Thanks to a series of controversial music videos and live performances, pop star Miley Cyrus is back in the news, prompting strong reactions as well as a public debate about the nature of feminism. In the wake of Cyrus’s new incarnation as a twerking, pot-smoking provocateur, it is perhaps easy to forget that just a few years ago she epitomized all-American tweendom with her hit television show Hannah Montana and her wholesome, girl-next-door persona. At the height of the TV show’s popularity in 2008, Cyrus drew an enormous crowd to her concert at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas. I happened to be in the area and saw thousands of young girls on their way to the concert, fully arrayed in Hannah Montana costumes, with makeup, toy microphones, and long blonde wigs. Struck by the scene, I stopped a number of the families and asked the girls to pose for portraits wearing their concert outfits. Some of the parents agreed, and through them I met more Hannah Montana fans, who also wanted to participate.

My photographs have long dealt with issues of gender and sexuality, especially as they intersect with popular culture, beauty, and consumption. In particular, I have been interested in how mainstream media outlets portray women and girls, and how the subjects of those portraits in turn form their own communities, subcultures, and realities. My photographs of Hannah Montana fans, which were taken in 2008 and 2009, explore how these girls (ages four to eleven) emulate their idol through carefully crafted appearances that at first seem rigorously conformist, but which also allow for creative possibilities.

Some viewers of these images have expressed discomfort with what they perceive to be an inappropriately mature or sexualized affect among the girls. Others have pointed to the girls’ exaggerated performance of femininity, citing drag as a close analogue. On the one hand, my photographs demonstrate that trends in celebrity and beauty culture now influence the ways in which even very young children fashion their identities; on the other hand, the desire to mimic celebrities is nothing new, nor is the attraction of dress up and imaginative play. At the least, there is a tension between how these young fans passively absorb prefabricated media images of femininity and how they reinterpret them in ways that exceed any prescribed meaning.

Installation images are from the Houston Center for Photography.

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