Miley Cyrus Deserves Better Than Our Slut-Shaming
And So Do Our Daughters
Whether or not you tuned in to Sunday night’s VMAs, it was impossible to miss the outrage over Miley Cyrus’s performance that took the Internet by storm the following day. Beyond making the expected, extensive rounds on social media, plenty of broadcast news stations also prominently featured what is clearly this year’s most important story. CNN successfully stayed on top of such hard-hitting, award-winning journalism by posting a piece about the “shocking” performance on their site’s main page first thing Monday morning, which makes perfect sense, because Miley Cyrus twerking in a flesh-tone bikini is unquestionably more important than the deaths of Syrian children by sarin gas.
Let’s be clear: There’s plenty to criticize about the pop star’s VMA performance, most significantly her continued misappropriation of black “ratchet” culture, actions that, while probably not done with malicious intent, are still extremely important to address. But as far as shock-value alone is concerned, Cyrus is in good company.
Artistic merit? Race issues? Yawn. Why waste our time on that kind of discourse when we can demand that Cyrus put on a pair of pants and find this kind of deep, thought-provoking analysis about that slut-bag in the NY Daily News:
Lewdly thrusting out her tongue and nastily stroking her crotch, this one-time teen star worked hard to bag the sleaze award of the night. To cement the title, she stripped down to a flesh-colored bikini during a duet with Thicke on his smash hit “Blurred Lines.”
Note, shockingly, that married father Robin Thicke, who joined the star for the second song of her performance, receives not a single word of criticism here for his willing participation in grinding on stage with a girl nearly half his age.
Of course, even though it was Thicke who sang America’s chart-topping summer rape anthem, there was no shortage of reports accusing Cyrus of “raping” Thicke during the show. E! Online was quick to tweet that they felt “personally victimized” by Cyrus’s act. I’m sure actual victims of sexual assault were equally appalled by those giant, dancing teddy bears. How dare she?
Cyrus’s three-song medley garnered a record-breaking 360,000 tweets, even more than Beyoncé’s recent Super Bowl performance. The racy halftime show also inspired every human with a television and an opinion to jump online and share their disapproval about such an egregious display of slut culture spoiling America’s wholesome pastime.
Not wanting to miss any of the finger-wagging action (or those ratings!), Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski came out fiercely against Cyrus’s performance, offering smart, poignant commentary like this: “That young lady, who is 20, is obviously deeply troubled, deeply disturbed” and insisting that Cyrus (and her cohorts) should “be ashamed of themselves.” Brzezinski added that Cyrus is a “mess” and “needs someone to take care of her.” Luckily Brzezinski is here to help this lost little kitten with all of her problems, especially the fact that the starlet “probably has an eating disorder.” Because nothing sends a better pro-woman message than Brzezinski calling a popular female entertainer a disturbed, shameful mess on a morning news segment and then accusing her, with absolutely zero evidence, of having an eating disorder. Congrats, Mika! You’re a real champion of the cause.
Glenn Beck, my other favorite feminist, was very concerned on Monday with whether or not Miley was making her father proud. And why else would the entertainer be doing anything if not for her dad? Certainly she’s not her own autonomous person or anything—let’s not get crazy. Poor, poor Billy Ray. He probably wishes his daughter was never born.
Naturally, Rush Limbaugh wasted no time weighing in either, reminding his listeners, “Miley Cyrus, who is known primarily as Hannah Montana, who was clean and pure as the wind-driven snow… was a Disney character. Hannah Montana has now become Miley Cyrus.” Hold onto your Pendleton hats, folks! Hannah Montana is actually Miley Cyrus! Though the series finale of the beloved Disney show aired back in January of 2011, it has apparently taken Limbaugh more than two and a half years to determine that Miley Cyrus is an actual human beyond the character the then-child star once played on TV.
