The Puberty of Showmanship
A couple of days ago, the Internet went ablaze with heavy criticism of Miley Cyrus’s performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. The main two problems everyone seemed to have with it was either how sexual it was, or how silly it was. Obviously, in the longstanding tradition of slut-shaming, everybody was also up in arms saying she was being inappropriate for grinding on Robin Thicke, a married father.
Before we go any further, I would like to point out that Miley Cyrus’s performance is not something I enjoyed watching or would encourage anyone to replicate (see: the masturbatory moves, the incessant tongue-sticking, the child/sex association, the spanking a Black woman bit, and so on and so forth). However, as Tyler Coates so rightly tweeted: “If Harmony Korine had directed [it], everyone would have loved it.” It is incredibly harsh for people to come down on a twenty-year old who is basically the result of EVERYTHING ANY FEMINIST/QUEER/LIBERAL WRITER HAS EVER POINTED OUT ABOUT FEMALE SEXUALITY IN POP CULTURE. We are bombarded with images of female pop singers who are appreciated almost exclusively on their sexuality. [Side note: Seriously, not even a week ago, Selena Gomez mentioned in an interview that she was awarded the Teen Choice prize for Hottie of the Year and how offensive it was that it was even a criterion on which they had evaluated her.] Miley is far from the only former Disney star to go a little off the rails on the train to Sexytown. Coming from a world where young women never grow into themselves and are confined to the identity of a child, the only way to achieve adulthood is through an adolescent rite of passage that is relatively close to real-life puberty: the “slut” phase. And by that I don’t mean that they are sluts —a term I have tried to refrain from using— I mean that it is how they will infallibly be called. In the vein of Britney Spears’s I’m a Slave 4 U and Christina Aguilera’s Dirrty, We Can’t Stop corresponds to a transitional period for Cyrus caving under the pressure of being marketable. Sex sells and, clearly, she is far from the only woman who has to use her sexuality in order to bring the money —I’m looking at you: Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, etc.— but because she uses it in such a ridiculously childish and campy way, it becomes cringeworthy to a majority of us.
In robotics, there is a concept called the Uncanny Valley. Basically, it posits that the more human a robot acts and looks, the more endearing it seems to actual people; and yet, after a certain point, a robot can seem too real and cause a very negative reaction from human beings. In a way, Miley Cyrus is the reverse phenomenon. Unlike most pop singers, her sexuality doesn’t look real or attractive, it is a caricature of so many things other female performers have used in the past. I don’t think what Miley was wearing was odder than Mel B’s alien hair or more revealing than Gaga’s see-through plastic dress, I also think the lyrics to We Can’t Stop sound like a mash up of We R Who We R and Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.) written in the grammar of a Rihanna song. The issue here seemed to be that the sexiness of her performance was not realistic (read: not jerk-off material) in the way that it was with her predecessors. Good heavens, she even seemed to be doing it for fun and not solely for the benefit of other people! And because we weren’t distracted by the potential sex-appeal that it had, everyone realized how actually horrifying and demeaning it was to watch a twenty-year old rip-off her teddy bear unitard and dry-hump a foam mitt. I mean, even the Smiths —who are probably the best example of what it is to utilize your children— were aghast (or were they just trying to be on the right side of the stone-throwing?) I feel Cyrus did us all somewhat of a favor by showing us —not by design, I’m sure— what the constant sexualization of teenage female pop stars does to young women and how oblivious to it we have become.
That being said, what really drove me up the wall about Miley Cyrus’s performance is something which is a symptom of a much larger issue I have with her song: the blatant racism. In her video as well as onstage, she is accompanied by women of color and does something called “twerking”. If you don’t know what twerking is, it is a dance move where you pop out your butt and make it bounce so that, if it’s big enough, you can make it wobble. It became very popular on YouTube and originated in African-American circles. The problem with Cyrus twerking is that she is basically appropriating Black culture, which was explained perfectly by Emily Vrotsos (who, in her article, also mentions how disgusting the body-shaming reactions to Miley’s costume were):
“The most obvious and problematic element of cultural appropriation in this situation is that Miley, who is white, used her privilege to take up aspects of a marginalized racial group for fun without examination of where the dance came from, what it can stand for, and without acknowledging that between her performances she can take off this aspect of ‘blackness’ and go on with the privileges she possesses by being a white woman.”
