You've heard all about Miley Cyrus' VMA performance. Now, what do our reactions to her say about us?
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Miley Cyrus’ Video Music Awards performance of her draggy new single “We Can’t Stop”—highlighted by her grinding on Robin Thicke, playing with racial stereotypes, and lolling her tongue in a way that suggested some sort of nodding off—dominated this week’s pop-culture discourse. Thanks to the titillation provided both by the performance and the various shades of outrage it provoked, reactions to it spanned the entire emotional gamut. But the most curious came from people thinking that Cyrus’ attempt to bust out of the little-girl frame was anything new—not only for the former Hannah Montana herself, but also for female pop stars in general.
It’s already been five years since Cyrus‚ now 20‚ first tried to break free of her TV-G-rated image: In 2008, she posed for Annie Leibovitz in a Vanity Fair photo spread that included a shot of her wrapped in a sheet in a manner that suggested toplessness, and in 2010 she pole-danced in her video for “Can’t Be Tamed.” If Hannah Montana was all about Cyrus’s character living a double life as a pop star and a regular kid, these moves suggested a third identity‚ one of a young woman desperately wanting out—and using the Disney standards and practices department’s most taboo subject, sex, to break her proverbial chains. The video for “We Can’t Stop,” the first single from her forthcoming album Bangerz, pops with imagery that fancies itself sexually surreal, although the artistic statement it ultimately makes is little more than “look at me.”
Yet people‚ including those of you who clicked on this piece’s headline‚ heed her call. The American attitude toward sex is paradoxical. Thanks to the continued cultural dominance of the male gaze‚ the assumption that women exist first to be looked at, and second to do whatever else it is they’re meant to be doing, this attitude often traps young women in the limelight. Acting “sexy”—whether through wearing increasingly provocative clothing or raunchy Tweeting or scandalously using a foam finger on stage— is a surefire way to get featured on the news and in gossip pages, which revel in building young women up for the express purpose of tearing them down.
Jay-Z referenced her attempts at twerking on his recent album Magna Carta Holy Grail, and a galaxy of lesser stars have lined up behind him to draw attention to themselves by invoking the image of her shaking her behind. Cyrus has become the summer of 2013’s equivalent of Don DeLillo’s most photographed barn in America: Even if people hadn’t seen her popping her behind with their own eyes, they knew it happened and that other people had seen it, and were ready to comment on not just the movement, but what that movement meant for culture.
Cyrus is hardly the first female pop star to assert her independence by flaunting her sexual side. Britney Spears’s protestations of being “not that innocent” in “Ooops!… I Did It Again” were accompanied by a Video Music Awards striptease in 2000. In 2001, Christina Aguilera took Spears’ nude bodysuit a step further, cross-promoting the raunchy Redman collaboration “Dirrrty” with a more-controversial-than-intended video and interviews where she talked about below-the-belt piercings and thrown-glass therapy. She wanted to drop the double-entendres of “Genie in a Bottle” and, instead, act overtly sexual. But while the titillation worked—heads swung toward her—not all of the reactions were positive.
In a Saturday Night Live skit sending up the video, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Aguilera pushes for the video to up its “skanky” quotient and confesses her dreams of being seen as an “actual ho.” (It even references “plushies,” which mirrors the teddy bears dotting Cyrus’s Video Music Awards performance.) Since 2002, the media world has multiplied, and the split-second equivalents of a Saturday Night Live skit—the Tweet, the animated GIF—increase the possibility for the reaction to any pop-culture phenomenon to take on a mocking tone. And female sexuality that’s brazenly offered up is especially ripe for mockery, even when it’s free of attempts to play around with racial stereotypes. It simultaneously flips the script to make the woman the aggressor and makes her more exposed to the cruel judgments of others.
The backlash is such a natural part of these news cycles that Cyrus’ post-VMA forays into social media seemed almost planned in advance. After Sunday’s performance, Cyrus tweeted a photo of herself giving double middle fingers. A few days later, she quoted her dad as saying that he probably would have “twerked,” too, had the practice been popular during his heyday. (Which isn’t too far of a stretch, given the line dancing he spawned in the early ‘90s.) The latter declaration in particular inverts the traditional rebellion cycle—”Well, the finger-wagging pundits on TV hate it, but my dad approves!”—in a way similar to the performance’s smushing-together of stuffed bears and butt-wiggling. Thanks to today’s social-media circus, Cyrus has the ability to respond in ways that former pop girls–grown-up like Spears and Aguilera didn’t, allowing her to take ownership of her antics even off the stage.
Will what comes after the Labor Day weekend temper America’s outrage? To take it back to Aguilera, the clamorous “Dirrrty” had a soft landing on the charts despite the outsized attention paid to it, and Aguilera’s label quickly released the proto-It Gets Better anthem “Beautiful” to follow it up. “We Can’t Stop,” which Cyrus performed at the VMAs, is a bit more in tune with the times sonically (thanks to its producer, Mike WiLL Made It). And its outré, meme-ready video means that it’s only been helped on the charts by Billboard’s counting of YouTube streams toward the Hot 100.
But the day of the VMAs, Cyrus released “Wrecking Ball,” a heartbroken ballad from Bangerz. So perhaps her coming-of-age in the pop eye isn’t much different after all. Whether or not the new single will eventually draw some of the attention away from her VMA performance is still unknown, but the timing of its release could be seen as a setup for Cyrus to eventually, publicly assert that a real person exists underneath the tongue-wagging and ass-slapping—and that she’s more of a grown woman than the Hannah Montana merchandise bearing her name could ever suggest.
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