For the past few weeks, no news forum – paper or electronic – has been free of the rumours of Miley Cyrus’s impending collapse into sexual anarchy. From the gossip pages of The Sun (which is, come to think of it, most of The Sun’s pages) to the more genteel corners of The Guardian blogs, commentators the world over have been chucking in their two cents on the moral conundrum that is Miley.
A few weeks ago, she caused a fit of mass hysteria with her bizarre performance at the VMAs alongside well-known Bad Person Robin Thicke; more recently, she’s been under the spotlight for that bit with the hammer in the video for her latest single ‘Wrecking Ball’. The general consensus is that the 20 year old star’s increasingly blatant sexualised image is a sign of an imminent meltdown à la Lindsay Lohan Behold, the subject of my rage this week.
Widespread popularity is most readily accessible through two roles – desperate sexual wild child, or brave victim.
Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs was undoubtedly a display of pure sexual objectification –a display in which the former Disney superstar appeared enthusiastically complicit. She kicked it all off by popping out of a monstrously oversized teddy bear in a suggestive all-in-one, singing her latest Young People Are Amoral anthem ‘Can’t Stop’. The whole raunchy baby-grow and stuffed animals thing set up an interestingly seedy Lolita note which blossomed into outright sleaze when Cyrus whipped off her skimpy outers to reveal a nude plastic bikini, just as Robin Thicke oozed onstage in a pinstriped suit crooning morally illiterate summer hit ‘Blurred Lines’.
Nearly-naked Cyrus proceeded to ‘twerk’ against Thicke’s crotch while he burbled about the unimportance of sexual consent and the male prerogative to use a woman as an object for his pleasure. She then simulated masturbation with a foam finger. Then there’s ‘Wrecking Ball’: in the recently released video, directed by noted scumbag Terry Richardson, close-ups of a weepy Cyrus singing into camera are interspersed with shots of her dreamily simulating oral sex on a hammer.
I could forgive you for throwing up your hands at this point and sighing ‘What the fuck?’ Many have. Guardian critic Michael Hann voiced the opinion of many when he claimed recently that Cyrus’s new look is an attempt to ditch the squeaky-clean Disney ‘tween’ image that launched her, and embrace a more adult aesthetic. Like many, Hann claims to understand Miley’s motives but lament her methods, claiming that young women in mainstream music have far less damaging options open to them when it comes to rebranding – he holds up Taylor Swift as a shining example of someone who ‘connects with a huge, young audience […] through her songs and her personality, not by turning herself into […] a wank fantasy’.
I think Hann is probably right to say that Miley’s new image represents an attempt to distance herself from her roots – she wouldn’t be the first post-Disney star to use sex, and outrageous sex at that, to put a sizeable gap between her child star days and her adult career. I can’t argue with the fact that Cyrus’s current career path is a dangerous road. Grinding one’s tiny, semi-clothed body against a dim-witted misogynist does not scream ‘confident, enlightened career woman’ – it screams ‘vulnerable, inexperienced child’. Her recent antics are degrading, objectifying, offensively shallow, exploitive of herself and others. But there are several things about the Cyrus debacle that need interrogating further.
For a start, too few people in the mainstream press are pointing the foam finger at Thicke and Richardson. Cyrus was undoubtedly a major agent in both the VMAs and ‘Wrecking Ball’, but she wasn’t acting alone, and neither Thicke nor Richardson is getting quite as much stick for being just as blatantly sexual (unsurprising, given how widely ‘Blurred Lines’ has been embraced). See also the jocularity with which Tyler the Creator was branded a ‘legend’ for tweeting on Selena Gomez’s 18th birthday that the ex-Disney star, also carefully constructing a newly sexual image, was now ‘old enough to take [my] dick in her fucking ass’. I hate what that says about our attitudes to women’s sexuality vs men’s. I hate how a sexual man is being a man, but a sexual woman – especially a young one – is disgusting.
Secondly, Michael Hann and countless others piously insist that Miley’s new image is her ‘choice’, and that there are other, better options open to her. I won’t attempt to argue that she was coerced into that nude bikini. Instead, I want to look at these other ‘options’. Hann holds up Taylor Swift as a role model for young stars, but if Miley Cyrus is a sexual stereotype, Swift has crystallised into a role hardly less rigid – she’s the perpetual dumpee, the girl wounded and left behind by men, the bleeding sweetheart whose whole career is founded on winning, then losing, love. Isn’t that also a kind of objectification? Being a love object is arguably only a romanticised version of being a sex object. Even Demi Lovato, another Disney star, tends to build her image and cement her huge and loyal fanbase around the role of damaged but resilient survivor.
Why is it that, for young women in mainstream music, widespread popularity is most readily accessible through two roles – desperate sexual wild child, or brave victim – which imply a state of dependency? Of exploitation, past or present, by others? I’m not claiming these are the only roles female musicians occupy – but I am claiming that they exert a dangerously potent influence. They are still images which the most popular young females in mainstream music feel the need to reach for as they attempt to build their careers. They are still the roles young women gravitate towards, and the roles the public responds to.
Before we castigate Miley Cyrus for being a wild child, a nympho, a slut, I think we need to turn that disappointed gaze back on ourselves. We need to look long and hard at a society where our talented young women are forced into the role of exploited bodies – whores, spurned lovers, victims of abuse – to gain our attention. We need to ask why their exploitation churns out our gossip, fuels our downloads, and spurs our Twitter follows faster than their voices or their lyrics do.