While some people are busy fretting over how they can’t let their kids watch the VMAs because of performances like Miley Cyrus’, I’m shaking my head and wondering how it’s gotten boiled down to arguments about whether her parents did their job or whether she’s just acting foolish because of her age/fame. There are problems with her performance (which I didn’t watch live; I saw the video this morning). None of them have to do with what she wore, whether or not she’s trying to be “sexy,” or whether or not she has gone from wholesome to trashy.
I didn’t find her performance sexy (and what was wrong with her tongue? Does she have a condition?), but I’d be happy to chalk that up to personal preference. That is, if not for two glaring problems:
- It was racist.
- It wasn’t empowering for female sexuality.
I’m not the best person to explain what was racist about it. You should just go read this (and the several articles linked therein). It explains perfectly what was wrong with Miley’s performance from an intersectional feminism perspective. I was glad to read that; I’m not always sure that I’m on the right track, so I was happy to have confirmation that my initial reaction wasn’t off-base. There is obviously more wrong than this, but my first question after watching was, “Why are all the back-up dancers black?” It didn’t seem right, so I dug a little deeper. I’m glad I did.
I can speak a little better to the second point. Other women have performed in less clothing than Miley wore and have had equally sexual dance moves. Why is hers somehow worse? The short answer is that by itself, it’s not. If it were just Miley up there (preferably minus the objectification of black women), it would have been less of an issue. In one sense, Miley is trying to find out who she is apart from her family and her childhood. When other child stars do the same, they are often shamed for their mistakes because they can’t screw up in private. But there’s a special kind of venom reserved for “wholesome” girls who grow up into women with sexuality. For some reason, the finger-wagging always seems to crop up around things like the VMAs, with parents lamenting, “What about the chiiiiiildren????”
Young men don’t seem to have this problem. One of my friends was kind enough to point out that Daniel Radcliffe didn’t get the same treatment when he was naked. On stage. With a horse. I mean, I guess parents probably figured that wasn’t something to take the kids to see, but still–he got more flak when people thought he was gay than for his performance in Equus. Right there, that says volumes about people’s priorities.
The real problem with Miley’s performance is adding Robin Thicke into the mix. A few years ago, I had a grad school professor who mentioned in class that he’d done some research on pornography (yes, that’s actual research, people). He evaluated pictures in magazines based on several criteria–pose, facial expression, etc. He discovered that in many photos of women, they were pouting and passive, and there was often a fully clothed man in the photograph. This was in sharp contrast with photos of men, who were mostly smiling, active, and alone. It was the last one that surprised me (and bothered me) most.
As it turns out, I wasn’t wrong about that. The presence of a fully-clothed man feeds into the idea that women are bodies that exist solely for men’s pleasure. Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke played that out on national television. The excuses were strange, too–that this is his “thing” and he’s never been a Disney star are hardly important when he’s perpetuating a degrading view of women with someone half his age who’s barely an adult. His sexual freedom and aggression are celebrated; she’s shamed for not living up to her status as a role model (which, by the way, she is not obligated to do).
The two problems (racism and misogyny) that I mentioned are linked by the fact that Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke have intentionally joined them. This is their view of what it means to be sexual, and it hinges on exploitation and the blatant appropriation of a subset of black culture–along with a host of horrible assumptions about black women. Combine Miley’s own admission that she wants to try on “black culture” with a man singing about “blurred” consent while a woman mimes sexually pleasuring him and you should get a good idea why this is so disgusting.
The whole thing made me feel sick, and many of the reactions have made me feel sicker still. It was gross, and it was wrong, and we need to ask ourselves why we’re more concerned with the fact of Miley’s attempts at being sexy than how she’s trying to achieve it or why it’s so wrong. It’s not about teaching our daughters about what’s “appropriate” when it comes to clothing or dance moves. It’s not about another former child star “gone wrong.” It’s about how we’ve failed as a society to stop exploiting people for profit and how we’ve failed as a society to teach our children that growing up means knowing the difference between empowering people and continuing to subjugate them, even when the line seems thin.