Twerk it, girl: some thoughts on America’s Miley Cyrus-induced moral aneurism

So, the internet absolutely lost its morally outraged shit this week. Miley Cyrus performed at some big music award show and apparently broke every single taboo left in the whole world, invented a few more we’d never heard of, and then broke those too. Accusations of moral laxness and mental illness abound. There’s a hilarious photo of the Pinkett-Smith clan dying of shock. The guardians of girlish innocence are circulating petitions of various sorts.

I finally watched the video today, but I already knew what the problem is. It’s really not that outrageous in the way people are claiming it is. She doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen a million times before. She sexy dances, and simulates sex, and is scantily clad. Or, let me put this another way: Have any of you assholes attacking her heard of Madonna, Britney Spears, Christina Aguielera, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, or Lady Gaga? Because if you have, then you know very fucking well that Miley Cyrus performed a fairly tame version of any number of performances, live or otherwise, by these singers.

Actually, Cyrus did one thing different and this is what’s really making people mad: She didn’t, in this performance, appear to be taking her sexualization seriously. She strutted and gyrated and did all the sexy things her more successful pop-tarty peers do, but she did so sporting an alternately silly and parodic facial expression. That girl hammed shit up. She never once looked like she was actually feeling sexy. She presented, if you know what I mean, but didn’t look submissive; she looked like she was mugging for the camera, which she was. Madonna, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, etc perform sexual arousal, sexual submission, sexual desire; Miley Cyrus appeared always to be self-consciously making fun of such performativity. She made fun of her squeaky clean past as a child star at the very same time that she made fun of the kind of pop tart people think she’s trying to be.

Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke making sweet comedy.
Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke making sweet satire.

People aren’t outraged because she was being too sexy–there’s nothing sexy about either pretending to have a onesome with a big number-one-fan foam finger or twerking on a scary clown. They were outraged because she challenged their notions about girls and women as either, only, innocents or whores. She made the arbiters of moral cleanliness and sexual shame feel powerless because it was obvious that she just didn’t give a shit. And that might give young ladies deciding what narrow box to try to squeeze themselves into ideas, and we can’t bloody well have that.

What tipped things off for me that Miley Cyrus was offending people’s sense of control and definition, not their sense of propriety, was the lumping together of immorality with mental illness, specifically an eating disorder. I don’t know if she has an eating disorder; yes, she’s thin, but she’s also 20ish and she’s never been big. She might just be 20, or she might have an eating disorder. That’s beside the point. This is the point: all this screeching about mental unwellness is just another way to try to undermine and distract from the profound nose-thumbing this performance represents. One sure way to get people to stop thinking about the message is to insist that the messenger isn’t right in the head.

If there were any real concern for Miley Cyrus’s mental health, and this wasn’t just an entirely transparent attempt to distract from the implications of her performance, the media wouldn’t be using it as proof of how disgusting she is. Or, to put it another way: If any of you fuckers going after her for being too thin gave an actual shit about such things, you would have noticed by now that Lady Gaga clearly does have an eating disorder–please to note the way she starves herself down to half of nothing for her videos and shortly afterwards appears in what is probably her real shape at things like the VMAs (where, of course, she’d again forgotten to wear pants. But forgetting to wear underoos is much less offensive than Miley Cyrus pulling funny faces while grinding in the general direction of the creepy offspring of Alan Thicke).

In case you really don’t know that Cyrus is kind of funny and weird and not taking this stuff (entirely) seriously, there’s this video of her, from at least 6 months ago, twerking while wearing a unicorn onesie.

How dare this young lady take aim at all your sacred hypocrisies! You’d better get a petition against parody going while you’re busy making the world a better place with other petitions about Miley Cyrus, drawn up while you enjoy the dulcet tones of Rihanna and Lady Gaga; who else is going to make sure that growing girls never think of either laughing or making fun of things?

15 Comments Add yours

  1. Sylvia says:

    BRAVO! You nailed it, and made me laugh out loud. You should submit this piece to the National Post or some other paper because it needs a wide circulation.

