What is the leading breeding ground for tomorrow's role models of degradation and promiscuity? The Disney Channel. On Monday, news broke that Vanity Fair was planning on running "discreet" and "artistic" photos from a topless shoot with pre-teen and tween hero Miley Cyrus. The photos include a shot of Cyrus, barebacked, clutching a sheet to her bosom -- a shot no less pedophilic than the infamous Brooke Shields jeans ads of 1980.
Miley Cyrus is the most popular act in the country. Her 3-D concert film from her tour, "Best of Both Worlds," took in an astounding $31.3 million in its opening weekend. Her show, "Hannah Montana," is a megahit. In 2007, Cyrus reportedly earned $18.5 million.
Cyrus' fan base is largely young girls, who sell out her concerts, buy her clothing line, and sit rapt before their televisions. Now, they're being taught by a teen superstar, her father, and a willing media, that inappropriate behavior is no barrier to happiness or satisfaction.
As I wrote in my second book, "Porn Generation: How Social Liberalism Is Corrupting Our Future," Cyrus is hardly the first pop tart to make the transition from clean-cut role model to promiscuous party girl. And the vast majority of such characters spring from the geniuses at Disney Channel. Britney "Disaster Area" Spears was a Mickey Mouse Club girl before she morphed into the paradigm of personal pandemonium. So was Spears' former boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, the man who would later be responsible for the term "wardrobe malfunction." So was Christina "Xtina" Aguilera, who sang the theme song for "Mulan" before deciding to get "Dirrty." Lindsay Lohan was wholesome twins Hallie and Annie in "The Parent Trap" before she decided to reveal her twins in the name of art. Hilary Duff was the star of "Lizzie McGuire" before, at age 16, she began dating rocker Joel Madden, age 24; she shortly thereafter denied that she had claimed that she was a virgin, stating, "Whose business is that?"
These are clearly young women without a moral foundation -- and without responsible parents. The creepiest photo from the Miley Cyrus Vanity Fair shoot wasn't her bed sheet pose -- it was a shot of her, midriff bare, leaning lazily back on her dad, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus. Billy Ray sure ain't Ward Cleaver.
These pop tarts would also seem to be without direction, celebrities-too-young overwhelmed by the glamour and fame of stardom. In reality, however, promiscuous behavior and provocative poses are calculated career moves for teen stars seeking to break into out of the 10-16 age group and into the mainstream entertainment business.
When Aguilera decided to pose for the cover of her album "Stripped," wearing nothing from the waist up, she explained, "I guess I've grown up in a lot of ways." When Spears posed for Rolling Stone in her nighties at age 17, she stated, "it was Rolling Stone and it has an adult audience. The photographer explained to me what he wanted to do and I was cool about it." When Lindsay Lohan turned 18, she, too, posed for the cover of Rolling Stone. The headline read: "Hot, Ready and Legal!" Rolling Stone observed, "There comes a time in the life of every teenage girl who works for the Disney Corp. when that girl realizes she has suddenly -- how shall we phrase this? -- 'broadened her appeal.'"
Miley Cyrus, then, is following a long line of similarly minded Disney stars in her salacious strategy. Not surprisingly, Vanity Fair observed of her photo shoot that "though the pose was Annie Leibovitz's idea, the topless but demure portrait accompanying this article could be seen as another baby step, as it were, toward a more mature profile."
Here's the big question: does Miley Cyrus really need to descend to the gutter to raise her profile? She's immensely successful, and she can remain immensely successful by continuing to appeal to younger audiences.
Yet, in all likelihood, she will follow the path paved by the Spears/Aguilera/Lohan/Duff brigade. She will do so because Hollywood and the mainstream media propagate the idea that R-rated material sells better than G-rated material, and that mature entertainment must involve sex. To be taken seriously as artists, Disney Channel queens must become Independent Film Channel queens -- or at the very least, Rolling Stone icons.
In the end, no matter how "legitimate" an artist Miley Cyrus becomes, she will never be able to regain her innocence. Neither will the legions of young girls who admiringly follow her example.