Hey, finally, the promised part two in my Hannah Montana series. (Part one, covering race issues in the show, is here.) This part is about the show’s issues with gender and sexuality. To illustrate my points I’ve picked out two episodes as the worst offenders to discuss. Though they represent the worst I’ve seen on the show, their messages are also pretty indicative of the show overall.
The first, “Me and Rico Down by the School Yard,” is the season two premier. It’s the first day of school, and Miley and her friends are starting high school. Miley starts getting creepy text messages that morning, from someone who claims to know her secret and have photographic proof of it. She eventually finds out that it’s Rico, who has been skipped up into ninth grade, and he threatens to send the picture on his phone to everyone in school, unless she does everything he says.
What does Rico want from Miley? For her to pretend to be his girlfriend. He addresses her only by demeaning nicknames, mostly, “Toots,” and “Dollface.” When Miley demands to know where the phone is, he tells her, “You’re free to pat me down.” At lunch that day, he informs her, “Go get Daddy a moist towelette — and make it hot, like my Latin blood.” And so on, and so forth.
Finally, Miley’s friends Lily and Oliver discover the phone is in Rico’s locker. They agree to steal it, while Miley stalls Rico. He tries to go to his locker, so she tries to convince him she really likes him to stop him. He suggests, “Perhaps you could prove your love with a kiss.” Miley’s friends save her from having to kiss him in the nick of time, only to realize the phone is fake and Rico had the real one all the time. He demands the kiss again — but this time Miley tells him no, because she doesn’t want to have this hanging over her forever. She’s ready to deal with her secret being exposed.
Plan A having failed, Rico goes for Plan B: he gives a very touching speech about how hard it is to be the youngest, smallest person in his class — and how he thought if he had a girlfriend like Miley he’d fit in better. She feels bad and agrees to give him a cheek kiss, but at last second he turns his head to “steal” a kiss on the lips, then cackles and runs off.
So let’s look at some of these elements in detail.
First off, the language Rico uses when talking to Miley. It’s very dismissive. “Toots,” and “dollface,” make it clear that Rico is male and speaking to someone female; they aren’t nicknames that are used in any other situations. “Toots” is something in particular used to put a woman in her place; at least for me, phrases like, “Listen here, toots,” are what springs to mind. It’s downright creepy to see them used by someone pre-pubescent, and they certainly sum up Rico’s disdain of Miley as anything but a sexual object.
So, by extension, it isn’t much of a surprise that what Rico wants Miley for is her implied sexuality. First off, he’s literally using her as an object; he makes it clear that having an attractive girlfriend will increase his social standing. Though he says he likes her “passion and brains,” he does it while making it clear that he only likes them because he finds them sexy — in fact, the full quote is, “Passion and brains. I repeat”¦rowwwr.” What’s important to him isn’t that she possesses either of those qualities independently, but that she possesses them in such a way that he is turned on. It is sexualizing and incredibly degrading.
So Miley finally stands up to him. Not to say, you know, “Sexual harassment is wrong, and I don’t have to take it,” but at least she acknowledges that there is no way for her to win in the situation, and she’s not going to bow to Rico’s incredibly upsetting whims. So Rico’s fall back tactic is one too often used in this culture — he makes her feel bad about standing up for herself, paints himself as the victim, and quite literally uses her pity to get what he wants.
Then — and I am sputtering with rage as I type this — he “steals” what he wants, going further than she is willing to. It’s easy to laugh it off as just a kiss and him being just a kid, but the thing is, in other contexts where a man “steals” something sexual from a woman because she isn’t willing to consent, that’s rape. So you’d think that Rico would get some kind of comeuppance for this scheme, let alone for sexually harassing and, essentially, raping Miley? You’d be wrong — the whole thing is played for laughs. He kisses her, cackles, and runs off. The last we see is Miley chasing him and slipping on a banana peel while he escapes.
Because, clearly, stopping at nothing to get what you want, with overtones of rape, well, that makes for some darned hilarious television! And it’s especially funny when it’s played for laughs to an intended audience of kids — because god knows we want them to grow up thinking that’s normal and not objectionable! Except, wait, no, that’s terrible on all levels and, frankly, I’m not sure I’d let my own kids watch the show, if I had any.
Turning away from that, let’s talk gender essentialism. My second episode goes like this: Miley’s best friend, Lily, is an adorable skater girl who makes some loud, wacky fashion choices. How much of a tomboy she is varies with the episode in question, but she’s always at least mildly sporty when compared to Miley. Then comes the episode “You Are So Sue-Able To Me,” in which there’s a school dance. Everyone has a date except for Lily — even the class nerd, gasp! — and Miley tells her wisely that if she doesn’t stop “being one of the guys” and start dressing, acting, and speaking more femininely, she’ll never get a date. But it isn’t phrased like that: the phrase they throw around casually is that Lily “isn’t a girl.” And because she isn’t a girl, no boys will like her, and Miley makes it pretty clear that if no boys like her, she’s a failure.
