A mistress of the ambivalent, the American photographer Annie Leibovitz has a talent for catching a cultural mood in her portraits, while exploiting it at the same time. Her photograph of Demi Moore, nude and heavily pregnant, pointed up celebrity exhibitionism, but in an oddly flattering manner. Arnold Schwarzenegger, stripped to the waist astride what looked like a Lipizzaner stallion, managed to be both quasi-fascistic and yet oddly affectionate. Her latest portrait, a controversial semi-nude shot of the 15-year-old star Miley Cyrus, captures that moment of adolescence which is both knowing and yet childishly innocent.
Or so the adults at Vanity Fair, who published it, have claimed. The shot, which showed Cyrus, bare-backed and tousled, draped in a sheet and gazing dreamily at the camera, was simply “a beautiful and natural portrait”, they have said. To which, the appropriate teenspeak response is: “Yeah, right”.
Miley Cyrus is, it turns out, a superstar. Her TV series Hannah Montana is watched every week by nearly three million viewers, aged between six and 14. At that tricky moment when her career as a child star is almost over, it was decided by her management team that she should be introduced to the sophisticated adult readers of Vanity Fair. Hence the Lolita-esque portrait.
There are few things which expose the galloping hypocrisy of our times more nakedly than our culture’s treatment of teenage female sexuality. Seeing Cyrus’s new image, many parents have gasped with horror and despair. How were they going to explain this to their little innocents? Disney claim their star was manipulated. Miley herself has been wide-eyed with surprise at the fuss. There was no way that she had been photographed “in a skanky way”, she said.
In fact, what was going on was straightforward and cynical. There are billions to made from what is now known as the “tweenie” market. Young girls are great fans and have pocket money to spend. For their part, producers – and indeed many parents – have gone along with the sexualisation of childhood. There is a thin line between Disneyesque cuteness in young teenage girls and something altogether less innocent. The young actress, and her entourage, face a tricky problem as she reaches her mid-teens: how to move her career on from child roles to adult ones. Almost always, the marketing decision is made to exploit her most potent asset – innocence.
In life, growing up is a stuttering, stumbling progress full of setbacks and embarrassments. In the mediated world of public life, there is an illusion to be peddled. One moment, a girl is an innocent, gap-toothed kid who says the darndest things, the next she is a babe. Overnight she changes from being a person for whom any feelings of attraction are utterly shameful to someone who can pose semi-naked for newspapers and magazines.
Annie Leibovitz was clever in putting the child star in a sultry pose. She has exposed the cynical way that young sexuality is exploited, and then she has played the game herself.
But there is something seedy about the whole business. The price paid by stars can be high, as Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan have shown, and the effect on their young fans must be confusing. But in the grubby, grown-up world, men will be googling themselves silly at the latest product to come off the fantasy production line, and money is being made. That, not the photograph itself, is what is truly skanky.
Sex lives of the rich and famous
Last month a mistress of Norman Mailer sold off various sexual memoirs relating to the late novelist’s non-literary performances. Now Jimi Hendrix is at it from beyond the grave. Thirty eight years after he died, an 11-minute tape, alleged to be of Hendrix in bed with a couple of women, is now being marketed at £20 a pop.
Clearly, a new profit centre is developing for anyone erotically involved, however fleetingly, with the famous. A notebook or camera should be on hand at all times. Musicians, writers and artists would do well to consider adding a sex-life exploitation clause to their last will and testament. In the meantime, these archives should surely be collected together in a National Sexual Portrait Gallery.
* That most unlikely of charities, the English public school, is about to make a contribution towards equality of education. Fees for some private schools will be soon be increased to raise money for places for the less wealthy. Parents whose children are at Winchester, for example, have just learnt that they will pay a three per cent supplement on fees this year, which will rise to five per cent. The cost of being a Wykehamist next year will be almost £28,000.
It is not philanthropy that lies behind these schemes but changes to the charity law. A “continual narrowing of access”, according to Winchester’s headmaster, would threaten the school’s long-term future. So the line is that, in order to make public schools more accessible, their fees must be increased. As an argument, this would seem to lack the intellectual rigour on which Winchester prides itself.