Miley Cyrus, twerking, and the 'sexual hazing' of American pop stars
The vision of Miley Cyrus twerking on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards might have caused outrage, but such performances have become a rite of passage for young female artists.
Miley Cyrus twerked her way into a cultural maelstrom Sunday, after her tongue-wagging sexual prancing at MTV’s Video Music Awards made her the talk of nearly everyone with an Internet connection.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Yet even as millions of viewers continue to watch and rewatch her VMA performance on YouTube – there have been more than 7 million hits since Sunday night – Ms. Cyrus may have uncovered more than her flesh-colored bikini costume, laying bare as much about contemporary culture as about the young artist herself.
It's a clash straight from the pages of Sigmund Freud: a deeply-rooted desire to gaze on sexual images – of women in particular – while at the same time cluck-clucking about the moral standards of the female performing. This moral ambivalence has become part of what some scholars call a well-rehearsed pop ritual: A female pop star comes of age by becoming an exaggerated sexual caricature, exploiting the moral controversy her performance generates for financial gain. In other words, sex always sells, in the end.
Cyrus’s performance was, in many ways, one of the most explicit and raunchy performances ever seen on MTV – and that is saying a great deal. Coming onstage first in a small, skin-tight leotard, Cyrus performed her summer hit “We Can’t Stop,” a song that celebrates “twerking,” the name for a hip-hop-inspired club dance in which a woman bounces her hips up and down to emphasize her derrière.
She was then joined by Robin Thicke, an R&B artist whose smash hit “Blurred Lines” has also generated controversy this summer, since its video includes nude models dancing around fully dressed men, who sing “I hate these blurred lines; I know you want it, but you’re a good girl.” Cyrus danced and twerked and used a foam “No. 1” finger prop to simulate a variety of lewd acts on Mr. Thicke.
Her performance has obviously tweaked a cultural nerve. The gape-inducing spectacle even made pop stars – no strangers to push-it-to-the-edge performances, to be sure – bulge their eyes and cover their mouths. And many of them joined groups like the Parents Television Council and other conservative leaders to condemn the former Disney superstar.
But Cyrus is certainly not the first pop singer to provoke controversy at the VMAs. In fact, the annual award show has become known as a kind of debutante’s ball marking the end of a female star’s age of innocence.
Madonna removed parts of her white wedding dress costume and writhed on the VMA stage singing “Like a Virgin” almost 30 years ago. Britney Spears invoked Madonna in her 2001 performance of “I’m a Slave 4 U,” dancing suggestively with a live albino Burmese python – and leaving her schoolgirl outfits behind.
And both performers shocked VMA audiences in another allusion to Madonna’s 1984 performance, when the Material Girl herself dressed as a top-hatted groom and “married” Ms. Spears and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 show – the lasting image being an iconic and explicit kiss between Madonna and Spears.
“On one hand, it is a rite of passage for young women in the popular entertainment industry,” says Gordon Coonfield, professor of media studies at Villanova University in Philadelphia and an expert on pop culture. “Some big event gets co-opted by a salacious performance that pushes the bounds of propriety. This is followed by a reaction phase in which images and talk of the event go viral. More buzz is generated by a completely predictable backlash of moral outrage.”