“BREAST. No joking matter. One glimpse on television sufficient to destroy a childhood. (See CHILDREN.)” – Teju Cole
“That… was… something.” – Henry David Thoreau, probably
And little did they know they were talking about Miley Cyrus.
In a few billion years, the sun will burn out, balloon into a red giant, swallow the whole earth, and leave nothing but the dim memory of dust, plus two or three people who are still writing thinkpieces on Miley Cyrus’s 2013 VMAs performance.
I was going to write about how this whole VMA shindig might have gone if a male artist had done something objectionably sexual in a revealing costume, but then it was suggested that I write about something actually possible, like, what if Justin Bieber actually a unicorn? What if Taylor Swift met and befriended a unicorn? What would we do if a unicorn won a VMA? (Would that be cute, or would we be frightened?)
The sensation of writing seriously about the Miley Cyrus VMAs performance is like drowning — almost pleasant once you stop struggling.
First, I think it is essential to establish that we all disapprove not just of Miley’s performance but of any instance of women dancing provocatively – for want of a better word – whatsoever. Those dancers in Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video made our skin crawl. Ditto for the dancers in Justin Timberlake’s “Tunnel Vision” video. Ditto for every performance by a female artist at any point ever, unless she was wearing a sensible sweater and keeping her hips in line. Especially at the Super Bowl. If there is one thing we hate seeing any hint of, it is the female body. We object strenuously to the idea of any woman gyrating. Put on six turtlenecks, lady artist, and then come back here with your music.
We also object to the idea of any man dancing sexily, but that has never happened that we can discover. (Except for Channing Tatum, but he has a special exemption.)
If you’re a male performing artist and you want to appear edgy and sexy, all you have to do is, I think, stand there in a suit. If you are a woman who wants to appear sexy, you can stand there in a suit, but it has to be your birthday suit. Otherwise, you can wear basically nothing (within rounding error) and gyrate (in heels, usually) and then afterwards smile and say that you feel empowered. (To date, only Beyonce has really managed to pull this off.)
In order to insist that you are not trying to be sexy you have to go to seriously bizarre, Lady Gaga lengths, and even then there can be some confusion. But sexy is the default. When men become pop stars, we don’t say, “Wonderful. Now, remove your pants!” But with women — well.
Maybe the reason Miley’s performance was so alarming is because what we are asking her to do is completely ridiculous.
If you read the “Instructions For Grown Disney Artists,” they state quite clearly that, once you turn eighteen, you can either remain wholesome forever or suddenly become really sexy. And the second group pays better.
Our problem with Miley was not that she was dancing sexily, but that it was not sexy enough. It was very sexual without being very sexy. Even the teddy bears were cringing.
“That wasn’t sexy,” people kept saying. “That was alarming.” With the subtext being, I guess, that – had it been sexier, it would have been less alarming?
“We don’t mind it when you sexily appropriate cultural tropes to make yourself appear edgy,” everyone said. “In fact, this is what we reward. It is expected that Disney artists liberate themselves from the Mouse Machine by tearing off all their clothes, emitting a barbaric yawp (or “Dirrrty”) and carrying on in this way for several years until they can settle down as a judge on a reality show. This is perfectly fine. Just – do it in a way that makes it less clear how creepy and weird this request is.”
It’s so very exactly what we wanted that it isn’t what we wanted at all. Instead of sticking her tongue out, she might as well stand in the middle of the arena with bloodied sword screaming, “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?” But the little bit of overdoing ruins the effort. It’s so desperate to please that it fails to please.
And there’s the whole “twerking” problem. I think the case that her cultural appropriation is problematic is a compelling one, and has been made well here and here, to pick just a couple of pieces. I don’t know how much of it is a conscious decision, though. It is always hard to tell. Did she truly intend the appropriation? Was it even her idea? When we say Miley Cyrus, what do we mean? Does Miley exist? (Hannah Montana did not exist. We know this.) How much does Miley exist? When the machine spat her out, what was there?
The image we’ve been presented is of one, as this FunnyOrDie piece pinpoints, of someone who Doesn’t Need Your Approval, Right? This doesn’t seem like a carefully choreographed roll-out. This seems like a young woman discovering herself. But we don’t really know. Who knows what’s in there?
Still, we talk. “How disgusting,” some say. But not for the right reason. Robin Thicke’s mother complained, after Miley twerked nearby, “I was not expecting her to be putting her butt that close to my son… now I can never unsee it.” How dare that horrible 20 year-old take advantage of your grown, married, fully clothed son? My sincerest condolences.
As the sexologist Dr. Jill put it on Tumblr, “If you think a woman in a tan vinyl bra and underwear, grabbing her crotch and grinding up on a dance partner is raunchy, trashy, and offensive but you don’t think her dance partner is raunchy, trashy, or offensive as he sings a song about “blurred” lines of consent and propagating rape culture, then you may want to reevaluate your acceptance of double standards and your belief in stereotypes about how men vs. women “should” and are “allowed” to behave.”
We are shocked, shocked that there is gambling in this establishment. So shocked that now Miley has two iTunes top-ten singles, including, “We Can’t Stop.” Good title. But who can’t stop — Miley? Or the ones who watch? Let’s keep talking.