Miley Cyrus is, like, literally unavoidable right now. Kind of like a giant Wrecking Ball coming at you with a naked girl writhing on top. Just as we’d finally stopped talking about Cyrus’ vulgar, racially questionable, plush-animal-violating VMA performance, her MTV documentary, Miley: The Movement, aired. Cyrus took some flak in the weeks before the film’s premiere for comments she makes in this clip from the doc about her VMA stunt, accusing us, the audience, of being the real problem with her performance. She told her unseen interviewer, “They’re over thinking it. You’re thinking about it more than I thought about it when I did it.” Then in another clip from the same exact interview, she counters that notion by saying, “I’m not just some mess. This is all thought out in my mind.”
So which is it? Is Cyrus a sleepy record industry drone whose budding, Shakespearean sexuality is being exploited by older, manipulative male handlers in a way that hints at child porn to the tune of culturally-appropriated language, beats and style? Or is she a young but empowered female entrepreneur firmly in charge of her subversive-yet-apathetic bad girl/ratchet image who owns her sexuality and is being unduly slut-shamed?
Frankly, it’s hard to say. I don’t think anyone can really answer that question honestly or with enough subtlety to encompass the whole truth. Not even Cyrus. But I’ll take a stab here and say I think the answer is: both.
I don’t doubt that Cyrus is, as Joanna Coles, the editor of Cosmo, surmises in an interview with The New York Times, “having a whale of a time” these days. Cyrus doesn’t look particularly victimized — most of the time — as she uses her tongue as a flag firmly planted grotesquely on her cheek to let the world know she is the proud Queen of Raunchtown. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Cyrus is purposely using sex to sell things (gasp!) — like her music — even if selling sex has become the primary goal and music sales are reduced to a happy by-product, which is what Katy Waldman suggested today on Slate has happened to the “singer.” Perhaps right now Cyrus cares more about being an entertainer than a musician, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. After all, she is 20. She is having fun. If her recent antics prove anything, it’s that she’s entertaining enough to get people to pay attention. But that does not mean what she’s doing with her body these days is good, either morally or in terms of quality. Cyrus isn’t trying to be good right now, though. She’s just happy she can “finally be the bad bitch” she is.
I’m no puritan; I enjoy sex, I enjoy talking and writing about sex and sexuality, I have even been known to use a dash of ballsy broad sex appeal in videos and live performance, and I have certainly thrown around the word bitch more times than I could count. Yet I still think it’s entirely fair for me to look critically at the work Cyrus is currently putting out and ask whether or not it is coming from a place of empowerment. Not because Cyrus is a role model or has a responsibility to the girls who grew up watching her as Hannah Montana. Frankly, as much as I understand that pop culture is pervasive and has a way of seeping through the cracks to touch even the most sheltered of children, I also agree that parents are capable of teaching their children morality and self-respect without the help of starlets. No, I reserve the right to examine Cyrus’ work as a fellow artist, as a woman, and as a member of the society we both live in.
Because Cyrus has made it clear that she, too, is now a woman, I can let her know as an equal that I’m concerned with how cavalier and glib she is about posing as an adult baby as she did in a recent photo shoot with Terry Richardson, with the thumb of one hand in her mouth and the digits of her other hand curled up into her crotch, as if to say, “Please objectify and violate me sexually. I want you to.” Cyrus has the privilege to pose like that without the threat of physical reaction, because she’s always surrounded by her team of her people. For the rest of us, the world doesn’t work that way, but she doesn’t seem to care that other women don’t walk around surrounded by body guards and protected from the type of violence incited by images like these, because having grown up a star, she probably can’t even conceive of what normal life is like. She’s willingly objectifying herself in a way that some want to consider a challenge to the establishment, but how can one challenge something one can’t even understand? Cyrus has been a living exception her whole life, and yet we’re crediting her with “breaking all the rules?”
Do Cyrus’ antics offend me because I’m a mother, like Sinead O’Connor, who possesses some instinctual desire to protect young girls from the abuses of this world such as the penetrating sting of the male gaze, the hurtful narcissistic “love” men who objectify women use to gratify their selfish desires and the horror of sexual and physical assault? Probably, yes, at least partially. But it’s also because I’m a female artist, too, and as an artist and communicator, I have come to understand that intention is everything. That’s why some comedians can “get away with” edgy material and others can’t. Clever comedians know that subversion only works universally when it clearly uses taboo language or ideas to unify and empower. The teller’s intent, energy and privilege is as much on display in a joke as anything spoken, thanks to the magic of non-verbal communication. The same is true when it comes to the issue of female sexuality. Sometimes being sexual or nude is empowering, sometimes it isn’t.
One way you can reliably tell whether an artist is doing something empowering is by asking yourself, the viewer, if you feel empowered by it. When I see someone like New York cabaret star Bridget Everett on display, bouncing her boobs in the audience’s face, I feel extraordinarily empowered, as well as entertained, and not just because Everett is a self-proclaimed “big girl” like me, though that does help, since being fat and sexual is subversive. Inversely, it’s not that Cyrus’ nudity isn’t empowering because it’s not subversive. Lady Gaga’s body also aligns with the cultural beauty standard, and her nudity feels empowering because she intends it to. Gaga’s intent is to unify and empower her audience to love and accept themselves. Cyrus is banking on the fact that exploiting her culturally approved naked body will make her money. That’s it. She doesn’t care about anything else except being the bad bitch that she is. And I suppose that’s fine, but let’s be clear: she and her team are the only people that are benefiting from her nudity. The rest of us, it could be argued, are suffering from it.