Miley or Malala or Neither?
In the past few weeks, two girls have captured the hearts and minds of the world. Miley Cyrus and Malala Yousafzai.
Growing up, both girls couldn’t be more different.
Miley, daughter of the country star Billy Ray Cyrus, is no stranger to fame. Raised on a 500-acre farm outside Nashville, she cultivated a passion for acting at a young age, appearing on her father’s television series, Doc, and in Tim Burton’s Big Fish. She liked cheerleading and listening to Limp Bizkit and Hilary Duff. After spending a year in a private evangelical school, from which she was admittedly kicked out, 11-year-old Miley auditioned for Hannah Montana and spent the next nine years building an empire that includes not only a lucrative television franchise but also breakout film performances and a solo singing career that has racked up millions in records sales.
Malala was a stranger to the world until last year when she was shot in the head by the Taleban for speaking in favor of educating young girls in Pakistan. Growing up in picturesque mountain valley of Swat, she was mostly educated by her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who is a poet, school owner, and an educational activist himself. She liked (and still likes) listening to Justin Bieber, telling jokes and mimicking Mr Bean. Aged 11, she started blogging against the Taleban crackdown on girls’ schools, gaining prominence in the national media and within the local activist community.
Despite their differences, both girls share elements that explain why they’ve continued to hold court in our, and the media’s, imagination.
First, both are rebels in their own right. They are fighting for the choice to write their own stories, taking a stand against how the world wants to see them.
In Miley’s case, this has involved the use of irony and shock tactics. From her loose-tongued twerking at the Video Music Awards to stripping naked for the video of her latest single Wrecking Ball, she has gone full force to get rid of her squeaky-clean Disney star image. A few weeks ago, she even came out publicly on Saturday Night Live to declare: “Hannah Montana is dead.”
For Malala, the fight has come with vehement demands for girls to go to school in the context of a country where many still believe that a woman’s rightful place is at home. Since her recovery, she has spoken on Western television in numerous interviews, has met with the Queen and the Obamas, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
As a result of their rebellion, both are adored by their fans and hated by their critics who have accused Miley of letting the music business make a prostitute of her and Malala of being a Western stooge. They are the feisty underdogs who we either cheer for, or malign, watching from the sidelines in an attempt to understand what is right and wrong in today’s world.
Second, both are a breath of fresh air from the stark headlines pouring out from their respective countries.
The American press continues to be dominated by stories about the political deadlock in Washington and the backlash against the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance operations. Pakistan remains drenched in sectarian violence as well as poverty, inflation, illiteracy, electricity shortages and drone attacks. Against this bleak backdrop, stories about the rise and fall of celebrity not only satisfy the public’s hunger for hero-worship but also add a touch of hope and optimism to the current narrative surrounding both countries.
Last but not least, both are women. And though this shouldn’t matter, its significance lies when you question whether they’d be getting the same attention if they were men and start thinking about the stereotypes around what it means to be a “good role model” for other teenage girls.
Here Malala has played the part of the star model. She has been advocating for the right to education for girls at UN Summits as well as setting her eyes to be Pakistan’s future Prime Minister. Named after Malalai of Maiwand, a poet and a woman warrior, she has lived up to her name. (Or so she is portrayed to by the foreign press and in her memoir released last week titled ‘I am Malala.’)
On the other hand, Miley, the good-girl-gone-bad, has been a cause for much polarization and debate. Her critics have painted her as the poster child for what teenage girls should not do once they grow up. Her supporters, rightly so, have come to her defence after she was slut-shamed and called a prostitute for her performance at the Video Music Awards. Whether she likes it or not, they have made her carry the torch for the feminist movement at a time when women’s issues are back in vogue (thanks to circular debate over women and work started by Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg).
Miley was originally named Destiny Hope. Billy Ray chose that name for his daughter because he thought it was her destiny to bring hope to the world. But perhaps putting young girls on such pedestals only increases the pressure and makes them fall even further.
Look at Britney Spears, Amanda Bynes, Lindsay Lohan, all once media darlings who fell spectacularly from grace – Spears’s 55-hour wedding to Jason Alexander, Bynes’s mean tweets and Lohan’s alcohol and drug addiction. It seems short-sighted, if not irresponsible, to spotlight these teenagers as shiny role models when they are growing up themselves, making bold yet sometimes stupid decisions as part and parcel of “living their lives.”
At the heart of the problem lies our culture of hero-worship. Why are teenagers idolizing other teen celebrities – for the good or for the bad? How long will it take until a new pop princess engages in controversial tactics to claim the feminist mantle? How long will Malala’s Joan-of-Arc crusade for education reform be the issue front and center of the UN’s development agenda?
With great power comes great responsibility, and though both these girls have made a conscious choice to be public figures, we should think twice before putting them on a pedestal to satisfy our social agendas.