- The Oxonian Review - http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp -

The Test of Both Worlds

Ryan Thoreson

notoriousPeter Chelsom
Hannah Montana: The Movie
Walt Disney Pictures, 2009
102 minutes

If you stop to discuss pop culture with a six-year-old girl, you quickly discover that Hannah Montana isn’t so much a television show as it is a cultural phenomenon. Since its debut in 2006, Hannah Montana has rapidly become the top programme on cable television for viewers aged 6 to 14, raking in millions in profits, spawning CDs, films, clothing, toys, makeup, bedding, video games, and a sold-out concert tour, and almost single-handedly revitalizing Disney’s programming for teens.

Like any cultural phenomenon, Hannah Montana is not ideologically neutral. The show is a thinly veiled programme à clef about work-life balance and self-fulfillment that depicts the difficulties of having it all to a young, impressionable, and overwhelmingly female audience. Miley Stewart (Miley Cyrus) dons a blond wig that makes her apparently unrecognizable, allowing her to moonlight as pop sensation Hannah Montana. With the guidance of her father and manager, Robby Ray Stewart (Billy Ray Cyrus), Miley becomes a global icon without compromising a normal teenage life where she worries about boys, friends, family, and popularity. The show puts a Disney spin on the tension between work and relationships that women have been expected to navigate for decades. And unlike young men on the Disney Channel, whose dilemmas usually involve get-rich-quick schemes or the pursuit of fame and fortune, Miley inevitably learns in the end that it’s more satisfying to be a friend, a sister, or a daughter than it is to be a superstar.

With the release of the much-anticipated Hannah Montana: The Movie, the show’s core moral ambivalence about balancing work with relationships, individuality with conformity, and exceptionality with the expectations of others comes to a resolution that never quite occurs on the show. The franchise is premised on the double life of a superstar who’s really just like us, and that premise only works insofar as Miley can successfully balance fame and the demands of friends and family. Arriving after two television seasons of Hannah Montana, the film finally sends a clear message that such a balance is, in fact, unsustainable. Miley dutifully grapples with the predictable difficulties of being two people at once—but this time, the schizophrenia of her daily existence begins to wear her down and the double life ultimately falls apart.

The difficulty of balancing two worlds is nothing new to filmgoers. Recent blockbusters like The Dark Knight, Spider-Man, and the upcoming Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince all depict the struggles of heroes who must balance being exceptional with being human. In that respect, Miley’s wig isn’t all that different from a superhero’s mask. But feminists holding out for a heroine who saves the day and gets what she wants are likely to be disappointed. While these blockbusters depict troubled men saving their worlds, Hannah Montana: The Movie depicts a woman who can’t manage the schizophrenia of her own.

The film is premised on the idea that Miley’s double life is unsustainable, as Robby Ray yanks Miley out of California and drags her to the family compound in Crowley’s Corners, Tennessee after sensing that she is becoming too comfortable with her fame. (The litmus test is that one feels entitled to tackle Tyra Banks for a pair of shoes.) Having learned nothing from 60 years of sitcoms, Miley runs a predictable gamut of mistaken identities, double-booked dinner engagements, and rapid-fire costume changes. The duplicity strains her already fraught relationship with Robby Ray and ruins her budding relationship with a corn-fed farmhand, which, in turn, triggers an existential crisis and the decision that she must cut Hannah loose. At the climactic benefit to save Crowley’s Corners, Hannah breaks down on stage and pulls off her wig, revealing herself to be ol’ Miley Stewart, the country girl who always did like to sing.

Here, I may have gasped aloud and startled the preschooler sitting next to me. In its first two seasons, Hannah Montana consistently resolves the tension between work and relationships in favor of relationships—but those episodic resolutions never undermine Miley’s determination to try to have it all. In Hannah Montana: The Movie, Miley decides for the first time that she’s prepared to sacrifice Hannah for her father and her potential boyfriend. Like Abraham’s thwarted sacrifice of Issac, the self-immolation of Hannah Montana is prevented by a kind of deus ex familia. The thousand-strong crowd of residents from Crowley’s Corners insists that the world needs Hannah Montana and vows to keep Miley’s secret with the kind of discipline that one might find in Stepford or Castle Rock.

By the end of the film, it is unclear whether Miley actually wants to bear the burden of being Hannah Montana at all. When Miley reluctantly puts her wig back on to comply with the town’s demands, the choice is no more her own than when her father and would-be boyfriend spur her to peel it off in the first place. As the film goes on, Miley seems less and less like the spunky, self-possessed heroine of the show and increasingly like a peer-pressured teenager, frantically trying to please her family, friends, and peers—not to mention her publicist, the media, and legions of screaming fans.

If anything makes the film seem sappy instead of insidiously anti-feminist, it is that everyone is prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of others. Unlike the show, Miley is not the only one who sacrifices ambition, passion, or individuality to preserve relationships. When a paparazzo has the chance to expose Hannah’s identity, he opts to denounce his boss and quit his job instead of shattering the illusion for his teenage daughters. Miley’s best friend forgives her for ruining her birthday and rushes to rural Tennessee to be at her side, and the whole town pitches in to save Crowley’s Corners from a developer. Most of all, Robby Ray breaks off a promising romance to devote his attention to Miley’s teen angst, and Miley responds by giving up the one thing—Hannah Montana—that is causing them both grief and ultimately coming between them.

Miley ends up keeping Hannah, reconciling with her father, and landing a boyfriend, but only by learning that careers are secondary to relationships, individuality is secondary to conformity, and exceptionalism is secondary to the expectations of the community. Apart from any resolution, the film makes it abundantly clear that family comes first, that rural Tennessee is more authentic than Rodeo Drive, and that even a superstar must work to be a good daughter, friend, and girlfriend. Hannah Montana: The Movie could simply be a morality tale about growing up and taking responsibility for one’s actions and their effects on others, except that it stands in such stark contrast to films marketed to young men. While young men are offered a Batman who loses the woman he loves to save Gotham City, young women are offered a starlet who gives up what she loves—and what makes her exceptional—to mend fences with her father and would-be boyfriend.

Part of Hannah Montana’s appeal as a television show is the empowering idea that one can really have it all. But the way that Miley learns her lesson in Hannah Montana: The Movie should give feminists pause. Its relentless emphasis on relationships and family makes Hannah Montana: The Movie a fairly standard Disney film—but to the extent that the target audience for this message contains thousands upon thousands of captive young girls, it seems especially retrograde to tell viewers to squelch their talents to meet the expectations of others. And in doing so, it transforms the TV series’ message of independence and possibility into something disappointingly domesticating.

Ryan Thoreson [1] is reading for an MPhil in Social Anthropology at Hertford College, Oxford. He is a contributing editor of the Oxonian Review.