But no worries, of course, because Miley is a guru on all things girly, and when Lily sees the boy she likes flirting with another girl, Miley promises to take her “from skate chick to date chick.” It works; after merely letting down her hair and batting her eye lashes at him, the boy in question asks her out! But that’s not good enough, Miley says, because, “You’ve got him nibbling on the cheese, but you’ve got to snap the trap,” to make sure he doesn’t ever flirt with another girl. So they go for a total makeover.
When next we see Lily, she’s traded in her usual wacky outfits for a hot pink dress. Of course, this means that literally none of her male friends recognize her (“Hey, new girl, where did you come from — Hotsylvania?” Ew.) At least until she does something masculine — she punches one in the arm. Meanwhile, Miley counsels her to speak “lower and slower” and when the boy she likes freaks out upon seeing her, she promises, “It’s all for you.” She also pretends to be helpless and weak so the boys will carry her books for her.
Except, as it turns out, that’s not what the boy wanted at all! He stands her up for the dance, and in wacky hijinx fashion, they drag him onto a TV show where a fake judge settles teenage disputes, and dumps buckets of gross food on the guilty party. Miley takes over prosecuting the guy while Lily cries fakely, at least until the kid confesses that, “I asked out this cook skater girl and the next day she was all girly and frilly and weird!” He says Miley changed her into “something from a teen fashion magazine,” when she was already what he wanted; Miley answers, “He doesn’t know what he wants, he needs to be told what he wants — he’s a boy!” Of course, she’s the one who ends up doused in pizza sauce and anchovies, while the couple gazes happily into one another’s eyes.
So let’s break this down. “Sue-Able” lacks the downright disturbing qualities of “Me and Rico” but is not without its own problematic messages. First and loudest among them is that there are very definite roles that girls play, and that boys play, and that it’s nearly traitorous to cross gender lines. Miley even agrees with her arch-nemesis that Lily is an embarrassment because she’s not feminine enough; Lily is, for all intents and purposes, shamed and peer pressured until she agrees to conform to the standards of the girls around her.
It isn’t just that girls need to wear expensive clothes, spend time on their appearance, and act dainty. The episode is also none-too-kind to the boys involved, in that the boys are all, well”¦idiots. Idiots who can’t look past the physical, at that. Lily, wearing her bright pink dress, is still highly recognizable, but we’re to accept the boys are so entranced by a girl who dresses in a way that is traditionally feminine (and thus marks her as being interested in boys in a way Lily’s usual clothes don’t) that they don’t even recognize her without a physical reminder (being punched) to snap them back to reality. And Miley, whose gender-essentialist views inform the whole narrative, certainly doesn’t think they’re worth anything; her comments in the courtroom prove that. So basically: girls are pretty, boys are dumb, and those are your only two choices in life. If you fail to fit your gender role, you’re shunned by all your peers.
But what of the end? Of course, it’s an expected part of the narrative that Lily doesn’t end up being forced into the role Miley tries to shoehorn her into. That’s a good thing, as far as it goes. But the thing is, the moral isn’t that Lily was fine as she was — the moral was that Lily was fine as she was because the boy liked her that way. If he hadn’t stood her up, we’d understand that she was justified in changing herself to better perform femininity. But at the end, we’re reassured that Lily can be herself all she wants”…because the dude approves. That means she still wins at Miley’s gender game, and, of course, that her appearance and attractiveness remain much more important than her actual personality.
So, as I said, these two episodes are particularly bad offenders. They’re also only the extremes of the show’s stanard: Rico is always disturbing and the show consistently presents boys as being willing to resort to anything, even — honestly, especially — trickery to get what they want, be it a date or a kiss or what have you. (Miley’s brother, while never as blatantly horrible about it, is frequently shown lying to or manipulating girls he wants to go out with.) Miley’s self-image is very much tied up in being feminine and having boys like her.
Here’s a show anecdote to go out on, from the B-plot of a recent episode: Miley’s father comes home angry after a date. After much prying, Miley learns that he’s angry because his date, coming off a bad divorce, wanted to pay and was very clear about the fact that she is determined to maintain her independence. Miley is, of course, horrified — not at her father’s reaction, but at the woman for daring to spurn his old-fashioned, well-meaning ideas of how men and women relate. While Lily points out that her father can be a bit of a caveman when it comes to traditions, Miley is the POV character, and thus it’s Miley (and her father) we’re meant to sympathize with. Because in the world of Hannah Montana, breaking out of gender roles is just not acceptable.
Stay tuned for the (eventual) third (and probably final) part where I discuss Miley Cyrus as a real person and role model, and the music she and the character present.