By Anne Champion
Like many people, I watched Miley Cyrus’ MTV VMA performance with a mixture of awe and horror. I cringed at the dancing teddy bears adorned with twerking African American women and I shifted uncomfortably in my chair when she masturbated with a foam finger. I pondered the entertainment value of her constant tongue lolling, and I wasn’t particularly impressed with her dancing or singing skills.
Ever since this spectacle occurred, I see argumentative editorials about Miley appear almost daily, and most of them are critical. Today I read two articles explaining why Miley Cyrus should put some clothes on. One writer explained that it would make her, and all other pop stars, ‘more interesting.’ Another article asserted that being naked overshadowed an emphasis on Cyrus’ talent. Most famously, Sinead O’Connor took a maternal approach by writing Miley an open letter in which she nurtures her into rejecting being ‘pimped out by the music industry.’
Furthermore, I’ve read many editorials slamming Cyrus for her appropriation of black culture and her willingness to align blackness with promiscuity—an act that has problematic and racist implications. Almost all of these articles are written by intelligent women, and these writers are careful not to call Cyrus a slut and to acknowledge the problems of slut shaming. We don’t want to call her a slut, they all essentially say, because it’s bad to slut shame and women should be free, but put on some damn clothes, Miley. In reality, these condemnations of Miley’s naked body are all veiled and insidious forms of slut shaming, even as they deny it. The constant debates and public outcries against Miley Cyrus prove that our culture remains afraid of the power implicit in women’s bodies.
The argument that asks a woman to cover up so that she can be “more interesting” and “recognized for her brain/personality/talent” is an argument that’s been used in various ways against women for centuries. In fact, this argument remains incredibly problematic, as it is essentially the same sort of argument used to blame women for their own rapes. If a woman simply covers up, then a man will respect her.
If a woman had not worn that skirt, then a man would not have looked at her as just a body. If a woman wears more clothes, she will seem more mysterious and therefore get a man’s attention. If she wears more clothes, she will appear decent and thus be marriage material. This attempt to logically justify telling women what they can wear and blaming them for the behavior of others due to their bodies shows an illogical and warped fear of the female form, and it’s an irrational fear that’s been used to force women into conventional and comfortable norms that promote self blame, shame, and self loathing. This is also the same sort of logic that urges women to wear burquas and hijabs: your body has power to attract a man—cover it up, and you will be seen as a person and not an invitation for rape and sin.
A woman should not have to feel that her body is shameful, sinful, or too powerful for people to view. When male performers appear shirtless in videos and performances, we don’t condemn them for being seen as uninteresting or provoking us into seeing them as objects. When Usher performs a song shirtless while being rained on, he’s applauded and no one debates how the emphasis on his body subtracts from his honey smooth R&B coos. Miley’s performance teaches us that we are uncomfortable with the female form, because we are uncomfortable with a woman being comfortable with herself and finding power and liberation in her sexuality in the same way a man does. Until we can see a woman’s body as something not separate from her identity and her personality, until we can recognize that a naked woman does not mean she is less than a person, then we still have a long way to go for women’s equality.
Another issue that makes us uncomfortable with the female body that Cyrus embraces is an unabashed honesty about relishing in the pleasures of sex. We don’t flinch when Kanye West and 2Chains chant that all they want for their birthday “is a big booty hoe” and we don’t shake our heads in disgust when Robin Thick enjoys a girl half his age grinding on his crotch as he claims that he “knows you want it.” The reason men can get away with this behavior is because our culture has always acknowledged and encouraged men to want and enjoy sex.
Women, however, need to be the voices of moral reason.
Historically, we depend on women to say no, to be responsible for birth control, to wait until marriage, to value love over sex. This expectation upon women is, unfortunately, still at play when we judge Miley Cyrus. As Cyrus slides a giant foam finger between her legs or as she humps everything she sees in her “We Can’t Stop” video, she’s showing the world that she likes sex for the sake of sex. She likes sex because it feels good, just like men like sex. This honesty should not be condemned, because it liberates women to think of their body positively: as a vehicle of pleasure rather than a beacon of moral guidance and a tool used to control the natural wildness within men.
Along this same vein, Cyrus has stated in interviews that her new persona is much more honest than her old one. She states: “I had to be something else that I wasn’t for five years, so now I think life is too short for people not to be happy…I’m lucky, and I want to enjoy the life that I have rather than always try to be so perfect.”
She makes a fair point here: in continually asking Miley to cover up, we are pressuring her to be the ‘perfect’ ideal of a woman—which means we want her to be more humble, more prudish, more soft spoken, more chaste. Those kinds of pressures are the same societal problems that have led so many women historically to full out breakdowns: we ask women (think of the 1950s ideology of a perfect housewife and mother) to be something that is practically humanly impossible, and this is something we never expect from men.
