Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Miley Cyrus Mans Up

Miley Cyrus has been roundly trashed for her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night.  The Los Angeles Times reports that the media reaction to her hard-core act “veered between disgust and sadness.”  Predictably, conservative commentators condemned Cyrus for her decidedly un-family friendly act.  Even Brooke Shields, guest hosting on the Today show, called the performance “a bit desperate”—tough talk from someone who paved the way for tweeny-bopper sex symbols everywhere as a 14-year-old Calvin Klein model.

Just what was so shocking about Cyrus’ performance anyway?  Sure, she was barely wearing any clothes, but that hardly distinguished her from the crowd (although I’m sure the clam-clad mer-babe Lady Gaga was pretty annoyed being upstaged by a Disney girl).  And the twerking?  That’s hardly the stuff of outrage these days.  But couple those gyrations with a giant foam finger-phallus, and things definitely started to feel weird. 

So was it Cyrus’ show of unbridled female sexuality that caused the problem? That’s the view of feminist commentators who have risen to defend her against a tidal wave of finger-waving slut-shamers. But I’m not so sure.  As much as I believe in defending the right of women to strut their stuff, I’m not convinced that’s what Cyrus’ performance really was about. 

If you ask me, the act wasn’t a declaration of female sexual agency; it was an indictment of male sexual entitlement.  That night, Cyrus let loose a searing parody of dominant masculinity so cocky it made Robyn Thicke’s feel-good porn schtick look downright prim.  In contrast, Cyrus offered a plucky challenge to the status quo assumption that men get to play the role of sexual agents and women accept their role as sexual objects.

Talk about a blurred line.

None of this is to say that Cyrus’ performance is beyond rebuke.  Several commentators have expressed well-founded criticism of the disrespectful deployment of black women’s bodies as mere props in Cyrus’ circus act.   In particular, the now infamous “ass slap” struck many as an unapologetic exploitation of racist stereotypes.  But if Cyrus’ performance that evening is taken as a sendup of dominant masculinity, the positioning of black women in the act reads somewhat differently.  As a male impersonator, Cyrus was enacting—but hardly endorsing—the everyday intertwining of sexism and racism. And that should make us uncomfortable.  But let’s not be content with criticizing the messenger, lest we lose sight of the message. 

Cyrus came to the Video Music Awards and broke the cardinal rule of music videos: sexual exploitation should be sexy.  Instead, she made it icky.  Well, good for her.