Those who study our American cousins will be familiar with a certain Miley Cyrus, the reigning celebrity amongst tweenage girls. Miley, the daughter of mullet-headed Billy Ray (of “Achy Breaky Heart” infamy), fronts the immensely popular Disney show Hannah Montana, in which she belts out saccharine pop songs and exemplifies Christian values.

Or does she? That’s the question to which US papers currently devote themselves (rather than boring old issues like the looming recession or the war in Iraq), with endless coverage of the photographic evidence that the 15-year old Ms Cyrus might not be quite the Mouseketeer she plays on TV.

First came the candid snaps of her with a boyfriend. The two of them seem – OMG! – to be touching.

Next it emerged that the Disney moppet had posed for Annie Leibovitz and Vanity Fair in photos that revealed her naked back.

The resultant media debate reveals the impossible terrain young women must traverse, with the line between prancing moppet (good!) and shameless tramp (v. bad!) so thin as to be invisible. Like Britney Spears before her, Miley Cyrus has been deliberately marketed as a Lolita: both innocent and knowing, sexy but not s-xual. If neither Spears nor Cyrus can negotiate that contradiction, heaven help ordinary girls.

But there’s more to it than that. The online magazine Salon asks today: “Why the outcry over the nude-back photo and very little uproar over the truly upsetting shot of Cyrus with her daddy, Billy Ray?”

The photo in question is, as Salon points out, at least as s-xual as the one with Miley and another teenager – yet this time she’s posing on her father’s lap.

The image highlights the way that the religious obsession with female virginity has given birth to a notion that fathers own their daughters’ s-xuality.

The most extreme example is the so-called Purity Ball movement.

What’s a Purity Ball?

It’s an occasion in which, in the name of s-xual morality, tux-wearing middle-aged men dress their daughters up in ball gowns, waltz with them at a kind of prom, and then hold their hands as the girls recite: “I pledge to remain s-xually pure… until the day I give myself as a wedding gift to my husband.”

A pro-virginity website puts it like this:

One of the most memorable highlights of the ball is when the fathers stand in the middle of the ballroom and form a circle around their daughters standing all aglow in their lovely ball gowns. The fathers place their hands on their daughters, and together we pray for purity of mind, body, and soul for generations to come.

One can’t look at these sites (here’s one set to music) without thinking of Larkin’s adage: they f-ck you up, your mum and dad. Or rather, your dad does, since there’s no Mother-Son equivalent (that, one presumes, would be creepy).

Yes, these balls are extreme. At the same time, there’s something inevitable about them in a culture simultaneously hypers-xualised and extraordinarily repressed. You pity the kids having to grow up in it.

Meanwhile, in other Disney s-xualisation news, forget Miley says Slate, we’ve discovered a far more egregious messing with the wholesome Disney brand. Writes Daniel Brook:

[With the Miley Cyrus controversy] I couldn’t help but think of an advertisement I’d seen a few months ago while on a reporting trip to China. I was walking from my Beijing bed-and-breakfast to a nearby subway station when I was stopped in my tracks by a billboard that made the controversial 1990s Calvin Klein underwear ads look artistic by comparison. Staring down at the throngs of shoppers on Beijing’s Xinjiekou Nandajie Avenue, a busy commercial thoroughfare about a mile west of the Forbidden City, was a white girl who looked all of 12, reclining in a matching bra-and-panties set adorned with Disney’s signature mouse-ear design. In a particularly creepy detail, the pigtailed child was playing with a pair of Minnie Mouse hand puppets. In the upper left-hand corner was the familiar script of the Disney logo.

Read more here.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland .