In the Miley Cyrus flap, where’s critique of Leibovitz?

Just a quick question: Among those who agree that the Miley Cyrus bareback-in-a-sheet photos are inappropriate, where is the passionate critique of famed photographer Annie Leibovitz?

The magazine, Vanity Fair, seems to be getting a pass because people expect media magazines such as VF to display shocking images. Do I think this is right? No, and Vanity Fair deserves to be criticized, as well. However, I think they would be pleased with this, as it would inevitably generate an increase in readers.

But where is the widespread criticism of Annie Leibovitz? The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has published (yet another) article on the issue today (“Another Kid Star Throws a Curve” 5/4/2008), and I searched for criticism for Leibovitz in the article but found none.

Now, there was criticism for young Miley’s decision: “Dr. Shannon Fox, a psychologist who studies the sexualization of young girls in media, was unequivocally critical of Cyrus’ decision to pose in such a manner.”

And Dr. Fox is right to be critical of such a decision. That’s one way children and teens learn right decision making — having their decisions evaluated by adults. Another way they learn is by experiencing the fruits of those decisions. Miss Cyrus may now be asking herself, as the Apostle Paul prompts the rest of us to ask ourselves: “What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed?” (Romans 6:21)

Proverbs (22:15a) tells us that “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child,” but that’s one reason it is called childhood. That’s one reason (among many) why children don’t (and shouldn’t) vote or have legal authority for themselves in all situations. That’s why they need responsible adults in their lives.

I have heard some criticism of Miley’s parents, grandmother, and teacher, which is appropriate. Most accounts say Mom and Dad were not there, and that’s their “out.” As for grandmother and teacher — well, perhaps they felt an awkward discomfort during the shoot but went along with the “spirit of the moment.” I don’t know, but I would like to assume the best (and I would definitely want others to give me the same benefit of a doubt).

But where is the outrage concerning Ms. Leibovitz’s choice for doing the shot in the first place? People.com has reported that the renown photographer thinks the image is “simple” and “beautiful,” but does this absolve her of her ethical lapse? Are “simple” and “beautiful” sufficient justifiers for any photograph or image we wish to publish? I shudder when thinking of the sheer size of the flood gates that would be opened if that were so — and all the more when I think of what would come through those gates.

Not that Ms. Leibovitz has not apologized. She has. Sort of. In the same People article, the photographer is quoted as saying: “I’m sorry that my portrait of Miley has been misinterpreted.”

But of course, that’s not really an apology. It’s an insult. “I regret that people are so unenlightened and are so distracted by their hangups.” This may not be Ms. Leibovitz’s thinking — again, I would like to give the benefit of a doubt — but it’s how it comes across.

Let me suggest a different apology for the celebrated picture taker: “Miley Cyrus is a beautiful girl on her way to becoming a beautiful young woman. In my efforts to showcase that beauty in an artistic manner, I crossed a line without thinking. Our society has succeeded in paradoxically trivializing sexuality while simultaneously glorifying it, and consequently borders that were once obvious are now effortlessly crossed as our moral and ethical confusion deepens. I apologize for contributing to this confusion, and for taking an inappropriate picture of Miss Cyrus.  There are more important measures of what is right and wrong than what a photographer or her subject thinks is beautiful or artistic.”

(I’m not going to hold my breath until I hear such an apology, but I suppose you never know!)

Miley Cyrus made an unwise decision.  Fifteen-year-olds make unwise decisions every day, though most of them are not as public as Miss Cyrus, nor are they surrounded by as many adults and professionals who should have known better and yet who participated in the decision.  The adults in a teen’s life, and even in the teen’s larger environment, should be reliable sources for providing that teen with the wisdom that he or she naturally lacks.  To be sure, nobody’s perfect (Romans 3:23), and there are numerous times that I fail in that duty towards my own children — more often than I am comfortable with.  In this particular case concerning Miss Cyrus, it certainly does seem like the adults failed in their responsibilities.  Without a doubt, Ms. Annie Leibovitz is among those adults.

Kids often wish to seem older or more mature than they are, and how much more tempting must this be for someone in the world Miley Cyrus lives in.  But how sad it is that the means of wish fulfillment our society most readily and easily provides for them is sexualization.  It’s part of what makes the KGOY marketing (Kids Getting Older Younger) principle so powerful and profitable.  And it’s just one more reason I rejoice over Bible passages such as Zechariah 8:5, knowing that God promises a coming age when kids will finally be allowed to be kids.

10 thoughts on “In the Miley Cyrus flap, where’s critique of Leibovitz?

  1. Steve

    I have no idea of what you’re talking about. Isn’t she some singer for Disneyland, or something like that? I don’t pay much attention to Hollywood stuff.

    I absolutely agree with your point about parental responsibility. Teenagers don’t have the judgement part of their brains fully developed. Parents have to teach young teens to consider the future consequences of their actions.

    That means letting them take on more personal responsibility, but constantly rehearsing their decision process. And that means being involved. Slamming the brakes when you need to.

  2. Jeanine

    I agree with your post. Miss. Cyrus is taking a lot of flack for something that quite honestly she was not entirely in control. Miss. Cyrus is a child. She is not old enough to drink a beer with her friends, vote in an election, or even drive herself to the mall. She is the child. Who is to blame for the photos? I don’t think you should blame a person who is not even considered an adult in the eyes of our society. I mean no disrespect to Miss. Cyrus, but she should not be expected to make adult decisions, without the input from caring guardians. The guardians and “handlers” ought to be taking the heat, not the teenager!

