The song may have been called "Party in the USA," but when Miley Cyrus recently treated her Teen Choice Awards audience to a pole dance atop an ice cream truck, dressed in extremely short shorts, black boots and a bra-revealing tank top, the general impression was that the party was taking place in a strip joint.
Mothers of little girls cringed: Who provided the pole? And since when do Miley's backup dancers gyrate like the Pussycat Dolls?
Then there is the August issue of Elle, which features America's favorite 16-year-old in a number of contrived poses. In one, she's in black stilettos, with an exposed midriff, striking a backbend-pelvic-thrust combo. On the cover, she's in a leather push-up bustier, her cleavage revealed.
The overall impression of the girl in these pictures is perhaps the opposite from what is intended: She projects not confident sexuality but confusion. Even when reclining on her back offering up her black thigh-high boots for inspection, Miley seems to be saying not "Take me!" but, "Do I really have to do this?"
We are told in the magazine's text that Miley was under the "watchful eye of her parents" the whole time, just as she was during last year's Vanity Fair naked-bedsheet photo shoot at 15 and, no doubt, during her recent pole dance. This is all supposed to be reassuring.
Not to me. Elle editor Robbie Myers is at pains to explain, in her sanctimonious "Editor's Letter," that Miley, in "facing the camera" this way, is "offering a very clear view of herself" and "trying on a more mature persona." You see, Miley exhibited more than mere cleavage on the set that day; in going along with Elle's plans for her, she showed "genuine openness."
Ah, yes. How prudish and "closed" girls can be when they refuse to disrobe for the public. But Miley was not like that.
Elle claims its interest in Miley is not titillation, but empowerment, "watching her take the wheel." Think about this for a second. Miley is a talented singer of chart-topping songs, a multimillionaire teen mogul and actress. She has launched a fashion line and is the envy of little girls around the world. Yet we are to believe the girl simply did not "have the wheel" until a fashion magazine induced her to pose with her pelvis thrust forward.
It's not difficult to read between the lines and see that, having pledged abstinence before marriage, Miley poses a threat to conventional wisdom. Many people - indeed, whole industries - are invested in "neutralizing" that threat by getting her to take her clothes off as much as possible, as soon as possible.
But the sexuality-industrial complex doesn't have to win. So it's sad and more than a little creepy when the adults in her life - up to and including her own parents - are onboard for the virtual deflowering. (We learn from the accompanying piece that her father shows Miley photographs of guys and asks, "You don't think he's really hot?")
Ironically, it's Miley's younger fans who are acting more mature. They are screaming not for stilettos and cleavage but to hear her inspirational hit "The Climb," which encourages them to be themselves and "keep the faith."
Despite all the self-serving banter about her "taking the wheel" by disrobing, the truth is that a confident, modest Miley would be far more rebellious than a Miley who takes the usual route of pornification. The Britney Spears path out of Disney has, after all, been well-worn. The road less traveled nowadays is for a child star to grow up without stripping down. The problem is thus not really with Miley but with the rest of us - specifically, with our false notions of female empowerment.
It will certainly be interesting to see how this battle for Miley's soul plays out. Will she be able to resist the script we adults are handing her? Does she even want to?
In the meantime, she ought to keep in mind that Audrey Hepburn never needed "hooker boots" or a pole to prove her maturity. And no amount of cleavage can ever reveal a clearer view of Miley than do her work, her leadership and her beautiful personality.
Shalit is the author of "The Good Girl Revolution: Young Rebels With Self-Esteem and High Standards."