What Miley Cyrus's VMA Performance Taught Me About Giving BirthCarolyn Castiglia
First things first: I did not watch the VMAs last night. A bunch of people I know who are on the MTV shows Guy Code, Girl Code and Nikki and Sara Live actually got to go to the VMAs, and while I’m happy for them and I’m totally gonna let them finish, I just didn’t feel compelled to watch the show on TV and live-tweet it like I have with so many awards shows in the past. I’m sure the scene at the Barclays Center was bangin’, and I feel like I could feel the excited vibes rushing down 5th Ave. in Brooklyn all the way to my house, but I had a show at 8 and I enjoyed a pre-show barbeque with some of my oldest friends (and our children!) instead. It was a beautiful evening, and I woke up this morning feeling really relaxed as a result of it.
But then I logged on to Facebook. And critiques of Miley Cyrus’s twerk-filled performance littered my feed. There were photos of her bending over in front of someone dressed like Beetlejuice. (I realize now that’s a Photoshopped Robin Thicke, but it was disturbing enough that I didn’t want to do the research required to find out. Side note: Nothing blurred about the lines on your suit, by the way, Robin. They conjured the perfect inmate imagery that should go along with grinding behind a girl half your age.) Except for the photo accompanying this post, I haven’t seen or heard anything belonging to Miley’s new ratchet-infused catalogue, and I really don’t want to. I feel like I’m old enough at this point to put my foot down with pop culture and say, “I don’t need to know everything about you in order to be relevant!”
I did end up engaging in an interesting conversation about body ownership and female bodily autonomy as a result of Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance, though, and for that I thank her. It started when my friend and fellow comedian Katrin Hier posted this status update:
If any of you got to witness my trying, awkward, and over-the-top sexuality at age 20 you wouldn’t be so shocked. We send mixed messages to our girls: BE SEXY OR YOU ARE WORTHLESS. HOLD ON, DON’T BE SEXY OR YOU’RE A WHORE-CHILD. Either way we’re looked down upon. Here’s a thought: LEAVE US ALONE TO BE WHATEVER KIND OF WOMAN OR GIRL OR PERSON WE WANT TO BE WITHOUT YOU JUDGING US.
I responded that I’d been thinking about the same sort of thing, and that though I never acted out sexually at Miley’s age, I get it. I wrote, “I was more of a private dancer …. That’s why I played Doatsey Mae – the waitress who wants to be a stripper – in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a perfect show for college students.” Doatsey Mae’s lyrics are all about wanting to be like the prostitutes at Miss Mona’s, but feeling like she can’t be because she’s “plain as gray, respectable.” As Katrin insinuated in her post, you’re screwed as a woman either way. If you’re sexy, you’re a slut. If you’re respectable, you’re a prude, and probably ugly, too. How men feel about you is what dictates your sexuality and your worth, and you’re worthless either way. Virgin-whore complex, lady in the streets freak in the sheets blah blah blah. I have had this same conversation with friends about these same dynamics so many times. (Related: check out this very funny quiz to find out if you’re slutty or empowered!)
I’ve been thinking about female objectification and body possession a lot lately. I realized that even as a woman who is not the epitome of “pretty” or “sexy,” I have still been cut up into pieces in the same ways we all are, and not just by the men I have been with, but by my parents, too. I was just thinking this morning as I was walking back from the deli that the way my mother treated me as a possession (as so many parents of her generation/socioeconomic background did) definitely set me up for feeling like I had to gain approval from everyone and be something, anything, whatever it might have been, for the benefit of everyone else, and with no idea that I actually had a self. This reflection was about the physicality of it all. The way my mother implicitly and explicitly told me, “Your body is mine.” That’s a really scary, awful thing to teach a child. I feel like most of us women learn that, if not from our parents, from our lovers and/or the culture at large.
The good news is, I’m going through this period within myself where I have decided that I own my body. That I am solely in charge of my body and myself and that I can do whatever or not do whatever I want with it. It’s pretty fun and very tender to grow into this ownership of myself physically now. I really enjoy it. It started a year ago, unbeknownst to me at the time, when I decided to stop having sex. This year of sleeping alone -—and not feeling like I needed to not sleep alone — has been healing and empowering for me, mostly because it gave me time to reflect on all the years that other people were in charge of my body. During the past two plus years that I’ve been going to therapy, I realized that my overarching goal with it is to heal myself of all of the trauma I’ve experienced in my life, from being hit and yanked around by my mom to dating men who were rough with me emotionally, physically or both. I wanted to get everybody else’s hands out of my body. I didn’t have the exact words for it before now really, but that’s what I wanted to do. I was hoping to get to a place where the residue of all of that physical and spiritual manhandling would drift out of me, floating up and away and dissipating out into the ether, dissolving into harmlessness as it was subsumed by Universal Energy of a Higher Order. I wanted to get everyone’s hands off of me and the memory of their hands out of me, out of my beautiful little trauma brain so that I could think clearly, feel clearly, and finally experience Real Love.
And so today, as a result of all of these ideas that have been kicking around in me for a while, I realized to what extent my body and my self has belonged to everyone else (Tori Amos, anyone?) when I connected the dots between Miley Cyrus twerking and the story of how I gave birth to my daughter. I was rapidly approaching my due date and didn’t show any signs of labor, so my doctor talked to me about the possibility of being induced. I agreed to schedule an induction, because I told my doctor that my mother was coming the day after my due date, and I knew that she would be mad if she flew all the way down to New York City to help me with a baby that hadn’t been born yet. Let’s just sit with that for a minute, okay? I was 28 years old, I’d been married for three years already, so by all accounts I was a “woman.” And yet, I was so not in possession of my own body — a body that for nine or so months had been growing another life inside of it — that I felt like I had to give birth on someone else’s time table. I had to produce life in a timely fashion in order to make my mother happy. I owned my body enough to give life from it and didn’t own my body enough to allow nature to take its course, just like Miley Cyrus owns her body enough to be sexually empowered and is also acting like a fool because she feels like she has to be sexual in order to be accepted. In order to be relevant. Twerking on somebody else’s time table. Or so it seems.
Luckily for Miley, there’s a chance that one day within the next ten years she’ll come to realize that you don’t have to be anywhere near the VMAs in order to be relevant. Furthermore, you can touch or not touch or be touched or not be touched as it feels right and good, knowing that only you are in charge of yourself and that you are the only person you’re in charge of. Growing in my bodily autonomy and honoring my bodily integrity has been such a wonderfully delightful process for me, and I have so enjoyed all the feelings sweet and tender it has brought into my life. To borrow a phrase from the ghost of MTV past, I’ve found my tender Roni and the Roni is so right, I think I’m gonna love her for the rest of my life.