Miley Cyrus twerked. I had to look up the word since my indefatigable spell checker had no idea what I meant. I discovered from Wikipedia that twerking “involves a person, usually a woman, shaking her hips in an up-and-down bouncing motion, causing the dancer to shake, ‘wobble’ and ‘jiggle.’ ” That’s precisely what Cyrus did at the recent MTV Video Music Awards, for which she has been amply and justifiably criticized. She’s a cheap act, no doubt about it, but for me her performance was an opportunity to discuss one of the summer’s most arresting pieces of journalism — a long New Yorker account of what became known as the Steubenville Rape. Cyrus should read it.
The first thing you should know about the so-called Steubenville Rape is that this was not a rape involving intercourse. The next thing you should know is that there weren’t many young men involved — just two were convicted. The next thing you should know is that just about everything you do know about the case from TV and the Internet was wrong. One medium fed the other, a vicious circle of rumor, innuendo and just plain lies. It made for marvelous television.
The New Yorker piece was done by Ariel Levy, a gifted writer. When I finished her story, I felt somewhat disconcerted — unhappily immersed in a teenage culture that was stupid, dirty and so incredibly and obliviously misogynistic that I felt like a visitor to a foreign country. That country, such as it is, exists on the Internet — in e-mails and tweets and Facebook, which formed itself into a digital lynch mob that demanded the arrest of the innocent for a crime — gang rape — that had not been committed. It also turned the victim into a reviled public figure, her name and picture (passed out, drunk) available with a Google query.
And yet what indisputably did happen is troubling enough. A teenage girl, stone-drunk, was stripped and manhandled. She was photographed and the picture passed around. Obviously, she was sexually mistreated. And while many people knew about all of this, no one did anything about it. The girl was dehumanized. As Levy put it, “[T]he teens seemed largely unaware that they’d been involved in a crime.” She quoted the Jefferson County prosecutor, Jane Hanlin: “ ‘They don’t think that what they’ve seen is a rape in the classic sense. And if you were to interview a thousand teen-agers before this case started and said, “Is it illegal to take a video of another teenager naked?,” I would be astonished if you could find even one who said yes.’ ”
Illegal is sort of beside the point. Right, proper, nice, respectful, decent — you choose the word — is more apt. This is what got me: a teenage culture that was brutal and unfeeling, that treated the young woman as dirt. “ ‘She’s deader than O.J.’s wife. She’s deader than Caylee Anthony,’ ” one kid exulted in a YouTube posting. “ ‘They raped her harder than that cop raped Marsellus Wallace in “Pulp Fiction.”. . . She is so raped right now.’ ” Yes, I know, they were all drunk, woozy and disoriented from a tawdry cable TV and celebrity culture.
You could compare what happened in Steubenville, Ohio, to the notorious 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, 28, who was stabbed many times while her horrified neighbors in Queens, N.Y., allegedly watched and did nothing. Maybe. But the neighbors were scared or confused, not sure of what was happening. They were not taking pictures and having a jolly good time — and, besides, subsequent reporting greatly reduced the number of inert witnesses from an astounding 38 to far fewer (maybe none) who heard screams and did not actually see the killing. This was an urban legend that arose out of fear of urban living.
So now back to Miley Cyrus and her twerking. I run the risk of old-fogeyness for suggesting the girl’s a tasteless twit — especially that bit with the foam finger. (Look it up, if you must.) But let me also suggest that acts such as hers not only objectify women but debase them. They encourage a teenage culture that has set the women’s movement back on its heels. What is being celebrated is not sexuality but sexual exploitation, a mean casualness that deprives intimacy of all intimacy. Cyrus taught me a word. Now let me teach her one: She’s a twerk.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.