However, what is so different about what Miley does in her performances than what any other star does? Nicki Minaj twerks with and fondles the backsides of African American background dancers in her video “Beez in the Trap.” Britney Spears famously strip teased in a nude sequined outfit at the VMAs 13 years ago. Madonna humped a stage at the VMAs back in the 80s while performing “Like A Virgin.”
At the same awards show ofCyrus’ controversial performance, Lady Gaga stripped down until she was practically naked. While all these stars are no strangers to criticism, they receive much less backlash than Cyrus has had in the past few months. What separates her from the rest of the bunch? It’s the fact that she spent so many years presenting herself to the public as the perfect and innocent Disney version of herself: Hannah Montana. Because of this, the transformation is jarring, and it’s unsettling—when we see a girl go from good to “bad,” we feel that she’s degenerated rather than viewing it as a natural process of growing up. This judgment of her actually shows that we value the “pure” girl more than the sexually liberated woman.
Of course, Sinead O’Connor penned an incredibly articulate open letter to Miley in which she disagreed with all of these claims. She states:
“Please, in the future say no when you are asked to prostitute yourself. Your body is for you and your boyfriend. It isn’t for every spunk-spewing dirtbag on the net, or every greedy record company executive to buy his mistresses diamonds with.” Then she goes on to urge Miley to be aware of her status as a role model: “Whether we like it or not, us females in the industry are role models and as such we have to be extremely careful what messages we send to other women. The message you keep sending is that it’s somehow cool to be prostituted.. it’s so not cool Miley.. it’s dangerous. Women are to be valued for so much more than their sexuality. We aren’t merely objects of desire. I would be encouraging you to send healthier messages to your peers.. that they and you are worth more than what is currently going on in your career. Kindly fire any motherf—er who hasn’t expressed alarm, because they don’t care about you.”
I have a lot of respect for Sinead O’Connor. I admire her decision to shave her head when the music industry was asking her to capitalize on her beauty, and I was always interested in her provocative and controversial critiques of religion in her performances. I’m somewhat convinced by her letter, but I see it as having some problems even though she wrote it with the best of intentions. First of all, telling a woman that her body is for herself and her boyfriend is dangerously close to telling a woman that her body is only for her husband; therefore, she must remain pure. In reality, a woman’s body belongs only to herself. And a woman is free to do what she pleases with it and give it to whoever she wants, just as men do.
Furthermore, the fact that we live in a time where we can have two confident and different artists like Sinead and Miley actually serves as fulfillment to the feminist movement—a movement that seeks to liberate women from punitive societal expectations and allow for a broad range of expression. I’d like to see us come to a place as a culture where we are comfortable having a variety of forms of acceptable types of femininity.
Other arguments against Miley include the issue of her appropriation of race in her new music and videos. Many people see her exploitation of the twerking phenomenon as a way to underhandedly promote the message that black women have uninhibited and uncontrollable sexualities and can’t act civilized, and her usage of women as virtual props in her videos and performances devalues them, dehumanizes them, and exploits them as nothing more than sex toys for men. This is a considerable argument, and it’s certainly one in which we should think carefully about its implications: this says a lot about the remnants of racism that romp flagrantly and seemingly innocently in our faces without being noticed.
Consequently, Cyrus’ performances may have the same negative connotations of minstrel shows or the use of Blackface. However, Miley is really no different than any teen/young adult in this manner. Young people appropriate the culture that they view as cool. When our hip hop artists use curvy women for their objectification in their videos for hit songs, teens see this as cool, no matter how problematic that is. I grew up in the 90s, an era when TuPac, Biggie Smalls, and Puff Daddy ruled the air waves, and every teenager I knew at the time, including myself, was emulating that culture, both in dress and in mannerisms.
That is the unfortunate thing about being young: you imitate things without really knowing what you are doing. Being ignorant is a practically mandatory part of being a teenager. We see the same sort of appropriation happening with male musicians as well: simply look at Justin Beiber or Justin Timberlake who are barely discussed for their racial appropriations. I’m not saying this is right of Miley, but I don’t think it’s that unusual, unfortunately, given her age and the landscape of our current popular culture.
What the endless critiques of Cyrus amount to is a veiled form of slut shaming that seeks to tame women to resist their instincts–something we never ask of men. We’ve been demanding women cover up, be coy, be chaste, be ladylike, and be more interesting for centuries. Now, women like Miley Cyrus feel free enough in our culture to say no and people are continually stating that they can’t see the talent in Cyrus because they can only see her tits.
I agree that I have seen so much of Cyrus’ naked body these days that I feel like we used to go out, but I also find it undeniable when I hear her belt her power ballad, “Wrecking Ball,” that she’s talented. I can see her talent even though I can see her body.
The real cultural issue here is that we fear the power of the female form so much that we think it blinds us from everything else a woman can embody. Until we are able to synthesize that a woman is able to be sexual and still be a human with various wonderful human qualities, then our cultural misogyny wins. The problem isn’t naked Miley Cyrus. The problem is that Miley Cyrus finds joy in freedom and raunchiness—and we don’t like women who are free.
Image by Terry Richardson