Almost single-handedly, Miley Cyrus invested a quiescent slice of humanity with an identity of its own. Before she roused them, tween girls (aka the in-betweens or pre-adolescents) enjoyed their lessons, helped their mums around the house and considered skipping and hopscotch the height of abandonment. Or so legend has it. Now, most people can barely recall the pre-Miley era.
By the time that Hannah Montana: The Movie reached the big screen, pre-teen girls around the world had refashioned themselves into Mileymaniacs. After gluing themselves to their idol's TV shows, they bought tens of millions of her DVDs, albums and books. They made her clothing the top seller at Macy's and the Hannah doll a threat even to Barbie.
This makeover helped earn them the hot new marketing acronym KGOY (kids growing older younger). Yet self-defining consumer tastes weren't Miley's only gift to the tweenies, or even the most important one. She taught them they could be rock stars but didn't need to be, and that the friendship of their peers could liberate them from an adult-dictated way of life. As a result, most of them have become even more blithe, confident and precocious than some of their elders would have wished.
Once they enter adolescence, however, this progress is often reversed. Like their predecessors, all too many post-Miley teenage girls become anxious, self-conscious and insecure. They self-objectify and fall prey to eating disorders. Their chummy coteries turn into cruel cliques. All of a sudden, they're more in need of a guiding light than their kid sisters are.
Studies show that mid-teen females are likely to look to media images for such guidance. The movies have always been ready to provide these for them, but the versions of themselves they've been offered haven't always proved too helpful.
In the 1970s, Carrie presented emergent womanhood as terrifyingly destructive. In the 1980s, films such as Pretty in Pink added money to the list of teen anxieties. A decade later, Legally Blonde and Clueless seemed to demand super-achievement. Heathers and Mean Girls were the most striking of a number of films to highlight peer aggression. Meanwhile, virgin/whore stereotyping persisted in the likes of Whatever It Takes, She's All That and Cruel Intentions.
Currently, the Twilight series tells girls they should expect a boyfriend to be violent and vengeful, yet take any risk to see him. They should be deceitful and exploitative. If their love life gets them beaten up, they should tell doctors they fell down some steps because they're such silly females. They should sacrifice everything they are for menfolk that they'll nonetheless have to change.
But wait. Over the horizon comes the fabled mentor of their tweenie years. Miley herself has moved on into her late teens, and she's out to consecrate the experience on the silver screen. Doubtless her now post-pubescent followers will be eagerly awaiting her message for them. If so, they may find her tidings less inspiring than those they've been used to.
The Last Song treats the fate of its teenage protagonist as something to be defined solely by her dealings with men. She's a talented pianist, but feels obliged to abandon her art simply because her dad's bunked off. That same dad is nonetheless a caring fount of wise guidance to which she must adhere or be lost. Redemption from her fretfulness and stupidity can be found of course only in romance. Naturally, her manly saviour proves flawlessly good-looking, honourable, kind to animals and extremely rich. Above all, he shows limitless patience with the folly and ill-humour of his witless paramour.
What Hannah would have made of all this doesn't bear thinking about. Nonetheless, Miley's next starring role, in a remake of the French comedy LOL (Laughing Out Loud), will apparently find her once more boy-bound. Perhaps, Miley has decided that what she could do for tweens wouldn't be permitted for teens. Hollywood's attitudes towards adolescence are just too deeply entrenched and have too much riding on them.
Maybe they are. All the same, it would have been good to see an already established megastar actually try to challenge them.