Bad girls just playing to the crowd?

According to various year-end lists, the most Googled word in 2013 was twerking, thanks in large part to Miley Cyrus’ appearance at the MTV Video Music Video Awards in August. With her punk-short blond hair twisted atop her head to resemble two devil’s horns and her tongue thrust out, the bikini-clad Miley presented her butt to singer Robin Thicke with a few low thrusts.

That, my dears, is twerking (a hip-hop combo of the words twist and jerk). By any name it seemed to signal to many that Miley, the former folksy Hannah Montana, was on the road to Britney/Lindsay/Paris-ville – the road to Bad Girl-dom, a place as old as the myth of Medea and the cult of Cleopatra.

Let us spare the reader the tedious, oft-times tragic trajectory and summarize: Girl starts out as a fresh-faced talent and/or beauty, acclaimed for a hit TV series/pop song/movie. Girl makes a misstep or two (a wardrobe malfunction here, a marijuana joint there) and immediately proclaims her a. innocence or b. contrition. But then, Girl is seen partying with the wrong crowd and begins missing gigs, rehearsals, etc. And it’s not long before Girl is arrested for DWI or having a meltdown; in Betty Ford, court or a psychiatric facility; caught shoplifting; annulling a 55-hour Vegas marriage; getting beaten up by a boyfriend; and/or reduced to parodying herself or flirting with pornography. (For the bad girl, sex and her sexuality always cut like a knife.)

What’s sad – particularly in the case of Lindsay, once a brilliant actress and real beauty who did not seem at all a stretch posing as Marilyn or playing Liz – is that at 27 she looks 47, her face as hard as a ceramic doll. She calls to mind the line that bad girl Yvette Mimieux delivers to good girl Dolores Hart in the 1960 film “Where the Boys Are” – “I feel so old.”

Now before we head any farther down the tear-stained road to Bad Girl-dom, let us note that Miley’s twerking, provocative music videos and out-there fashion choices are a long way from psychiatric collapse (her idol Brit), addiction and incarceration (Lindsay) or even an injudicious sex tape (Paris). But there is concern among the Twitterati (and, let’s face it, that concern is mixed with plenty of snark and schadenfreude). Yet in Miley’s case, should there be? Contrast her behavior with that of another erstwhile squeaky clean child star who has also been going through growing pains – Justin Bieber, he of the low-riding pants, obscene gestures, reckless driving, paparazzi assaults and on-again, off-again relationship with Selena Gomez. Yet the Biebs mostly gets a pass. Pourquoi?

Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of “Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women” (Doubleday, 1998) wondered as much about another bad girl – rocker, actress, reformed addict (and Kurt Cobain widow) Courtney Love – in what seems like another lifetime.

“It’s not that Courtney Love should not be encouraged to grow up and outgrow a junkie existence of wardrobe by Salvation Army,” she writes, “but both Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando have won Oscars and commanded artistic respectability while behaving in ways that are completely outside the system.”

So why, Wurtzel was saying, should Courtney have had to sacrifice her individual edge to attain Hollywood respectability? (And yes, we realize that phrase is an oxymoron.) Because people are hypocrites, life isn’t fair and women post-feminism are still expected to maintain a standard of decorum while men continue to receive the boys-will-be-boys treatment. Look, all it took for Rush Limbaugh to label Sandra Fluke a slut was her advocacy of birth control, and she was a Georgetown Law School student making a legal argument. Imagine what Limbaugh would do with the twerking Miley.

Indeed, you don’t have to. Here he is getting mileage out of a Miley video: “The full weight of the evil of Obamacare is going to end up being a wrecking ball so big, not even Miley Cyrus would ride it.”

Does she deserve such ridicule? Already there is a backlash to the Miley backlash, a movement that notes she is just a young woman feeling her oats onstage. And in this she might be following the example of two women who seem to confine their bad girl ways to their professional rather than personal lives – Madonna and Lady Gaga.

Nothing Miley has done is new under the sun to Madonna, she of the burning crosses and “Sex” book. But offstage, Madge has maintained a scrupulous exercise regimen, written children’s books, served a variety of charities, flirted with British manor living during her Guy Ritchie period and presented herself as a devoted if strict mother. She’s as much a modern matron as any woman living in Greenwich or Bedford.

Lady Gaga in turn can be just as sexually outrageous in performance and persona. But she’s also been lauded for her work on behalf of the LGBT community and her own Born This Way Foundation, a youth empowerment organization named for one of her irresistibly catchy songs.

Why even Britney is taking a page out of the Madonna/Gaga playbook, confining her antics (angels, vampires and dominatrices, anyone?) to her new “Britney: Piece of Me” at The Axis at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas and talking about retiring and having more kids at the end of the show’s two-year run. Wanna bet she becomes the bad-girl answer to Celine Dion?

Just to bring things full circle, Brit’s opening-night crowd included Miley, the sometimes naughty Katy Perry and the Biebs’ ex (?) Selena – all bopping to the music and having a great time.

Perhaps these ladies have figured out that it’s more fun to play a bad girl than to be one. n

Perhaps these ladies have figured out that it’s more fun to play a bad girl than to be one.

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