The first time, you could almost wonder whether it was a mistake. But the second time Perez Hilton linked to a photo of Miley Cyrus' crotch on Twitter, it was clear: there are no mistakes here.
Yet the calls for Perez's head over the Miley "pedophilia" controversy felt a bit hollow. Threats of jail time abound—as Salon surmised that he could get up to 15 years for distribution of so-called “porn.”
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Where was the outrage when respectable news agency Reuters ran an even more revealing shot of her nether regions from the Much Music Awards Sunday night? After all, Perez is merely doing what he’s paid to do: feeding the public's appetite for salacious gossip; Miley Cyrus is happily providing it. Theirs is a mutually beneficial, passive-aggressive, love-hate relationship. We have reached a point in our culture, where teens are so hyper-sexualized that a nip slip or a flash of skin seems so normal, it’s yawn-inducing.
But as Ann Powers, the Los Angeles Times pop critic, pointed out, Perez’s posting of an underage star’s crotch was perhaps the last line to cross.
“Our notion of privacy has gone so far away that what could feel private anymore?” Powers said. “Well, maybe if we show the private part, maybe that’s the only thing that’s left.”
Like all starlets, Miley is no fool; she knows that all press is good press. Two years ago, she posed for Vanity Fair, nearly naked at the age of 15, when she really was a squeaky clean Disney star that little girls like my then-6-year old cousin idolized. Though she (and her father, Billy Ray) sat through an hours-long shoot with Annie Leibovitz, she later apologized and said she was "embarrassed."
But clearly, she's now taking a page from the Britney Spears virgin-turned-naughty-girl playbook, trying to upend her goody-two-shoes image to gain entrance into the adults-only VIP area of the pop culture club—Googling “ Miley Cyrus lapdance video” will show you but one instance of her transition. It's the same rite of passage that Britney, and Christina Aguilera, before her, went through: dress slutty, sing dirty, become an adult star—leave the teen marketplace.
How else to explain her incredibly tacky, definitely sexy, midriff-revealing Chola outfit at the Much Music awards? That in itself provided even more exposed photos for the wires—and Perez—to run. You would think someone so put out by being so exposed by Perez and the paparazzi would have worn something that was more Taylor Swift-classy and less, as The Real Housewives of New Jersey would say, Prostitution Whore.
You would think, but you would be wrong.
Powers attended Cyrus’ show Monday night where the singer, clad in leather pants, covered music by Joan Jett and the Runaways. As Powers wrote in her piece, the choice of music was a head nod to a set of teenage girls who’d been sexualized and then, in turn, took charge of it. Wrote Powers: “She smashed together three songs representing an elder few might have expected her to cite—Joan Jett, the former ‘jailbait’ star who became one of rock's most important female figures after surviving her intensely packaged pop youth in the Runaways.”
Statistically speaking, Miley is likely already a sexual being.
Miley sings "Can't Be Tamed" at the 2010 MuchMusic Video Awards
“She's trying to make this transition in order to distinguish her herself specifically as a musical star. It’s also a bid to be taken more seriously,” said Powers on the telephone Tuesday. “For her, that would be going in a rock direction which is the root of why she's trying to be sexier.”
But perhaps we are all skipping over the crux of the issue, considering that Miley Cyrus, at the tender age of 17, isn't really all that tender—17.4 years is the "median age" for sexual intercourse in America, according to a 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation report. By then, "62 percent of 12th graders," have had sex.
So statistically speaking, Miley is likely already a sexual being. “The main reason why I think it's silly to be threatening Perez with this incredible punishment for what he did is that Miley Cyrus is 17 in literal terms only,” said Powers. “Miley Cyrus has been exposing herself for years now within context of her career, and exposing herself as a celebrity.”
And the age of consent and the age of adulthood have long been arbitrary markers that have been moved up and down depending on the country and the winds of change. Remember the days when an unmarried 16 year old was considered an old maid?
In the U.S., you are a minor until you are 18, and the age of consent is nationally the same age, but can vary state to state and by gender. In Europe, the age of consent is 14 in many countries. It should surprise no one that the French petitioned to abolish the age of consent laws altogether in the late 1970s. The petitioners included Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. They argued that it was hypocritical for 13 year olds to get birth control pills but not be allowed to legally consent to sex. (It remains 15. The French weep.)
Of course, here, the question isn't just whether Miley is allowed to be a sexual being but whether she is allowed to be portrayed in a sexual way by the media. And no one is harder to defend in media than Perez Hilton. He invites controversy at all times—whether he’s posting explicit photos of Milk Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black having condomless sex, or saying that Michael Jackson is faking illness to get out of touring. You get the feeling that if controversy is not brewing, Perez is not alive. For him, it's better to be hated than to be invisible.
In the Miley-Perez discussion, people aren’t so much defending the virtuousness of an innocent young lass, as they are shooting at a very easy target.
“I think people are trolling for reasons to get mad at Perez,” said Powers. “He's one of those 21st century success stories that because of the way he's achieved notoriety and influence and fame is through doing something that some people perceive as not real or not real work that makes him liable to this kind of attack.”
“I feel like the greater question of whether her privacy is being respected or not, is that it has to be viewed in the context of all of us participating in the constant violation of people's privacy,” Powers continued. “In this particular case, I don't think it's necessarily more offensive than what happens every single day on the Internet.”
(Deep philosophical question: If a celebrity gets out of a car with her legs wide open and there are no paparazzi on hand to record it, did it really happen?)
Perez Hilton didn't put a skimpy outfit on Miley Cyrus. If Miley Cyrus provides bait, the media, and Perez specifically, are going to take it, record it, and post it. And all parties will profit from it.
Hannah Montana is dead. Long live Hannah Montana.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated that England's age of consent is 14. It is 16.
Tricia Romano is an award-winning writer who has written about pop culture, style, and celebrity for the New York Times, the Village Voice, Spin, and Radar magazine. She won Best Feature at the Newswomen’s Club of New York Front Page Award for her Village Voice cover story, about sober DJs and promoters in the nightlife industry, " The Sober Bunch."