Since Sunday night, the Interwebs have been tangled up in discussion of Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs, which was, as far as I can tell, as close to a dictionary definition of “ratchet” as the human race will ever come. And rightfully so. Yes, it was lewd, crude, and shocking. And yes, it was lewd, crude, and shocking in ways we haven’t even discussed yet (why were all of her suggestive motions imitating acts men do? Do she not understand the female body? And why was it necessary to start off in a Chucky Cheese face leotard?). But in a lot of ways, it wasn’t shocking. If you squinted a little, it looked like a hyperactive toddler acting out Christina Aguilera’s “Dirty” with Beetlejuice as a guest star. In a lot of ways, it was familiar — and that’s what we should be talking about.
Buzzfeed, always the first to set the tempo of our national reaction to pop culture events, responded with a frame-by-frame comparison between Miley’s 2013 performance and Britney Spears’ 2000 performance. It was fascinating not only because it’s about Britney Spears and she is always fascinating, but because of the implication here: that young female pop stars have to have a transition to young woman pop stars, and that transition has to include overt sexuality.
There’s a lot that is interesting and infuriating about this idea, but I think that the most interesting and infuriating thing is that it seems to confuse a fact with a truth. By this I mean that yes, it is indeed a fact that many child/teen pop stars — Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Amanda Bynes — have signaled their transition to adult stardom through performances rife with overt sexuality. However, it is not a truth that all child/teen pop stars have to signal their transition to adult stardom through performances rife with overt sexuality. There are many women — Beyoncé comes to mind as an example, and Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams along with her, not to mention Kelly Clarkson, and, while we’re at it, Jenny Lewis — who have made the transition without overt sexuality. Beyoncé created a powerful alter-ego who stands up to men who denigrate her self-worth. Michelle Williams turn to gospel music, concentrating on her faith and expressing how her relationship with and thinking about God has matured. And Jenny Lewis — well, she’s a genius, plain and simple, who redefined pop music and stardom and songwriting, and who can write lines that any poet would envy (“here’s to all the certainties of sickness and sleep,” anyone?). And, you know, there was Cher. Sure, all of these ladies do happen to have impressively toned bodies, but they didn’t depend solely on their bodies to speak for them. They showed strength, intellect, faith, talent. They showed that they had matured, body and soul — and they didn’t have to take their clothes off to do so.
And I think that the verb in that sentence — “have to” — combined with the Britney/Miley article’s thesis — that in order to signal maturity, a pop singer “has to” deliver a provocative performance — is the problem. It’s what we really need to be talking about. It’s the very definition of exploitation. We aren’t watching female artist explore their sexuality, we’re watching them exploit it. Or, rather, be exploited. And it’s an exploitation, I’d argue, that begins far before they take off their clothes. In a lot of ways, I think the world of Disney, with its emphasis on impossible purity, is every bit as exploitative. It’s the old myth retold, the idea that women can be virgins or whores or mothers, with no other options or even in-betweens. In many ways, I think that Disney purity may be every bit as exploitative as Miley’s flesh-colored underpants. I’ve read a lot about how Disney made a conscious move to use the “princess” idea in its marketing throughout a woman’s life, to hook them into the idea of the princess childhood, the princess wedding. And let’s not forget who these princesses generally are: women without strong female role models who are helpless until they find their prince, no matter how strong and smart they may be.
Maybe I am especially sensitive to this because I work in two arenas that often seem as though they’re constructed against women, built so that it’s difficult, as a woman, to succeed: academia, in which the years of nine-to-nine work coincide with a woman’s reproductive years, and publishing, which VIDA has shown is a field where the odds are stacked against women. Maybe it’s because I watch a lot of television and am therefore constantly bombarded by images from baby-bump-patrols. Or maybe it’s not just me. It seems inescapably true that we’re living in a moment obsessed with the idea of the woman as virgin (Disney and its princesses), mother (baby-bump-patrol), or whore (Miley, Miley, Miley). We’re living in a moment where women’s reproductive rights are constantly at risk, where some women don’t have access to birth control or education about their reproductive lives. And we’re living in a moment where misogyny is often accepted without question, where some men openly and without caveat proclaim that Don Draper — who may dress well and who looks cool smoking and drinking but who is, at the bottom of it all, a misogynist who treats women terribly — is a role model, a marvel, what the modern man should be.
Which means, I think, that it’s a hard enough fight for women to get the respect that they deserve as equals to men, as human beings. We need to show respect for ourselves. And we need to talk about the reasons why a twenty year old woman would choose to disrespect herself — and her body, her womanhood, other women, other races (I can’t be the only one who noticed that she treated African-American women as objects in her performance — though this shouldn’t be a parenthetical and should be the source of much, much more discussion) — in such a public way.