In this age of slut-shaming hypersensitivity and the slipping of a culture based on a shared sense of morals regarding decency and self-respect we sometimes fail to have the conversations we should be because no one wants their head chopped off for speaking up and no one wants to be made to feel bad about a lack of morals. Or common sense.
Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus are being talked about everywhere, in different ways and by different communities, but the conversation is valid. It is not acceptable to attempt to shut up and silence people concerned about the impact of media with the cries of “slut-shaming!” simply because we are discussing how raunch culture impacts our families and society as a whole. Critical analysis and media literacy require us to examine these things, and we can do so in a way that does not include slut-shaming. What is so interesting is that all of the kids and young adults I have spoken to about the performance and who I have seen interviewed in the media all had the same reaction, “That is so unfortunate. It is really inappropriate.”
Both performers should be held accountable for what they did. It was rehearsed, there were many adults involved in making the decisions about what the audience would see. I think we can hold performers responsible for their art free of censorship, as the audience we have every right to comment on and critique. This act went on stage with those responsible knowing plenty of young people would be seeing it. I’m rather certain they were banking on that.
I’m not sure too many people had high standards for Thicke, whose rise to fame came on the wings of this summer’s rape anthem. On the TODAY show his mom spoke of her shock over the way Miley danced with her son, but said nothing of Thicke’s sexist, degrading video to his hit song about date rape. It is the perfect example of the double standards we hold in society. She says she can’t unsee Miley’s rump twerking on her son, just like I can’t unhear Thicke’s lyrics about wanting to tear a girl’s ass in half during anal sex because she’s the sexiest bitch up in this place. I wonder if that makes his mom blush, too?
People feel differently about Cyrus than they do about Thicke, and when we discuss this we are falling short when we shrug it off by saying she doesn’t want to be a role model, doesn’t owe anyone anything, and can express her sexuality any way she wants. That falls short because she is a role model and how she expresses her sexuality impacts the millions of girls with less fame and less money. Miley becomes part of a media culture. Media shapes perception, and perception becomes reality.
People are chalking it up to her being a mistake-prone 20 year old. She can wear what she wants, do what she wants. Other people are saying she is at the mercy of her management and production team. Still others are saying she is a lost child star who still needs some guidance and the pressure of the spotlight is so hard.
I was once a hard-partying twenty year old young woman who will forever be grateful social media did not exist during the years I was 17-22. But here’s the thing – You aren’t a badass or a sexual grown up when you have to try so hard to prove to everyone that you are. And you don’t get street cred for exploitation.
Miley’s performance wasn’t about her authentic sexuality, it was about her sexuality as a product. When every single female pop star has the same version of sexuality, perhaps we should start questioning how authentic or manufactured it is. It was a racist and raunchy display of how women have to try to obtain media power given the normalization of porn culture in the mainstream, appropriating dance moves from Black strip clubs of the South, and using her Black female dancers as sexual props. Friends, that ain’t feminism or empowerment. I need you to stop pretending that it is.
The sexualization of and by Miley Cyrus matters. The self-objectification to boost a career and ratings matters. During a discussion about this my friend and colleague Nancy Gruver of New Moon Girls said, “When the BEST option for wielding power in our culture that a privileged, intelligent, ambitious and hardworking young woman sees is to manipulate media by purposefully turning herself from a person (subject of her own actions & thoughts) to an object (a non-human thing) of other people’s actions and thoughts it’s the culture that needs change – and that’s what we want to focus attention on. The need to change the culture to help ALL girls and young women be seen and treated as people, not objects.”
In her post “Miley Cyrus joins the boys’ club” my friend Soraya Chemaly writes how Miley was just acting like one of the guys, but being judged for it like a woman. Soraya is right, much of this criticism is linked to Miley’s gender and is the reason she swings and misses but Robin Thicke gets walked to first. The thing is, no one in the audience was cheering her on with a “Yeah, get it girl!” Most of the audience and the online reaction was “Dear God, girl get off the stage!”
But there is another part to this conversation. In order to be “one of the guys”, Miley had to sell other women out.
