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In Praise of Miley Cyrus, the Anti–Spring Breaker

Selena Gomez starred in the Wizards of Waverly Place (and then dated Justin Bieber); Vanessa Hudgens rose to fame in High School Musical. These are the talking points you'll need for a discussion about Spring Breakers as an anti-Disney breakout film, or a neon-bikini revolution. It's a big, ballsy leap — especially for Hudgens, whose vacant, mesmerizing performance turns the word slutty into a compliment — and it just might pay off. But when you are applauding the nerve of these two teen stars, take a minute to remember and appreciate Miley Cyrus. She escaped the new Disney, too, and she did it all by herself.

Cast your mind back to 2008: Miley was 15, fresh off a relationship with Nick Jonas, and in hot water with Disney because of an oversexualized Vanity Fair photo. Disney's Hannah Montana ruled the tween world. She was locked into a four-record deal with Disney and seemed destined for a career of cheesy jokes and joint appearances with her father ("Achy-Breaky Heart" singer Billy Ray). But soon came "Party in the USA," Can't Be Tamed, and the surprisingly enjoyable (and profitable) Nicholas Sparks drama The Last Song. Then Miley hopped off the hamster wheel and started doing Miley: smoking pot, making protest videos, wearing bad leggings, tweeting too much. She got engaged at 19 (to a total babe, though the outlook on that relationship isn't great) and cut all of her hair off. She started covering Billy Idol. She recruited Tyler, the Creator for her upcoming album.

None of this ever felt market-tested, like Miley was trying to find a new audience and thought a stoner vibe might help. And, crucially, Miley never went too out of control; there were no arrests or rehab stints. Her rebellion, such as it was, felt normal, like any other teenager making mistakes and testing boundaries. The boundaries just happened to be set by a multimedia conglomerate with millions riding on her sense of decorum.

Though she's exactly the same age (20) as Selena Gomez, it's almost impossible to imagine Miley in Spring Breakers, in part because she'd have so many questions about the sexual politics. (Like we said: idealistic teen.) But mostly it's because Miley doesn't need to jump on a bed with James Franco or fake-fellate a piece of paper in order to convince you that she's a grown-up; she's just out there becoming one. May more teen stars follow her weird, glorious example, and may the rest of us support Miley in her weirdness. Especially you, Hemsworth. We're watching you.

Photo: Disney, Getty Images