Last night Miley Cyrus twerked her way into the national conversation. People who haven’t watched MTV (much less the VMAs) in years are suddenly well-versed in the over-sexualized performance of the former Hanna Montana, as well as her co-performer Robin Thicke.
There has been a predictable backlash against Miley Cyrus. People are rightly claiming she’s in it for the attention. People are worrying about an ensuing Britney-like break with reality. People are doing a fair amount of slut-shaming.
However, when we make this discussion about the personal choices of Miley Cyrus we are missing the point entirely.
Miley matters but not for the reasons you think.
Miley matters because she represents an issue much bigger than the biggest teddy bear on that stage - the objectification of women in our society.
How about a little Women Studies 101 courtesy of Wikipedia?
Sexual objectification is the act of treating a person merely as an instrument of sexual pleasure, making them a "sex object". Objectification more broadly means treating a person as a commodity or an object, without regard to their personality or dignity.
So, when Miley dances near-nude and simulates a sex act on a fully clothed man twice her age, she is being objectified. When Miley herself simulates the act of anilingus on a black woman whose face we never see, that woman is being objectified. When barely clothed women walk around with giant sparkly signs with images of Rolexes, yachts, and champagne, those women are being objectified.
Don't take my word for it. Let Jean Kilbourne school you.
I know what you’re thinking. Those women (particularly Miley) are getting paid. They agreed to dance and gyrate and generally strut their stuff. Why should I care?
Well, because the images we take in matter. They affect us. If you think corporations would spend billions of dollars on marketing they didn’t KNOW would work, you are incredibly naive.
These images teach everyone, especially women, that we are not good enough as we are. Our boobs aren’t big enough. Our hair isn’t long enough. Our skin isn’t clear enough. Our thighs aren’t thin enough. And if they aren’t, we hold no value as sexual beings which is our only source of perceived power ... BUT lucky for us, they have just the procedure or product to help!
However, it's bigger than that. When you stop being a human and start being an object, then what I do to you or how I treat you does not matter.
I understand it is easier to believe media doesn’t affect you. We all want to think of ourselves as independent thinkers not swayed by the flashy images and catchy hooks of modern media. Music in particular is easy to ignore. Anne Helen Petersen has a great piece on the immunity of pop stars and how music covers all manner of sins.
There are dozens of other singers who have committed crimes, cultural or literal, that we ignore. And as much as Cyrus’s performance engenders intelligent conversations about race and sexuality, the fact remains that her song — “We Can’t Stop” — is infectious. Cyrus herself may not understand that the song’s power and poignancy stem from its sadness (someone on Facebook said “it sounds like the funeral music for a young person”), but that infectiousness makes Cyrus, the industrial earner, immune.
All summer long I’ve played Debbie Downer to every enthusiastic endorsement of Robin Thicke, Miley’s cohorts on stage last night, and his summer smash “Blurred Lines.” Over and over again I’ve argued the lyrics are offensive enough (“OK now he was close, tried to domesticate you But you're an animal, baby it's in your nature Just let me liberate you”) but the objectification of women in the video is particularly egregious.
And every time I get the same response, “But it’s such a great song!" or "Well, obviously I don't feel that way about women!" It reminds me of the reaction to racism I posted about earlier this summer. (And p.s. Miley's performance was also MASSIVELY racist.) You don't have to be a member of the KKK to say something racist and you don't have to be earning your wages on the pole to be affected by the objectification of women in media.
Miley might be easy to blame but this is everyone's problem