. Disney could have refused to make its star available for a shoot with Vanity Fair, or, if what it wanted was to protect its brand image, it could have demanded the right to vet the pictures. Cyrus was not undefended in the clutches of Leibovitz; her parents and minders were present and apparently saw nothing amiss in the offending photograph, which, in its original state, probably looked less like a dirty postcard than it does on the pages of Vanity Fair.
Before Leibovitz, Cyrus was regularly photographed on red carpets dressed as a 35-year-old in sequins and chiffon with heavy makeup, hair extensions, fuck-me shoes, and occasionally a segment of baby breast escaping at an ill-cut armhole. Otherwise she dresses as a schoolgirl in long socks, very short skirts and the same hanks of rather gluey-looking hair. These publicity shots are far cheaper and far nastier in implication than the Leibovitz image, which has class. Meanwhile, in a series of candid snapshots apparently of Cyrus that have found their way on to the internet, Cyrus the professional virgin is apparently happy to show herself nipples akimbo in jersey underwear, pulling down a vest to display a green bra, and disporting a bare belly on a bed with a boyfriend. All tacky, all in circulation, and all displaying the usual knowingness.
Cyrus said that Leibovitz didn't photograph her "in a skanky way". That she can be relied on to do for herself. Prostitution is the paradigm of service industry. It is the tragedy of Cyrus's life that she has nothing to sell but herself and she is fast approaching her sell-by date. From this time forward her price can only go down.
Branded for life
How the tweens became an advertiser's dream
With their unbeatable combination of "pester power" and burgeoning brand awareness, tweens are the advertiser's dream. Aged between six and 12, American tweens spend $51bn of their own pocket money annually - mainly on never-ending TV spin-off products, collectables, so-called multi-platform opportunities (video games, live shows, downloads, clothing). And, as if that wasn't enough tacky plastic stuff, an additional $170bn is spent on them by friends and family. It is thanks to these tween spenders that Miley Cyrus, star of Hannah Montana - up there with High School Musical as one of Disney's biggest money-spinners - is set to be worth $1bn by the time she's 18.
Part of the phenomenon is so-called "age compression" - kids getting older younger - and rejecting traditional toys as unsophisticated. The falling birth rate is significant, too, along with the rise in parental working hours: a lot of the tween market is guilt money.
The company that appears to have the best understanding of the tween market is Disney. In 2006, High School Musical, the soundtrack to the Disney Channel film of the same name, became the biggest-selling album of the year in the US, with 3.7m copies sold. High School Musical has since become one of the biggest brands in Disney's history. In 2007, the sequel became the most watched cable broadcast ever, with 179m global viewers. High School Musical 3 is out this October.
Hannah Montana first aired on the Disney Channel in March 2006 and it, too, has grown into a massive brand. It starts its third season in the US later this year. It has made Miley Cyrus, who plays Hannah, a schoolgirl who leads a "secret life" as a pop star by night, into the US's highest-paid teen entertainer. Cyrus's concert movie took $65m at the US box office, and she is paid in $1m a week on tour, with millions more coming from her TV show, CDs and endorsements. Disney has just signed up her autobiography for an undisclosed billion-dollar figure.
The Hannah Montana merchandise is extraordinary: pink frilly T-shirts emblazoned with Hannah's face, Capri pants, camouflage mini-skirts, sparkly handbags, skin-on nail sets, necklaces, earrings, Nintendo games, plus a range of novels and collectable dolls. Arguably, it's oversexualised, but it's also a boring feminine stereotyping: the message is that sparkly makeup, manicures and "killer" mini-skirts are what it means to be a girl. This is bling and glam for the under-10s. And little girls lap it up.
"Tweens heavily influence buying way out of proportion to their numbers," says Ken Hertz, an entertainment lawyer and branding expert whose firm represents Will Smith, Beyoncé Knowles and Gwen Stefani. "By the time someone has reached their late teens, they're much more difficult to influence." Tween consumers can get happily sucked in for life. "If you can get a fan at tween age, you have a good chance of keeping them for a long time. It's not a new thing. That is what allowed the Spice Girls to sell out Madison Square Gardens in 10 seconds. And that is why New Kids on the Block have a reunion coming up."
Not surprising, then, that big players in the music industry - Sony, Warner, EMI - are now homing in on this lucrative market. The tween client base is seen as crucial in a climate where sales to teenagers and adults have dropped by 21.2% annually since 1999.