    Ms. Leibovitz ought to be criticized. She has photographed royalty. Would she have asked the Queen of England to smudge he lipstick, wet and tousle her hair and wrap up topless in a sheet? NO! Why, because the queen symbolizes dignity. The pictures may have been “artistic” but there are a lot of things out there that are labeled art that are inappropriate. Ms. Leibovitz should have realized that Miss. Cyrus stands for innocence and fun for young girls. She should have kept her art to representing those things, innocence and childhood. Not implied smutty nudes of a teenage girl.

  3. Zono Riggs

    What is the difference between this and child porn? Maybe she subscribes to the “I will know it when I see it” theory. She is apparently blind or sees things only through a pair of glasses shaped like dollar signs $$.

  4. JulieBaby

    I have to question the wisdom of parents who allowed their fifteen-year-old daughter to be photgraphed semi-nude by an elderly lesbian.

  5. Howdy, Julie —

    On one hand, I see what you are saying. On the other hand, when it comes to such things you are dealing with a completely different mentality. Even without your qualifier, why would any family member allow their fifteen-year-old girl to be photographed semi-nude, at all?

    I mean, even to say, “Well, let’s go ahead and make some semi-nude photographs of our teenage girl for publication, but only if the photographer is female and heterosexual,” what’s going on with that thinking? The result is still a semi-nude, atmospherically sexual picture of a child that will be published across the globe — and in a pose Time magazine called a classic “Guess what I just did” pose, to boot.

    I really do think that the entire affair speaks to the place we find ourselves in as a society. It is encouraging that there has been some sort of furor. It is discouraging that (1) it was able to happen at all, and (2) the only one likely to suffer any consequences at all for what occurred will be the misused and ill-guided child, Miley Cyrus.

    Thanks for the comment —
    Wally Smith

  6. Hi, Mr. Smith! You wrote:

    >> Let me suggest a different apology for the celebrated picture taker: “Miley Cyrus is a beautiful girl on her way to becoming a beautiful young woman. In my efforts to showcase that beauty in an artistic manner, I crossed a line without thinking. Our society has succeeded in paradoxically trivializing sexuality while simultaneously glorifying it, and consequently borders that were once obvious are now effortlessly crossed as our moral and ethical confusion deepens. I apologize for contributing to this confusion, and for taking an inappropriate picture of Miss Cyrus. There are more important measures of what is right and wrong than what a photographer or her subject thinks is beautiful or artistic.”

    That’s one of the most insightful critiques of just what is wrong with this sort of thing that I’ve ever seen (matched only by what TIME magazine said about the pose itself, which confessedly I have not seen).

    May I suggest an answer to Zono Riggs’ excellent question, “What is the difference between this and child porn?” Perhaps the difference is that child porn — as normally defined in practice, that is — succeeds in trivializing sexuality while simultaneously *denigrating* it. That too is something our society has become very good at across the board. Put another way: here the nascent nubile quality of Miss Cyrus, ( “a beautiful young girl on her way to becoming a beautiful young woman” ) is being emphasized, and there the lack of nubile quality of the child (who has not even started on that path) is being emphasized. Both rob the subject of innocence, but in different ways.

    שלום בישוע המשיח
    יוחנן רכב

  7. Child porn? It must be! She is a gay! OUTRAGE!
    You ridiculous people need to pull the thorny conservative stick out of your [WORD DELETED]. If it wasn’t Annie, it wouldve been someone else to shoot the photo, which is not in the least bit sexual, moreso BECAUSE of her age. Its a BACK, we all have one. [LAST SENTENCE DELETED]

  8. Greetings, JLewkow —

    I appreciate your comment, but I hope you don’t mind my editing it a bit. For those who read this blog with any regularity, your last sentence was unnecessarily offensive (though it would probably raise the profile of this blog on search engines!), so I took it out. If this is a problem for you I’ll understand, just let me know and I will delete the entire comment at your request.

    As for your point of view, I would have to disagree, though I’m sure you’re not surprised! To feel as you do reflects more of a loss of what “sexual” even means — a loss which, admittedly, is rather systemic in our culture. (It isn’t called the “Guess what I just did” pose for nothing.)

    And as for her age making the photo all the more “not in the least bit sexual” that makes almost no sense at all. A lot of inappropriate photos of children could be “justified” with that sort of sloppy reasoning. And, of course, perhaps they are.

    Thanks for commenting, Mr. Lewkow.

  9. Harry

    I honestly believe that you are a narrow minded person who doesn’t understand art. There is nothing over sexual about the piece. Cyrus is clothed and sat in a classic portrait position 45 degrees from the camera line.

    It’s people like you attacking and placing the full blame on the photographer that destroy the freedom that art is supposed to give.

  10. Greetings, Harry, and thanks for commenting.

    I don’t mean to put the “full blame” on the photographer; our society is to blame for making it seem like such photographs are appropriate.

    I do appreciate art a great deal, and from a purely artistic point of view the photo is, indeed, artful: a classic pose, indeed, expertly crafted and photographed. (Though “clothed” is a relative term, and your choice of the words “over sexual” is an interesting tell, I think.)

    However, the creation of art must be governed by a proper moral sense. Whatever freedom art gives, it should not be freedom to be immoral. In the extreme case, one could argue that the horrific concentration camps of WWII were operated with an “artful and elegant simplicity” — yet that would not justify the atrocities accomplished there. The substitution of “art” values for true moral values is part of what is enslaving our minds as a nation, not freeing them.

    Of course, you probably disagree with me and believe that he photo reflects no immorality. I understand, and I hope that we can disagree about that agreeably. But surely we can agree that aesthetic values cannot trump moral values, however we might disagree on the specifics of the latter. And for those who criticized Ms. Cyrus for the sitting, it was hypocritical not to criticize Ms. Leibovitz, as well–which was part and parcel of the point of this post.

    You are right, though: Art can and should provide an amazing freedom. But if it is the freedom to morally debase ourselves, we will find it is an illusory freedom in the end.

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