Beside that and the oh-so-subtle “Blackspeak” lyrics (“Can’t you see it’s we who ’bout dat life?” and its equally as perplexing “We run things, things don’t run we”), the fact that her video/VMA performance features a very big Black woman [Side note: whom I actually saw perform live in L.A., on that night I was at the club and ran into… Miley Cyrus —is that kismet or what?] also makes me cringe. It really reminds me of Sarah Baartman, known as the Hottentot Venus, a Black slave from South Africa who was exhibited in freak shows around early-19th-century Europe and was famous specifically for her very large bottom. White people finding entertainment value in gazing at the Black body is sadly not news (see: minstrelsy in the 20th century. Or anything with Martin Lawrence in a fatsuit), but Miley Cyrus, a Southern White woman, should perhaps think twice about slapping a Black woman’s butt while singing “This is our house, this is our rules.”
The other point of contention I want to address in the whole VMA debacle is Robin Thicke. I actually wanted to write an article about Blurred Lines and its alarmingly rape-y undertones as well as the appallingly sexist video that goes with it, so now is as good a time as any. I absolutely hate everything about the song, from the obnoxiously catchy “Hey, hey, hey” to the Google-search-adjacent “what rhymes with hug me?” [Side note: A WHOLE FUCKING LOT OF THINGS, ROBIN THICKE] and let’s not even talk about why I despise the video —fun fact: both videos for We Can’t Stop and Blurred Lines were directed by Diane Martel, a female director who appears to be the sexist’s female counterpart to the racist’s Black friend. I don’t need to go into too much details about the lyrics, but just know the song is basically about a guy telling a “good” girl that he is going to “liberate” her —SPOILER ALERT: he’s not talking about bra-burning feminism— and, as appealing as he is making his case, she appears to respond negatively, to which he retorts: “I know you want it.” Because, hey, why would “no” mean “no”, women are all so mysteriously sexy and couldn’t possibly formulate sexual availability in a clear and direct way, ergo they have to resort to a demure Catholic-schoolgirl approach, tip-toeing along the eponymous “blurred lines”; so, really, it’s fine, it’s not like he is actually encouraging “forcible” rape (or whatever the fuck he must be calling it) and, besides, he’s a married father so that means he respects women, and yet it’s so much fun to objectify them, like, really, we need to loosen up. [Side note: if you don’t believe me, you can read the interview Thicke gave GQ. I’m not even making any of this up.]
First of all, a man who defends himself against being called a sexist by saying he is a married father has clearly never delved much into issues related to the institution of marriage. Second of all, whoever the fuck can talk about “what a pleasure it is to degrade women” has no respect for them, full stop. One needn’t even look at the video or the lyrics to understand that ROBIN THICKE IS A CREEP AND A MISOGYNIST, like, why are we even having a debate over this, this should not be up for discussion. However, while I’m sure people were still pondering whether or not fully-dressed men with sunglasses following around naked women is predatory —he does sing “This man is not your maker” so how could he possibly want to harm women?— Miley Cyrus started grinding up against his Beetlejuice suit as he casually sang “The way you grab me / Must wanna get nasty”. Considering that 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted (3%) or completed (15%) rape in her lifetime —that’s 1 out 6 women who did not consent to sex, which means, whatever way she may have grabbed her rapist, she did not “wanna get nasty”— I would advise Robin Thicke and ANY OTHER MAN never to assume that someone “must” want to have sex with you based on anything else than verbal agreement. Chescaleigh, a YouTuber I absolutely adore, made a really touching and on-point video about her experience with date rape and how the media (including the New York Times, like, fuck, what is wrong with this world?) tend to report on rape issues with a particular focus on how the victim dressed or wore such-and-such amount of makeup, as if, somehow, that was relevant —as Chescaleigh wrote in the comment section: “Being in the presence of a rapist can lead you to being raped”, and really, that is all that should be said about it. But by entertaining the idea that it’s OK to say “I know you want it”, to objectify women for fun, to think that there are blurred lines (there are none when it comes to sex and, if in doubt, assumption is not an acceptable decision factor for action), and wrap it all up in a catchy summer tune, we are condoning one of the biggest aspects of rape culture: victim-blaming.
Here is what I’ve learned from the VMAs:
– of course it’s fine that women are prancing around naked in Robin Thicke’s video, just as long as Miley Cyrus doesn’t replicate that onstage without male supervision.
– of course it’s fine that Robin Thicke dislikes when women play hard-to-get, just as long as Miley Cyrus doesn’t cross the very same blurred lines he apparently hated so bad in the recording studio.
– of course it’s fine that Miley Cyrus uses the female Black body for entertainment value, just as long she doesn’t touch her own too much.
I will leave you with a quote from the show Community to think about: “I can excuse racism, but I draw the line at animal cruelty.”