British children are less consumerist than American kids, says Louise Barfield, London-based branding specialist and mother of a nine-year-old daughter, but the pressure is on. "I don't allow my daughter to watch commercial TV," she says. "It's useless products that are not going to enhance her life - clothing, tattoos, cosmetics." Sleepovers are a big thing with girls from the age of six and seven, she says, where girls may want to swap makeup and clothes. "The way they communicate via brands, products and characters can be worrying: it's the sharing of it all they are fascinated with. You want them to enjoy themselves, but you have to ask: is this what I want my little girl to be focused on?"
Caught up in the moment
Why stars love to pose for Annie Leibovitz
Five hours before John Lennon was shot dead in 1980, Annie Leibovitz photographed him naked. His arms and legs were wrapped lovingly, needily, around the fully clothed body of his wife Yoko Ono. His lips pressed to her cheek, his eyes shut in bliss. But that wasn't Leibovitz's original idea for the Rolling Stone cover. She had wanted him on his own, but Lennon insisted that his wife appear too. So Leibovitz suggested that the two pose together nude. Lennon obligingly began to strip, but Ono refused to take off her trousers. Without thinking about it much, Leibovitz recalled, she told Ono to keep all her clothes on.
"Then he curled up next to her and it was very, very strong. We took one Polaroid," said Leibovitz, "and the three of us knew it was profound right away." Lennon reportedly told her: "You've captured our relationship exactly. Promise me it'll be on the cover." It was, but not as planned: it appeared on the memorial issue for the murdered Beatle. But what had Leibovitz captured? "You couldn't help but feel that she was cold and he looked like he was clinging on to her." Which seems unfair: I can see Lennon's clinginess, but not Ono's chilliness.
The story of Lennon's last photoshoot undoes some of the mystique of how Leibovitz gets her subjects to disport themselves in daft, degrading, mildly titillating or otherwise compelling poses: sometimes at least, she has responded on the hoof to her celebrity subjects' annoying demands. She doesn't create a moment but is responsive to it, realising that the thing she's after is right there. But most professional snappers would say they could realise that too if they only had the same access to exhibitionist celebs as Leibovitz has had in the past 40 years. They, too, could have got the Queen to look wistful in a crown.
To be fair, Leibovitz can do jaunty, contrived composition, too. Her picture of Whoopi Goldberg in a bath of milk subverts the glumly pious Riefenstahl-Mapplethorpe black-meets-white aesthetic by sheer dint of Goldberg's joyfully cheeky open-mouthed pose. What Leibovitz often does is capture a striking image that flatters the sitter into thinking it discloses something profound, when it doesn't. Maybe that's what her lover Susan Sontag meant when she told Leibovitz: "You're good but you could be better."
But how did Leibovitz get Sting to stand in a bracingly ridiculous naked pose in the desert, covered in mud with hands coyly covering his tantrically accomplished genitals? How did she get Demi Moore to pose heavily pregnant, one hand cradling the heft of her bump, the other protecting readers' eyes from the sight of her nipple? How did she lure Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong to pose high and naked in the saddle of his racing bike? Or the voluptuous Scarlett Johansson and non-voluptuous Keira Knightley to lounge nudely in a double portrait, their daft rhyming pouts making the photo's wannabe sexy allure unintentionally hilarious? Because Leibovitz will get them on the cover of the glossies. Because, in the narcissistic cesspool of modern celebrity, she is Echo. Because she gives her subjects what they want and the rest of us, well, we get what we are given and some of us like it.
Leibovitz said that when Sontag came into her life, "I wanted to do better things, take photographs that matter." Has she? Leibovitz has taken some fine photographs of her family, children and Sontag. They are intimate, convincing and unflashy, everything her more recent celebrity work has not been. But she has become something of a hack, an obliging furnisher of kitsch. It happens, particularly when you've been doing something too long.
Earlier this month, for instance, her photo of US basketball star LeBron James and Brazilian model Gisele Bündchen caused a fuss. James had become the first African-American to figure on Vogue's cover, but some critics suggested it espoused racist stereotypes: he looked, they said, like the King Kong to her Fay Wray. James, it is worth pointing out, said he enjoyed the picture. We needn't: it brings two ho-hum stars together in a collision of cliches.
Or take her fascinatingly hideous, 2006 shot of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes en famille à l'herbe, dandling Suri Cruise. In this frame, the couple close their eyes in Hollywood's vapid simulacrum of conjugal felicity (the opposite of the real thing that John and Yoko gave Leibovitz). Even now, it makes me want to Photoshop in a payload of manure falling on to them from a swooping helicopter. Leibovitz held up a mirror to their smug narcissism and it refused to crack, damn it. No wonder she can get her subjects to do what she wants.