It’s time to put Miley Cyrus in perspective. At 21, her pockets shed money, Los Angeles’ phantasmagorical cultural landscape is her stomping ground, and photographers chronicle her every facial expression. For guidance, Miley can look to Britney Spears’ erratic behavior and spectacular collapse; Lindsay Lohan’s allegedly drug-fueled spiral; Amanda Bynes vicious twitter attacks and incoherent ramblings. Given such a bewilderingly high-octane milieu, Miley’s coming of age antics seem relatively mild. The girl cut her hair, rubbed her ass against a married man, danced with African-American backup dancers, and posed for some sexy photos. She sticks out her tongue a lot. Her engagement fell through.
So why are we all so angry? Why do we judge and scold? And why, of all people, is Sinead O’Connor weighing in?
One of many who objected to Miley’s VMA performance, O’Connor wrote to Miley, “You will obscure your talent by allowing yourself to be pimped, whether it’s the music business or yourself doing the pimping. It is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent.” I’d rather lick a sledgehammer than take advice from Sinead O’Connor (Remember that time she made a big to-do about being a lesbian for five minutes before marrying a dude and posting to her website: “For now though, as you will appreciate, it’s a bit of a ‘Can’t. Talk. Cock. In. Mouth. Situation.’”?). Still, the woman makes a solid point.
But again, let’s consider context. It’s a shame that Miley’s journey from girlhood to maturity isn’t strewn with vision quests and menstrual huts, but the fact is, for a girl in our culture, growing up means growing sexier (and perhaps talking about sucking cock on her website?). I don’t argue that getting naked and gyrating is empowering, but for someone like Miley, g-strings and stripper poles are the tropes and trappings of adulthood. Of course she could choose to throw on a loose plaid shirt and go read a book, but be honest, if you had the body, the money, the pulpit, you might take off your pants for Jason Seaver’s son too. In addition, though Miley has chosen to bare her body, her sexuality is neither passive nor traditional. That punk, platinum hair, that photo-hungry tongue—Miley’s more drag queen than stripper; performing gender and sexuality with irreverence and spunk.
I won’t go as far as to call Miley’s gender performance intentional. She’s not sitting home reading Judith Butler or choosing an anarchy symbol for her next tattoo. Still, as a millennial woman, Miley’s exploration of her sexuality is maybe incrementally more authoritative than her predecessors. For example, a parent hasn’t strapped down her breasts, fed her some speed and sent her to work like a teenage Judy Garland, nor has a manager gussied her up in a schoolgirl uniform like Britney Spears.
In fact, Miley seems to make her own choices, however imperfect. In the last year, she’s hired a new manager, left her record label, joined forces with will.i.am and proven her vocal abilities with a kick-in-the-gut cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Miley may not be marching on Washington, but she’s absorbed some feminist values. She’s at least gravitating toward more powerful actions and imagery.
Yet, is it sad to consider Miley a feminist success story, embodiment of years of hard, political work? Maybe by 2013 we’d hoped to have launched an army of Ani Difrancos, all combat boots and cultural critique. But just like we need cultural outliers, we also require mainstream examples who fit in well enough to gain popularity, yet retain the ability to question the system within which they operate.
And Miley’s no slouch when it comes to cultural critique. “No one is talking about the man behind the ass,” Miley says of her VMA performance. “’It was a lot of ‘Miley twerks on Robin Thicke,’ but never, ‘Robin Thicke grinds up on Miley.’ They’re only talking about the one that bent over. So obviously there’s a double standard.”
Though that quote isn’t as T-shirt-ready as “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” Miley’s ability to pinpoint the sexism inherent in responses to her performance is nonetheless feminist. Her take on the racial implications of what went down at the VMAs is similarly offhand yet informed. In response to the accusation that she appropriated twerking, common in black culture, and chose African-American backup dancers for their cool factor, Miley told Rolling Stone, “I don’t keep my producers or dancers around ’cause it makes me look cool. Those aren’t my ‘accessories.’ I’m from one of the wealthiest counties in America,” she continued. “I know what I am. But I also know what I like to listen to. Look at any 20-year-old white girl right now–that’s what they’re listening to at the club. It’s 2013. The gays are getting married, we’re all collaborating. I would never think about the color of my dancers.”
Likely Miley is missing a cultural implication or two, but her response once again speaks to the subtle legacy of activist movements. Society may not be changing as much or as quickly as we’d like, but why not view Miley’s casual absorption of values like inclusion through a positive lens? Miley could do worse than to rebel via vocal support of gay rights and overt acknowledgment of the influence of African-American culture. She may function within the establishment but she does so slyly, a cultural double agent, capable of subverting what she’s absorbed.
So maybe twerking is the new, (less confusing) tearing up a picture of the Pope. Or as Miley herself puts it, “Times are changing. There’s a generation or two left, and then it’s gonna be a whole new world.”