“In your quest to swing a big dick you made other women the objects. You made them bend over to you, just like you bent over to Robin Thicke. You grabbed them, leered at them, and diminished them to build yourself up. Maybe they’ll let you in their club. Maybe, for a while, you get to be the subject instead of the object.” – Emily Heist Moss
So I can’t spend time trying to convince people how wrong the sexualization, objectification, and racism were in this performance. You see it or you don’t. The new Miley is a brand, you like it or you don’t. This is not a rare occurrence, it is one more drop in an overflowing bucket of media reeking of sexism and racism.
What I’m more interested in is guiding parents in how to discuss this with your kids. This post and this post do a nice job of addressing Miley as a person and would be good to read with your tweens/teens and discuss.
1. Give examples of how we deconstruct this kind of media and its messages to our kids.
2. How we differentiate sexual expression vs putting raunch on display for ratings.
3. How you explain to kids why they might hear Miley taking so much heat but not Robin.
4. How you explain the difference between critiquing media and critiquing a person to your child.
Nearly everyone is focused on Miley and girls. Well, what about Robin and boys? Let’s look at this….
- How would you talk to your tween/teen BOYS about older men using younger girls like sex objects and male performers being surrounded by barely-dressed female backup dancers?
- How would your boys answer: When so many of the female performers are so scantily clad, is that self expression of sexuality or the symptom of something larger? Why were none of the men nearly naked?
- How would your boys answer: How do you feel the representations of women last night affect your female friends and family members?
- How would your boys answer: What expectations does our family have around how you will treat girls and women? Did what you see or heard about from the VMA’s live up to that or fall short?
And here are some of the best responses:
“I do see that she is taking all the heat and its sad that he isn’t, not to mention any of the other grown adults with much a more developed prefrontal cortex who green lit the performance. It’s interesting to show children that se is getting all of the attention (however negative) but there is an unseen puppeteer in the way of management, agents, PR people, production teams, marketing, etc that all have their hand in the till. I remind my daughter that we don’t know Miley. We can’t say she’s a “bad girl” but we can say that she performed inappropriately and made decisions that would not be considered good choices in our family. The thing that bothers me the most about the whole performance is the teddy bears. It’s almost as if the set decorator (who obviously had a hand in the video as well) is making the statement that she’s “a little girl with her stuffed animal but look at how naughty she can be.” That, to me, is the worst “artistic” statement and contributes to the allure of over-sexualization of young girls.” -Jessyca Haddix
“It was a great example of what is called The Patriarchal Bargain. A patriarchal bargain is when a woman willingly accepts gender rules that generally disadvantage women in exchange for whatever power she can then wrest from the system. It is an individual strategy designed to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage, but one that leaves the system itself intact. Miley fulfilled the bargain in textbook fashion – sexualizing herself, turning the Male Gaze on herself, in order to manipulate the system, which benefits her personally, but at the expense of all other young women, who feel the repercussions of male gaze, without being able to subvert it for financial gain. This isn’t about making the world G-rated. It is about making women objects, instead of letting them be subjects. It isn’t a healthy take on female sexuality at all – there is no empowerment for women in that performance, or in singing a song that glorifies the interchangeability of objectified women for men’s pleasure.” -Kristin Yates Thomas
“I think our society has crafted a script that Miley is just following (as are many of us). It’s a script where someone appeals to children, and then in order to try and broaden that appeal, they resort to incredibly raunchy, provocative, disturbingly over-sexualized performances. In this script, our part as grownups is to be horrified and disturbed, and our teenagers’ part is to be fascinated by the sexuality and enjoy that their parents are so horrified.
