Missing the Point: Miley Cyrus, Sexualization, and Hyperscrutiny
January 5, 2010
So, I’m a little late to the party because I don’t keep up with celebrity news/gossip/whatever, or Miley Cyrus’s new music, but while procrastinating on my work I ran across yet another criticism of Miley Cyrus’s growing sexualization that made me think.
While she’s being compared to Britney and Lohan etc for going from innocent to sexual, it feels like it’s a more common thing than that–Alyson Hannigan goes from a desexualized Willow in seasons 1 & 2 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to American Pie , and Sarah Michelle Gellar goes from sexual-but-innocent Buffy to Cruel Intentions, and even more extreme, Billie Piper goes from Rose on Doctor Who to Secret Diary of a Callgirl…It seems like all the young women I know from “light” (as opposed to dark) TV shows go on to play their polar opposite immediately.
It seems like the discourse is all about Miley and whether she’s being inappropriate, liberated, or victimized, when it ought to be clear that there’s a larger pattern at work. … Wouldn’t it be more productive to think about the fetishization of ‘corrupting the virgin’? Miley’s kind of just a cog in the wheel, and it doesn’t really matter whether she’s doing it for herself or doing it because that’s what the biz wants. Whether she’s breaking free of a restrictive role or being forced into one (or both), our culture seems to have a fascination with this moment both positive and negative, that makes it impossible to see outside these polarized terms… It seems more productive to ask what cultural anxieties get played out in the endless analysis of her actions, to reflect upon the trope of “soiling the unsoiled” what the fetishization of this moment says about gender and sexuality with respect to the viewer. Aren’t these three responses–the protectionism of “she’s being exploited by the media!,” the slut-shaming (and protectionism) of “she’s being inappropriate, trashy, & a bad role-model!,” and the bribe of sexual power (that doesn’t live up to the hype) to women who sexualize themselves implicit in the presumption that she is claiming her sexual power–standard actions of Patriarchy? Don’t they all share in objectification by mass consumption of (obsession with) sexualized images (either erotically or to protest them)?
This round of criticism seems *especially* weird in that it misses the mark so badly. Her roundly condemned “pole dancing” is actually done within an explicit critique of how women’s dress is hyperscrutinized. She (sort of kind of I guess a little) pole danced performing her song “Party in the USA” at the Teen Choice Awards back in August. But these are the lyrics she sings as she gets to the pole & drops her hips and soon afterwards:
Get to the club in my taxi cab
Everybody’s looking at me now [the line on which she drops her hips]
Like “Who’s that chick that’s rockin’ kicks
She gotta be from out of town.”
So hard with my girls not around me
It’s definitely not a Nashville party
‘Cause all I see are stilettos
I guess I never got the memo
And she gets off the ice cream pole cart when she gets her confidence back because the song she likes comes on, she stops feeling so self-conscious and like she’s the subject of intense scrutiny. That is to say, being at the pole and hypersexualized is being portrayed as a position of weakness and vulnerability, not power–even though there were a bunch of men dancing below her (a clear critique of the previously mentioned ‘promise of sexual power’). Similarly, during the bridge section of the music video, she appears to be trapped on a swing in a birdcage–a pre-existing metaphor for being simultaneously trapped by and admired through through beauty and dress standards–and she is trapped there by women more scantily clad and thinner than her/the rest of the characters in the video (though they do join her in the confident section afterwards, Miley gets, literally, on solid ground, and when she’s still in the swing, the camera angle de-emphasizes the vulnerability/hypervisibility/precariousness of that position). And sure, you could say, it’s a mixed message–it’s weakness and vulnerability in the moment doing something she wants to be doing, that ought to be fun and then becomes fun, and her dress and movements are still sexualized during the part where she is feeling confident as well (but both less and differently so, sharper and with more implied confidence)–but that’s precisely the point. The song works because it captures both her confidence in and enjoyment of her own dress and sexualization, and the ways it can facilitate her marginalization and makes her hypervisible.
Way to miss the point, protectionists. Apart from some weird and off-putting nationalistic messages, it’s actually a pretty smart video/performance.
EDIT: Title change for clarity.
EDIT2: Lyrics correction. Teach me to use a lyrics site without double checking it.