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.
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But the ritual comes at a cost to society's view of femininity, Professor Coonfield says. “Cyrus comes of age under the public eye. And the only kind of womanhood that public seems to permit these young people is that of a grotesquely exaggerated femininity, one that is hyper-sexualized and one that demands and relishes their humiliation.”Skip to next paragraph
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It’s the kind of blurred lines that pop songs have long celebrated – think of Billy Joel’s 1977 hit “Only the Good Die Young,” in which the singer tries to coax a “good” Catholic girl to give up her virtue. But once she does, she becomes an object of scorn.
“Our cultural ambivalence towards women shows up every day in the form of the sexual double standard,” says Kathleen Bogle, professor of sociology at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “But periodically our cultural angst goes public when we react to Madonna, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus or whoever the flavor of the month is at that time. What all these women have in common is finding a formula that simultaneously outrages the public while filling their personal bank accounts.”
So the double standard is caught up in an economic matrix that bestows riches and fame on those pop stars who can cleverly play on these cultural ambivalences, creating another layer, often unseen, to the moral outrage on display now toward Cyrus.
“Miley Cyrus is exploited because she’s a young woman who’s only valued sexually, but at the same time she’s representative of an exploiting group, because she’s a white person who’s essentially using African-American cultural output to amplify her own money and power. And Madonna was similar in some ways,” says Aram Sinnreich, professor of media studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and an expert on the intersection of music and social networking.
“But that’s part of what makes her so compelling and so interesting,” Professor Sinnreich adds. “You don’t know whether she’s the exploiter or the exploited.... She's straddling all those dichotomous positions at once, which maximizes the tension, which ultimately maximizes the marketing value."
Yet Cyrus went beyond the typical Madonna-Britney-Christina template for the coming-out pop ritual for young female artists. And this may also explain some of the vehemence of those now condemning her. With her cropped hair and her appropriation of twerking – commonly seen as an underground club dance by black women – Cyrus touched even more cultural ambivalences.
“Rather than donning the typical tropes of sexy femaleness – blond hair, tight dress – Miley was almost grotesque, with her teddy-bear leotard and ever-present tongue,” says Alice Marwick, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York. “While she was dressed skimpily and groped her co-star Robin Thicke and her backup dancers, this type of aggressive sexuality doesn't fit the mold.”
“In both her VMAs performance and the 'We Can't Stop' video, Miley appropriates urban black culture ... to try to distance herself from her former Disney roots – but also her roots in red-state country music,” says Professor Marwick.
In the end, however, this pop ritual is reserved for young women.
“Justin Timberlake didn't have to endure this kind of sexual hazing to become a serious adult male artist,” says Coonfield at Villanova. “And can you imagine Justin Bieber engaging in a humiliating, hyper-sexualized display like this in order to transition from boy pop to artist?”
“It is convenient to blame the tabloid press,” he says. “But ... we participate by taking pleasure in this ritual. So while it may be tempting to blame Cyrus, or her handlers, or MTV, this really goes much deeper.”