Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

Hannah Montana and the Pursuit of Authenticity


mileycyrusI think a lot about popular culture — at least, those elements of it that affect me.  In fact, I have been accused (mostly by Jason) of overthinking and overanalyzing things that are basically meant to be light entertainment.

I thought I had some things to post about the new Star Trek movie, which I saw a few days ago, but they’ve been driven out of my mind for now by the movie I saw after that, purely to please my daughter: Hannah Montana.

I’m not going to waste space with a detailed movie review. Let’s just say that from a purely literary and filmmaking perspective, Hannah is, hands-down, the worst thing I have seen on a screen this year, movie or TV. It’s not offensive or horrific or cringe-worthy; it’s just cliche-ridden and (almost) entirely predictable.

I’m also not going to rant about the disturbing cult of celebrity or the sexualization of young girls, although I can assure you I have plenty of Hannah-related ammo on those subjects. Instead I have to unburden myself to the blogosphere about the one thing that I really liked, and the one thing that really bothered me (more than the cliche’d sight gags) about Hannah Montana.

In case you’ve just managed to lift the rock off from over your head and don’t know the premise (and believe me, I’d like to be so blessed, but I have a nine year old girl living in my house), Hannah Montana is a wildly popular blond teenage popstar, but she’s really simple ordinary Tennessee girl Miley Stewart.  And both of them are really played by simple ordinary wildly popular Tennessee teenage girl popstar Miley Cyrus, daughter of 90s country-music heartthrob Billy Ray Cyrus of the “Achy Breaky Heart” fame. 

On a Disney TV show, Miley Cyrus plays Miley Stewart, who loves to sing but also wants to lead a healthy normal teenage life.  So she has a secret identity: she’s Hannah onstage, but nobody knows her real identity as ordinary high-school girl Miley.

The plot of the movie is simply that Miley/Hannah is having a hard time juggling her dual identity. It’s getting more and more difficult to keep her secret (leading, inevitably, to wacky and hilarious hijinks, etc). But more importantly, her loving single dad, Robbie Ray (yes, played by her real-life dad Billy Ray), sees his darling innocent Miley being absorbed by the showbiz monster that Hannah has become and losing touch with her roots, so he whips her unwillingly back to Tennessee for some down-home indoctrination. Country music, family values, beautiful Tennessee scenery and sweet wholesome teenage romance ensue.

The only two aesthetic highlights of the movie for me were Billy Ray, who has aged just fine, thank you (although I think the man still has to find the ideal hairstyle for him) and a lovely rendition of the song “God Blessed the Broken Road,” done by Rascal Flatts. 

But there was some thought-provoking material in there.  It’s obvious throughout the movie that the strain of leading a double life, and keeping the two lives separate, is making Miley’s life unbearable.

Now if there’s one personal value I am passionate about, it is authenticity, and it wouldn’t be overstating the case to say that in the last 5-10 years, living an authentic life has become more important to me than almost anything else.  We all have that tendency to play different roles in different situations, but that can so easily slide into the kind of compartmentalizing where we’re essentially leading lives that are not just separate, but contradictory to each other.   The kind of life where you’re one person at home and another out with your friends, or one person at church and another at work.  At the worst extreme you can end up suffering from what I like to call the Haggard-Swaggart Syndrome, where you publicly rail against sin and depravity and privately pay naughty people to do the very acts you’re railing against, in your hotel room.

So I liked the fact that Miley’s struggle basically illustrated the destructive nature of compartmentalizing, trying to live two separate lives. Near the end of the movie, Miley is onstage in her hometown as Hannah (gee, I hope I’m not spoiling this cinematic masterpiece for anyone by giving away the ending!!!) when she says, “I can’t do this anymore,” pulls off her wig and reveals herself as Miley to the hometown crowd.  Then she explains who she really is and sings a nice little number she wrote herself, as herself.

And I was thinking, OK, the movie is trite and poorly done, though sweet and cute, but I can totally get behind this ending.  The moment on stage when Miley takes off the wig and sings as herself is about integration, about authenticity. She’s simple country girl Miley, but she is also onstage, doing what she loves to do — singing, connecting with an audience. 

This is much more powerful than the false dichotomy the film originally sets up — Miley/Hannah has tried to live in the “Best of Both Worlds” but now she has to choose one over the other. It’s also more powerful than the “Be true to yourself!” message that comes across in every Hollywood film aimed at young girls.  It goes a step farther, and deeper, to say “Be true to all aspects of yourself — try to incorporate all elements of who you are into your identity as honestly as you can, rather than lying or denying about who you really are and what you want.” I thought, Yeah, this is a good message I can agree 100% with when I discuss the movie with Emma.

But then … as the song finishes, a little girl in the audience calls out to Miley, “Keep on being Hannah! We’ll keep your secret!!” And then the whole crowd (including her impossibly cute love interest, who loves her for herself and really should know better) all join in the chorus begging her to go back to the Hannah persona. Ironically, one person (I think it’s her best friend) even shouts out that Hannah is a part of her, and Miley shouldn’t let her go. 

