The year is 2008. Lil’ Miley is only 15 years old. She is rocking her Hannah Montana franchise and doing everything a perfect Disney Princess would. And then she began to fall from her girlhood princess throne. Cyrus posed in the infamous half naked photo shoot in Vanity Fair causing outage from the media to mommy bloggers. This was Miley’s first infraction on her sugary sweet brand and a perfect example of the way we impose the virgin/ whore dichotomy on child stars, reflecting how we then treat girls in our culture as a whole.
Peggy Orenstein explains in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter that we place female child stars into two categories as they ascend into womanhood: wholesome or whoresome. The limited options place culturally defined roles for girls as they grow up pushing them into female extremes of the virgin/ whore dichotomy, stating that women must fall into one role, offering two mutually exclusive ways to construct a sexual identity. The question Orenstein asks however, is how can a girl grow up in public as a person (and woman) and as a commodity?
We see this all the time with girls who are famous in their youth. Hilary. Lindsay. Britney. Christina. Miley. Selena. The list goes on. The women were the pinnacles of sweet, girlhood youth when they first appeared in the public eye. However, we are less accepting of female child stars growing up (and making a few mistakes along the way) than we are of male stars because of the idea of sheltering girlhood. We don’t want to see the girls we have preserved in film as innocence to lose that essence of childhood, although every one does- that is part of growing up!
Spears hit the nail on the head with her song “Not a Girl…Not Yet a Woman”. The typical struggle for girl child stars growing up.
Orenstein makes the brilliant comparison in her book of Disney princesses and Disney girl stars following a similar gendered script. They are expected to fulfill hegemonic beauty standards, be kind and loving, fall in love with a prince (or in general- be heterosexual), lead a life of purity, and be happy at all times. Now while, as Orenstein says, the end point of marrying a prince may be replaced by producing a hit single- the narrative arc is still as predictable. Even the act of “coming out” of the Disney image and into womanhood is predictable, leading to society also following a script of cultural sexuality backlash.
The script is easy to follow. Once upon a time- a cute girl appears on the scene. She either has a witty comedic talent or a great singing voice. She becomes a star for her innocence and awkwardness adolescence girls can identify with. Many also follow the narrative of purity we want exemplified in girls. Britney Spears wore a purity ring and said she was saving herself for marriage. Miley stated in an interview that she thought she was different than other child stars who had fallen off the horse of “purity and perfection” because she had a strong sense of family and faith. Boom. Use of the moral purity card. By placing these kinds of girls on TV, it allows parents to create the façade that our little girls will stay little girls. Far from the truth.
Orenstein sets up how the fall from “pop princess perfection” occurs when we do not accept women exploring their identity and sexuality. The girls grow up are not only women but also commodities; they are a means of promoting their “brand”. Suddenly, it is no longer cute and precious, but sexy and sultry that is key. Yes, the girls should be exploring their sexuality and who they want to be as empowered women, but it gets turned quickly into sexualization, and in some cases objectification. Stars are taught to flaunt their sexuality but don’t feel it. Use your sexuality for power but not for pleasure. However, if sexy goes too far, society turns its back and places her in the “whore” category. Orenstein calls this the shedding of image stage where the girls “want to cast off their values by casting off their clothes.” All of the infamous child stars had a moment of sexual “coming out” where the media exploded over their loss of girlhood identity. Christina Aguilera’s Dirrty album, or Hillary Duff’s Maxim cover for example. Some even get pushed to extremes of drug use and alcohol abuse, as we have seen with Lindsay Lohan. Orenstein believe this extreme push to the opposite side of the spectrum is due to our cultural expectations for women to fit one box or the other- with no middle ground to navigate. What kind of image does this send the next generation of women?
Notice how very few of the child stars I mentioned overlap. The media continues to refuel us with little girls to play role models when they older ones grow out of the job. We want to convince ourselves, this girl will be different. She is a true role model. However, the inevitable narrative arc of the girl child star exists and our society is ready to pounce on the smallest infraction. The virgin/ whore cycle of the pop princess, like much of larger girly- girl culture, pushes in the opposite direction, encouraging girls to view self- objectification as a feminine rite of passage. Instead we need to teach our young girls to not fall victim to these stiff roles presented to them. Rather, allow them to create their own paths and not feel as if they fall into any two categories to meet a standard of female worth.