“All kinds of sexuality and sex is being stimulated on stage,” Limbaugh complained. Sexuality? On stage?! Limbaugh appears to find female sexuality anywhere inappropriate, but it’s the general public who really seems to love an opportunity to engage in the voyeurism of shaming a celebrity when they supposedly fall from grace, which mostly amounts to making any mistake ever or leaving the house without first putting on a cardigan. Weirdly, it actually isn’t newsworthy that a female artist got up in front of other people and represented herself as a person who has sex or—holy shit, call the FCC!—as someone who enjoys it.
And since it’s a really slow news month and nothing else more worthy of our attention is happening in the world, this epic scandal even found its way to Australia’s popular morning show, Sunrise, where child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg hysterically warned that the famous artist was leading girls to a dangerous place. An obvious international threat to kids everywhere, let’s call this what it is: Miley Cyrus is practically a terrorist.
“We’re trying to get away from this early adultification and sexualisation of young people,” Carr-Gregg says, “There’s clear research to prove this… she’s actually doing harm.” Which is true, I suppose, if parents made the decision to watch the VMAs with their six year olds or are incapable of having meaningful discussions with their children. But like Limbaugh, Carr-Gregg seems to have a hard time remembering that it’s the year 2013, that Miley Cyrus is a couple of years removed from her cutesy Disney alter ego, and that she is an adult now.
None of that is really important, of course. Because it’s much more satisfying and brings in a boatload of viewers when Carr-Gregg and others like him lead the global charge of offended parents with insightful, pithy remarks such as this: “The simulated sex acts, the flesh-coloured underwear… she’s won the race to the bottom of the sleaze barrel.”
It’s no wonder, then, that writers like Wendy Tuohy took to their blogs and ordered Cyrus to “keep your twerking out of my [nine-year-old] daughter’s face,” despite the fact that the awards show is rated as not appropriate for teens younger than 14. I’m also dying to know if Tuohy allows her daughter to blast Robin Thicke songs from her iPad without complaint. Other fired-up moms awesomely elected to threaten and bully their own daughters over the issue instead.
Since MTV is obviously vying to be the next Nickelodeon, I can understand why so many people have expressed outrage that Cyrus is single-handedly destroying today’s youth. Nevermind the fact that Lady GaGa also performed at this year’s VMAs wearing nothing more than two clam-shell nipple covers and a seashell G-string or that Chris Brown was given a platform to perform at the 2012 Grammy’s just a few short years after beating then-girlfriend Rihanna so severely that she was hospitalized. I recognize, of course, that this is a much less outrageous incident than Cyrus’s creative uses of a foam finger, especially because of how much skin was safely covered by a a positive role model and all around stand-up gentleman such as Brown.
The reality is that Cyrus didn’t wake up a few weeks ago, still donning pigtails and wearing her Hannah Montana pajamas, and suddenly decide it was time to rebrand herself. Her evolution and growth beyond the childhood role that kick-started her fame has not been immediate. “I think the best thing I could have done was take those two years off [after Hannah Montana] to really live,” explained Cyrus back in March, “because now people don’t think of me as who I was on the TV show.” She gave the prude parents who have eagerly been waiting to sound the alarms plenty of time to prepare.
And, as a mother, this is my biggest gripe with the shaming of Miley Cyrus for acting like such a little slut in her VMA performance Sunday night. Having spent 4 years under contract to entertain tweens as the fun and wacky Hannah Montana does not obligate Cyrus to maintain that image forever. Cyrus is 20, not 12. If she hadn’t been busy this year making a new album and working on two movies, she’d likely be a sophomore in college, probably engaging in casual sex and experimenting with drugs, discovering what her limits and boundaries are like most people in her age group. Or maybe not, considering the 20-year-old star has seriously dated (and is now tentatively engaged to) actor Liam Hemsworth for the past three years.
Either way, Cyrus happens to have a throng of fans and a horde of paparazzi hungry to broadcast every step she takes toward this self-discovery, and while I do believe that being famous and in the spotlight charges people with a different type of ethical responsibility regarding their actions, no part of me feels that Cyrus’s display of sexuality was unethical. No matter how awkward this may make things for the very youngest fans leftover from the heyday of Hannah Montana, that isn’t Cyrus’s responsibility to navigate. It’s ours.
