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Lenore Skenazy
Lenore Skenazy
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Semi-Nude 15-Year-Olds

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Hey, maybe I can become a world-famous photographer, too. All I need is some jailbait and a sheet. I'll have the girl take off her clothes, mess up her hair as if she just had a wild night of … whatever. Then I'll have her smile over her shoulder and start snapping away and …

Wait! Officer! This isn't kiddie porn; it's totally legit! Hannah Montana! Vanity Fair!

That's why it's so great to be Annie "Take Off Your Shirt — Say Cheese" Leibovitz. The pictures you take, even of a 15-year-old girl, are automatically art. Everyone agrees. They are so "natural." Because, of course, it's so natural for a 15-year-old girl to take nudie pics.

According to press reports, even the subject herself, Disney's "Hannah Montana" star Miley Cyrus, initially liked the pictures. Upon reconsidering, however, Cyrus issued a statement saying she regretted the photos and is embarrassed by them.

So am I. I'm embarrassed for her and for us, a country that seems to demand either corporate-approved, cryonically cute kids or smoldering vixens with raging drug problems when we choose our youthful entertainers.

Look how little space we allow between the two extremes. Until yesterday, Cyrus' main claim to bad-girl status were some juvenile MySpace-type photos and the fact she once was caught on camera not wearing a seat belt.

Once the Vanity Fair photos hit the press — bam! Some of the blogs actually are calling her a … rhymes with "smut."

Now Disney is stuck with a problem of its own approving. (Since when does a Leibovitz shoot of any woman — other than Jessica Tandy — not end up sexy?) But the rest of us are stuck, too. We're stuck looking at these pictures, trying to figure out why they're so unsettling.

Is it that the girl was exploited — possibly even by her parents? Or that the second you sprout breasts in America, pop culture from Facebook to Vanity Fair demands you flaunt them or risk being branded un-fun? Or is it simply collective chagrin as we watch a seemingly nice young woman place her toe on the Britney banana peel?

Or all of the above?

"It's the continuing, thoughtless sexualization of children that's so disturbing," author Sue Thompson said.

"In our culture, a child entertainer is either adorably cute or she must play Lolita." Thompson particularly blames Cyrus' dad, country crooner Billy Ray Cyrus. He's supposed to be watching out for her, right? He even plays the dad on her show.

And yet the photo that is possibly more disturbing than the bedsheet one shows a bare-tummied Miley leaning against her hirsute pop with, well, "her elbow in his crotch."

That's how my friend Marcia Clark described it — accurately. "Major 'ew' factor," she added. "I thought they looked like a couple or an ad for Jordache jeans. When was the last time you snuggled up like that with your dad?"

OK. Ew. So we've got the underage sex thing going on and the daddy-daughter thing going on, and then we've got the whole "what to tell the kids?" thing, too.

The show "Hannah Montana" is second only to "American Idol" among child-age viewers in America. Between tours, licensing, music sales, movies and everything else, it's becoming a billion-dollar brand. Humongous. And until now, it was pretty palatable to parents.

"But how do parents explain this?" Dade Hayes, author of "Anytime Playdates: Inside the Preschool Entertainment Boom," asked. Just a few months back, parents had to explain how Jamie Lynn Spears, the 16-year-old star of Nickelodeon's "Zoey 101," got knocked up. "We have enough to teach our kids," Hayes said. "We don't need anything more."

And the last thing any of us need — especially Miley Cyrus — is another girl heading over the Niagara Falls of fame.

Let's hope this was just a stupid step that does not derail the girl or her career. But if it derails the business of photographing semi-nude 15-year-olds and calling it art, that's fine by me.

Lenore Skenazy is a columnist at The New York Sun and Advertising Age. To find out more about Lenore Skenazy (lskenazy@yahoo.com) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.



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