I think we need to find ways to get around that script. We need to create an environment where young performers can break into an older market without needing to resort to shock tactics. We need to help teens understand that there are so many other ways to be an grownup performer than these overly sexual tactics… maybe offer them some awesome examples of music stars who appeal to adults in a non-sexual way. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I don’t think it can just be “oh that’s so awful!” because that’s just playing into the script of “child star gone bad” that Miley is intentionally playing, and teenagers are buying.” -Scott Gendel
“I think an important thing to discuss with our kids is what’s the purpose of media. It’s attention to and selling of a brand, message or product. So I would ask what are they attempting to “sell” or bring attention to. Women often times have to try harder to stay in the limelight and constantly push the sexuality boundaries to stay “relevant”. -Angelica Amador
“If I were having this conversation with my kids, I’d talk about how some former child and teen stars introduce raunch into their performance when they reach adulthood, in order to distance themselves from the “child” label that no longer fits them. It has a marketing aspect–telling the world they’re no longer (hopefully) marketing to a child audience, but to an adult audience. A lot of teenagers change their dress and demeanor to show that they’re growing up as well. However, there are classy ways to do this, and ways that make a person (male or female) look foolish. This performance was an excellent example of how to make yourself look foolish.” – Jessica Goeller
“Media is a vehicle. It is how messages and imagery are transmitted publicly when you are not there in person to directly see or hear information, a performance, etc. It is how material flows through video, internet, radio, print, etc. Children can understand that media is a tool for making money as well as transmitting information, and that the people who control media control information and messaging, and make money doing so. Their motives, therefore, are not always pure. They are selling the public something. In the case of Miley’s performance, media is trying to sell music, and also a message about women: that they are valued for their sexuality above their talent, and that they must perform sexuality in order to sell anything else. Miley herself is both used by the media, and a user of the media. She is used in that she has bought into the idea that media ubiquitously promotes about female sexuality being the primary worth of females, and a necessary path to success. She also used media to promote herself, regardless of the message it sends to young fans. Therefore, media literacy is important for children to understand and a skill to be developed–so that they will learn to think critically about the complex relationship between human beings and media. In my opinion, in the case of Miley Cyrus, there is enough blame to go around for everyone–Media, her managers, patriarchy, and Miley herself. But kids need help deconstructing this.” -Lori Day
“I am raising 3 boys to be men and did some thinking on this after breakfast, as I was looking at your page and other posts on line about the performance last night. We don’t have cable now and my husband and I debate whether we ever will. We want to be careful about what our kids are exposed to – but we are also coming from the point of view right now of parents of very young children (ages 1, 2, and 5). We know as they get older we will start to lose some control over what they are exposed to in the media. We try to focus now on teaching them certain values – such as respect for all people. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Hopefully then, when they are older, we can have frank discussions about issues like this. I can’t help but worry about this topic because – holy wow! – how will things be different in 5 and 10 years and how in the heck WILL we talk to our sons about things like this and remain confident that we are giving them the tools to live their lives like gentlemen, with a healthy and realistic view of the world and the ability and confidence to make good decisions and not be afraid to stand by their convictions!” -Shannon Cooper Woodward
“I feel like it would go something like this. “You see those girls up there that are half naked and making very sexual gestures? They are people. The simple fact that they are people means they deserve to be treated with at least the most basic level of respect even if they are not respecting themselves right now. Sometimes respect means not participating in another person’s disrespect of themselves. This could mean trying to quietly take them to the side and talk to them, to let them know that they are worth so much more then the side of themselves they are showing to the world right now; or in the case of things in the media it could mean looking away, closing the magazine, not buying the mp3 etc. etc. If that man up there in the stripes thought that Miley deserved more respect what do you think he could’ve done differently?” -Theresa Costello
“The incident was, to me, very sad – but not so unexpected. Why are we surprised when a 20 year-old young woman sexualizes and objectifies herself for an audience (and to make money)? She’s acting out the messages that our culture has sent her for years. Let’s get angry at the culture that teaches girls and young women that objectifying themselves is okay. It’s not. It’s ironic that this conversation is happening on Women’s Equality Day. The performance last night with Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke was an out and out demonstration of inequality. In honor of Women’s Equality Day, let’s talk about the real issues – and let’s include men and boys in that conversation or there’s no way that we will be able to change our culture and the messages that it sends to both girls and boys about how to behave individually and how to interact with each other.” -Julie Simons