    1. Colleen says:

      I think the NP might not like my liberal use of swear words; they might take it as both a lack of moral probity and evidence of mental illness and/or an eating disorder!

    2. Colleen says:

      John Doyle in the Globe and Mail turns out to have written something sensible about this on Tuesday:

    3. zejee says:

      I agree completely. I only vaguely heard of Miley Cyrus, until now. I watched the video and thought it was funny. I liked her youthful energy and humor. She looked like she was having fun. I found this website because i thought, “Am I the only one who liked the video.” I think the outrageous comments are so hypocritical, and I can’t take them seriously.
      I’m 68, female.

      1. Colleen says:

        Well, I’m not sure anyone here likes the video exactly–well, I won’t speak for anyone else, I don’t think it’s good. It’s just not all that interesting or naughty, I think, which is why the apoplexy it’s brought on is so annoying/interesting.

  2. Just now watched it.
    An even better parody — if that’s in fact what Miley was doing —
    Would have been to have performed well.
    Lord, her vocals bite.
    Some of her movements were OK.
    But minus the soft cuddly bears dancing in the back,
    And the performance loses interest, fast.
    Cheers, K

    1. Colleen says:

      Well, we can’t all be Jonathan Swift.

      No, she’s not a good singer, I agree. But it’s not her singing that is bothering people and it’s not singing that makes any of these pop tarts famous anyway.

  3. heidenkind says:

    At the very least it’s given us plenty of internet memes.

    1. Colleen says:

      And we definitely need more of those. 🙂

  4. Stefanie says:

    Thank you for this! That so many have been so surprised and so, how dare she! and going on about how the children watching are now all morally ruined and stripped of their innocence is outrageous BS. That is is even news is what is most outrageous.

    1. Colleen says:

      Agree completely.

  5. andrew says:

    I was so ready to completely agree with your points here Colleen, until I read this article:

    …on the misappropriation of black female body-types…now I don’t know what the hell to think, because this woman makes a really convincing argument that Miley is being thoughtlessly racist!

    1. Colleen says:

      That is a compelling article; thanks for sharing. I think it’s possible that Miley Cyrus intended all the things I suggest she intended AND is thoughtlessly racist. What that says, I think, is something (something sadly common) about how we (humans generally) seem only to be able to challenge one form of injustice at a time, and so end up re-asserting others; I’m thinking of how Frederick Douglass tried to get racial and gender equality moving in partnership but the white women of the latter movement wouldn’t go for it.

      This sort of single-mindedness is a serious problem in the vegan community, for example, because the proclaimed compassion for animals doesn’t seem to be making any headway against the movement’s rampant sexism. Not that I think the suffering of women in the vegan community is, historically or in any other way, on par with what black women in N. America suffer/have suffered! But that a long view of history seems to show us, humans, shutting our thinking brains down once we’ve got one sort of new or enlightened or even vaguely enlightened idea going. Sigh.

  6. litlove says:

    What an interesting article and take on a very silly situation. I just thought when I saw it that it wasn’t a particularly inspired performance, but reframing that as parody works for me. I do wonder why the greater culture can’t stand for shades and nuances and has to push everything into the black and white. I’ll bet all the kids watching Miley Cirus had an altogether more sophisticated, real, laid back and unbothered understanding of it. I also think that the media has taught us that little is more satisfying than feeling morally outraged. It is so pleasant to think other people are shockingly wrong and never look to our own mistakes, foolish, failed attempts, misdirections, and misunderstandings. Morality, like charity, really ought to begin at home. Hands up who didn’t do something morally dubious and badly thought-through in their teens…?

    1. Colleen says:

      Here, here! If I were Christian, something about casting the first stone would go nicely here.

      I wish I knew any teenagers at all so that I could ask them for their opinion on this; I have no doubt the response would be different from that of most adults, either morally outraged or appalled by the outrage.

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