Which is absolutely true, but when the entire community of Crawley’s Corners, Tennessee, agrees to keep mum about Hannah’s true identity (and we’re accepting here the absolutely unbelieveable proposition that a townful of people could keep that secret for two seconds), they are not encouraging Miley incorporate Hannah into herself, but to go on living a disconnected, divided life of cognitive dissonance.

So, I found the ending a real let-down (and that was even given my low expectations). What I thought was going to be a strong message in favour of living an authentic, integrated life ended up with Hannah/Miley going back to her old dualistic life of secrets and lies, and that was just such a letdown (although, presumably necessary for her TV series to continue, if it’s still going on).

I analyzed this way too much while watching the final scenes of the movie and thought, even if she had put back on the wig and the Hannah costume to finish out the concert at the end, it wouldn’t have bothered me that much — without that one line about “We’ll keep your secret.”  If she decided at the end to keep “Hannah” as an onstage persona — without the lying about who she really was or the attempt to establish “Hannah” as a real person separate from Miley — I would have been OK with that conclusion.  Performing or putting on a persona is no different from me writing fiction in first-person from the perspective of a fictional character — so long as everyone is in on the gag, and knows that the character on stage or page is just a persona.

That, I guess, is the situation the real-life Miley Cyrus is in.  Everyone knows who she really is, and knows that both Miley Stewart and Hannah Montana are characters she plays (although there is some confusion, because I think she records songs both as Hannah, and as Miley Cyrus — different songs for different personas). In real-life Miley’s case, there are still plenty of opportunities for cognitive dissonance, just as there are with any young celebrity — especially as she gets older and her wholesome-country-girl identity begins to clash more and more with the hot-young-celebrity identity.  It will be interesting to see how she navigates those waters, and Emma and I, inspired by Miley, have already begun to talk about some of the pressures young celebrities face, and hopefully this will give us opportunities to talk about some of the pressures faced by young girls who aren’t famous.

Because, though most of our dramas are not played out on stage, screen or tabloid covers, the Hannah/Miley dilemma is everyone’s dilemma. Do you want people to see the real you? Do you have to cut off or hide away pieces of yourself in order to be accepted or fit in? Do you dare to take off the wig and say, “Hey, this is who I am, take me as I am”? And then sing and dance like no-one’s watching?

That’s what I want for my daughter, and for myself.  And even for sweet little Miley and her daddy.


4 thoughts on “Hannah Montana and the Pursuit of Authenticity

  1. Wow. Aside from the obvious (I cannot believe you’re blogging about HM! So far, I’ve avoided taking my daughter to the movie, and you’ve only affirmed the wisdom of that choice), this is really beautiful.

    I also have been struggling with the concept of authenticity. Years ago, I made the decision to “live openly,” but I get sucked into things. For instance, I’m having issues with family members that I hesitate to bring up, for fear of being labeled a troublemaker, but keeping silent feels deceitful. And I recently left a church I’ve been a member of for years because I realized I’d buried my authentic self under an approved, generic mask.

    I heard recently that in fiction a Mentor (a la Christopher Vogler) doesn’t have to be wise at all. A mentor can teach by bad example too. She can help the protagonist avoid nasty consequences by making poor choices herself and facing the consequences while the protagonist watches. By that standard, I suppose I can consider Hannah Montana a Mentor for my life.

    I’m still not going to the movie though.

  2. Trudy, authenticity has become a high priority in my life too. As a born ‘people-pleaser’, I woke up one day about 7 years ago and realised I had no idea who I really was. I knew who people thought i was, or who they wanted me to be, but I didn’t know who God created me to be.

    It’s been a long and sometimes painful journey as I’ve let go of the different facades that I used to have. The brutal honesty authenticity requires has been confronting for me, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Part of my walk has involved acknowledging, accepting and celebrating my strengths and weaknesses – regardless of whether people approve of my choices. I honestly feel that if I hadn’t put the hard work into stripping away the layers and finding myself I wouldn’t be at the beginning of my career as an author.

    One of the catalysts for my growth was the book “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. One of the exercises involved writing a prayer that centred around authenticity. Over 4 years on and it still hangs above my desk where I write. I often look at it and remind myself to be the woman God created me to be. Here’s just a few lines of what I wrote:

    Give me strength
    Give me courage
    To be me
    Because only when I am truly, authentically me
    Do I encounter you

    Thanks for sharing the deep and meaningful behind the corporate machine that is Hannah Montana…I’m not thinking my 3 boys would be at all interested in seeing it so this is as close as I’m gonna get (thankfully!!).

  3. I couldn’t bring myself to sit in the theatre and watch this, so I dropped off my girls to see it with a couple of friends. Unfortunately (fortunately?), they walked into the wrong theatre and missed the first half–and they didn’t even realize it! It didn’t sound like what they caught made a great impression on them anyway. Thanks for the insight–I’m still working on finding myself.

  4. Thanks for the responses, folks. It’s interesting that the journey towards greater authenticity and integration is almost always difficult and sometimes even painful … it’s often easier to pretend than to be honest.

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