When a former Disney child star gets nasty, it's bound to draw some attention.
When that star is Miley Cyrus, the Internet can chatter of little else for days.
Her infamous performance on MTV's Video Music Awards featured her dancing in a teddy bear-adorned teddie, tongue hanging out, before stripping down to nude undies and gesturing unsubtly with a large foam finger. She shared the stage in a memorable fashion (as in, hard to unsee) with musician Robin Thicke, who sang part of his "Blurred Lines" summer hit.
Besides out-of-touch grown-ups having to explain "twerking" to one another, why does Miley push our buttons so? After all, the VMA stage is where Madonna and Britney Spears shared their open-mouth kiss years ago. It's where celebrities actively try to provoke us.
And Miley was trying so hard.
She's one of the most commercially successful child stars born of the Disney machine. The merchandising, movies and platinum albums have made her one of the richest young celebrities, worth an estimated $120 million.
Thicke's hit was an apt anthem for Miley. She's been blurring the lines between girl and woman for a while now. For those whose children discovered her when she was 12 years old and playing Hannah Montana, her public transformation has been rocky. The road from wholesome to whorish will have some awkward turns.
And awards shows have become modern-day morality plays.
The commercials during the Super Bowl; the jokes, outfits and snubs during Hollywood's awards season; the over-the-top performances at the VMAs: These are the cultural touch points that give the rest of us a chance to bestow our approval or bellow our outrage.
When performers push the envelope, the collective pushback is a societal indignation reset button. Clearly, she pushed too far. If there are standards of taste and acceptable public behavior we wish to impart, the widespread mockery of Miley offered tweens and teens a textbook lesson in what not to do. Parents who made the questionable decision to watch the show live with young children may have had to flip the channel or endure an embarrassing moment.
Asking a young viewer, "Why do you think she wanted to perform that way?" might lead to an interesting conversation. Shocking an audience with a tawdry show is not the only way to garner attention. Perhaps Miley sees it as her only way.
At the end of the day, Miley's goal is to sell more stuff. Whether or not this stunt helps or hurts that cause has yet to be determined. But it's a good reminder to parents that pop culture icons are never reliable role models for our children. Even the Disney-scrubbed versions grow up and struggle to define themselves.
Her spectacle also raised the question of whether we would be as scandalized by a young male star performing as suggestively. Both male and female stars have used their sexuality as a blunt object. If the reaction was any harsher because of her gender, it's largely because the performance failed.
In that blurred space between sexy and vulgar, she gyrated her way into the latter. In the blurred space between provocative and pitiful, she left the audience feeling a little sorry for her.