From wardrobe malfunctions to Britney-Madonna make-out sessions, from jerking to twerking to everything in between, Americans are rarely shocked by anything the music industry throws at us anymore. And yet, we felt deeply affronted by Miley Cyrus’ performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, and seemed to be personally scandalized by her Wrecking Ball music video, as if it were the viewer she was licking in her underwear rather than a sledgehammer. Outcry over the implications of Miley’s behavior has ranged from the sexual exploitation and degradation of women on the one hand, to the setback of the entire feminist movement on the other. Add to this debate complaints about cultural appropriation and racism, and it becomes clear that we have actively searched for reasons to be offended by Miley’s newfound persona.
For Sinead O’Connor, Miley’s offense lays in her nudity and sexually suggestive behavior–both onstage and in her music videos–that has allegedly sent a message to women around the world that to be “pimped out” and exploited by the male-dominated music industry is somehow desirable. So it was in the “spirit of motherliness and love” that she wrote an open letter to Cyrus, pleading with her to maintain her artistic integrity and self-respect while she still has any. (ABC News, “Sinead O’Connor Demands Apology From Miley Cyrus” 10.08.13)
Meanwhile, Gloria Steinem took some of the blame off of Miley – placing it instead on a culture that encourages women to “play the game” and surrender to manufactured sexuality – she, like Sinead, however still made her disapproval of Miley’s behavior publicly, and pointedly, known. (Huffington Post, “Gloria Steinem Speaks Out About Miley Cyrus, Ends The Debate Forever” 10.14.13)
But why the sudden backlash over a celebrity’s very public display of sexual liberation? Surely by now we cannot feign shock over the images of half-naked women dancing provocatively on stage and in music videos; the “twerking” dance craze–defined (yes, defined) by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance” – was introduced into mainstream American hip hop culture over twenty years ago by New Orleans-based DJ Jubilee. Popularized since then by backup dancers and superstars alike, hyper-sexualized dancing marketed for public enjoyment has never received a fraction of the protest that has followed Miley around like a cloud of holier-than-thou angel dust.
So if it was not the dance moves that so accosted us–and really, unless we have been living under a rock, they really could not have been–it must have been Miley herself. Was it that we just did not expect this kind of behavior from the innocent little southern girl who had, only a few years earlier, captured our hearts as bubblegum pop star Hannah Montana?
This certainly gets closer to the source of our discomfort, which goes far deeper than we are willing to admit. But if our protests have stemmed from the fact that we simply did not expect such behavior from Miley, wouldn’t our lack of protest to the ‘twerking’ of artists such as Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj imply that from them, we somehow expect it?
Our exaggerated outcry over Miley’s behavior has only accentuated our silence when watching black women behave in virtually the same way, performing the same dance moves that turned Miley into a harlot overnight to a chorus not of slut-shaming or judgment but pursed lips and tacit acceptance. Where was Sinead O’Connor’s open letter to Rihanna or Ciara, or to each and every one of the backup dancers in the performances and music videos of other prominent hip hop artists, feigning concern over their loss of artistic integrity?
The double standard we have internalized is clear, but we have made every effort to mask it as a feminist cause that we apparently only fight in the name of oversexed white girls. The backlash Miley has received cannot be taken at face value; we must confront the true root of our vexation and begin to recognize our own hypocrisy at work.
—Natasha Bertrand ’14 is a political science & philosophy double major.