Q: Did Miley Cyrus's performance at the MTV Music Video Awards go too far, considering that it was on basic cable and many kids were likely watching?
A: At first I wanted to wave this question away. After all, Cyrus is just the latest celebrity to try her hand at Madonna-style vamping, complete with on-stage pseudo-masturbation and borrowing a faux-taboo cultural phenomenon wholesale from a minority group. Sunday's VMAs performance was more desperation than daring; at times Cyrus seemed to have to remind herself to stick out her tongue as she clomped down a set of stairs.
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But child-development experts see things very differently. They argue that Cyrus betrayed and possibly even damaged younger kids who saw the singer's medley.
After all, they point out, children of any age could access Cyrus's performance much more easily than a show by Madonna in her erotic heyday.
When Madge simulated masturbation as part of her landmark Blond Ambition tour, people had to pay for tickets to see that, or pay for tickets to see a documentary that showed that, or subscribe to HBO, a premium channel. Contrast that with MTV's VMAs; all a kid needed was basic cable and a less-than-vigilant parent to witness Cyrus rubbing her 20-year-old ass against Robin Thicke, a guy old enough to be her very affectionate uncle.
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Then there was the content of Cyrus's performance itself: twerking, leering, grinding, and much pretend stroking of the genitalia through a nude bikini, the same look showcased on the SFW version of Robin Thicke's vaguely rapey "Blurred Lines" video.
"The message is, 'This is what you want to do if you want to be cute, if you want the boys to like you, if you want girls to think you're cool,'" child behavior and development specialist Betsy Brown Braun tells me. "It makes something that I believe is socially unacceptable, socially desirable."
MTV's telecast, seen by 10.1 million viewers, was rated TV-14, meaning the network deemed it acceptable for most adolescents.
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That was something the conservative watchdog Parents Television Council pounced on this morning: "MTV continues to sexually exploit young women by promoting acts that incorporate ‘twerking’ in a nude-colored bikini. How is this image of former child star Miley Cyrus appropriate for 14-year-olds?," asks Dan Isett's, the PTC's director of public policy.
Neither MTV nor Team Miley immediately commented on the criticism.
Of course, no kid will suffer permanent PTSD because of a single Cyrus performance — at least, not because of her ham-handed attempts at grownup-ness. But child development specialists do count the medley among a barrage of videos, still images and performances that connect maturity and adulthood with overt sexuality.
"You get this repeated parade of performances," Dr. Robyn Silverman tells me. "Once it was Britney, then Christina, then Amanda Bynes, then Lindsay Lohan, and now it's Miley Cyrus — you start to get the feeling that this is the natural progression, that this is the way that teens should behave when they want to be seen as adults."
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And Cyrus's current audience is way too young to even be thinking of such things, experts say.
"When girls were 10, they were watching Miley Cyrus, and she was a cool teenager," Brown Braun tells me. "Now they're 14, and the message is that this is an acceptable way to be for 14-year-olds. They have a relationship with Miley, so it's like, 'Oh, look what you're good friend is doing up there.'"
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