There’s a chance that Cyrus’s display of sexual freedom has been carefully, painstakingly manufactured—maybe by her powerful manager Larry Rudolph (who also helped rebrand Britney Spears more than a decade ago during her own scandalous VMA performance) or maybe by the entertainment industry or society in general. It’s possible that Cyrus feels pressured into rebranding herself as a hypersexual siren in order to keep up with pop-star favorites like Lady Gaga and Ke$ha or even that this so-called misguided attempt to be edgy and push boundaries may have been spoon-fed to her under the guise of female empowerment. If that’s the case, though, then we need to start having a very different conversation, and it’s one in which comments like, “That girl is so disgusting,” do not belong.
Before we rush to victimize Cyrus on her own behalf, though, it’s worth noting that Adele also sells a whole hell of a lot of albums, and I’ve yet to see her gyrate on stage. I can’t speak for how Cyrus actually feels, but my guess is that she’s up there doing exactly what she wants to be doing, and it is simply ridiculous for so many people to allow themselves to believe that her choices are an attack on the moral fiber of our culture.
Earlier this week, CNN put out a call for reader responses to the performance, and there was no shortage of scathing opinions: “Miley wrongly represents the way girls should act today,” said Steve, who has a 12-year-old granddaughter who will hopefully remain a virgin until marriage or forever. “The way they dress, act, not caring about how other people may respond…” Steve added, “is an oversexualization of young girls/young women.” It’s a good thing, then, that Cyrus’s job is to make whatever music she wants, in whatever way she wants, and that she hasn’t been tasked with babysitting Steve’s granddaughter.
CNN commenter Eric Solomon remarked that he was “embarrassed” by the performance and, thankfully, took the opportunity to reinforce to his two teenage sons that Cyrus’s actions were “not appropriate” and were not the behavior of “your normal woman.” In the spirit of that very narrow lens of female sexuality, John Rodrigues claimed that Cyrus’s behavior “sets 50 to 60 years of women’s forward progress back a long way.”
But it definitely isn’t Cyrus who’s setting back the women’s movement. “Shame on Miley,” is not an appropriate reaction to the pop star sticking out her tongue and twerking on stage in her underwear. And if parents are feeling genuine concern regarding the impact this adult performer is having on their young children, well, that’s for those moms and dads to deal with.
Parents need to roll up their sleeves and get comfortable with the fact that the world is an awkward, interesting place, and not everyone acts in exactly the way we feel our kids are ready to see, understand, or process in an age-appropriate way.
We have a choice—instead of demeaning Cyrus for her attire or her sexuality in front of our children—to educate our daughters about body positivity. To explain that they should never feel forced to dress or dance or act a certain way to impress a love interest or an audience or to keep up with their peers. To make clear that if they love their bodies and themselves first, whatever actions that follow are their own choices to make, and they will not be loved any less for them. To reinforce the idea that the types of clothes a woman wears or how many sexual partners she’s had is fucking irrelevant to how smart or talented or driven or capable she is.
Most importantly, we should choose to engage in conversation with both our daughters and our sons in which we explain that “normal” looks very different to everyone and that, independent of what each individual feels is personally appropriate for themselves, even if our kids or our celebrities or our students or our neighbors or our daughters walk into a club wearing the skimpiest, barely-there piece of sparkly spandex they can find, hop up on stage or on top of the bar with a drink in their hand, and raunchily grind all over someone else’s body for all to see, they have done absolutely nothing that devalues them as a human being or makes them any less deserving of our respect.
Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Iowa Review, Brevity, and Narrative Magazine, among others. Winner of a Dan Rudy prize, her work has also been awarded an honorable mention from Glimmer Train and 2nd place in Narrative Magazine’s 30-Below contest. Her first chapbook, Casualties, first runner-up of the RopeWalk Editor’s Prize, is forthcoming this fall. She writes and teaches in Southern Indiana, where she lives with her incredible partner and their amazing, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com