I had a hard time committing to this topic. Has it been written about too much? Is it old news? Is it a waste of brain cells? Does Miley really need any more attention? Even harder than bringing myself to settle on Miley’s Video Music Awards performance, however, was thinking of a more culturally relevant, more salient example of the construction of sexuality and American moral panic. I didn’t choose Miley. Miley chose me.
It’s no secret that sex sells. All of our media outlets are clogged with sexual objectification and scantily clad, segmented women. You would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of advertisements that don’t cater directly to the male gaze, even for distinctly un-sexy products. American lives are filled with sexual imagery—billboards, television commercials, magazines and newspapers, product packaging, you name it. So why then is it so shocking when a teenage pop star named Miley Cyrus flaunts her sexuality at the MTV VMAs, a production more or less synonymous with mainstream, sexualized commercial culture? Cyrus’ performance of her single “We Can’t Stop” was a perfect storm of sexual archetypes that conflict with American narratives of what’s good, pure, and acceptable for Cyrus’ stereotyped identities—young, white, rich, and female. Cyrus’ behavior isn’t the reason that Twitter’s servers had the most intense workout of their lives, it’s our societal expectations, puritanical notions of sexuality, and patriarchy that are to blame.
One of the biggest factors involved in many moral panics is American society’s fear of childhood sexuality. Logically and scientifically, there’s neither reason nor evidence to show that children are asexual. In fact, anyone who spends time around kids knows that very young children masturbate, often publicly, because they do not yet understand our socially constructed shame around sexuality. Despite these facts, the cultural narrative about the purity of youth—especially young girls—persists. Due to Cyrus’ history as a Disney channel superstar, she continues to be associated with children and youth culture despite her best efforts to push away from Hannah Montana and “childhood innocence”. Moral panic is built on the idea of one bad, horny apple spoiling the whole bunch. Thus, Cyrus’ “impurity” is not isolated nor is her sexuality her own. On primetime television, performed by someone who was once a children’s icon, Cyrus’ sexual agency is a threat to the socially constructed sanctity and purity of American (female) youth at large.
Due to her age (20 years) and her feminine identity, it is troubling to our social norms of sex, gender, and sexuality for Cyrus to be so unapologetic and assertive in her sexual agency. Cyrus is clearly not interested in representing her sexuality as private, adult, or procreative. She also is not interested in assuming the passive, feminine role expected of young women. In her VMA performance, she acted as the initiator and aggressor, gyrating on Robin Thicke, slapping black women’s asses (more on that later), and even suggesting that she is perfectly capable of autoeroticism, using a foam finger as a sexual object more often than other humans. In other words, she is shattering every aspect of the purity myth. Her performance left no doubts that Cyrus has a sex drive, is unashamed of her body, doesn’t want anyone’s “protection” from the big, bad, sexual world, and doesn’t care if you call her a slut.
Not only is Cyrus a young woman, she’s a young white woman. This aspect of her intersectional identity is absolutely vital to understanding why one 20-year-old girl can send the entire country into a morally outraged tizzy in under five minutes. In American culture, women of color have a long history of being hypersexualized and objectified. Cyrus herself perpetuates this when she uses black bodies as props in her “We Can’t Stop” music video as well as the VMA performance in question. In contrast, as the privileged and therefore normalized class, white sex is seen as more pure, more vanilla, and more natural. White girls are given the benefit of the doubt. They are presumed to be innocent. Therefore, when someone like Cyrus (read: rich, white) blatantly disregards that assumption, it is far more shocking than whatever Nicki Minaj or Azealia Banks may be doing to assert their sexualities because, as black women, they are already perceived as hypersexual. Cyrus’ gender performance has led many writers, musicians, and the tweeting masses to accuse her of “acting black.” This does not say anything about Cyrus’ racial identity or sexuality so much as it speaks volumes about the sexualized archetypes for black women in America.
One way to look at the socially constructed understandings of sexuality that led to the post-VMAs moral panic is to look at who did not cause a stir. For one thing, no one seemed remotely shocked, nor did they even seem to notice, the hypersexualized black women that danced in sync with Cyrus, often performing exactly the same moves, except when Cyrus was slapping them. Also, the man who was in almost all of the pictures and almost none of the commentary, the Hottest Misogynist of the Summer 2013, Robin Thicke. Looking at Thicke’s actions this summer and on stage at the VMAs is a prime example of the sexual double standard for men and women. Thicke’s smash hit single “Blurred Lines” is far more sexual in nature than Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop”. Where Cyrus sings about partying and dancing, Thicke sings about the “blurred lines” of consent and glorifies the domestication of women. Thicke unapologetically contributes to and justifies rape culture and no one bats an eye. In fact, we commend him on his catchy beats and savvy sampling. Miley Cyrus asserts her own sexual agency and CNN makes it its cover story. This, in a word, is patriarchy.
Though it takes two to tango, as the saying goes, sex and power belong to heterosexual men in American society. (Hetero)sexual aggression is as essential to hegemonic masculinity as passivity is to ideal femininity. Robin Thicke was not chastised for being hypersexual and predatory in his “Blurred Lines” video as Cyrus was in her “We Can’t Stop” video because these are traits that are expected of male gender performance. Cyrus came under fire for precisely the same behavior, but her gender performance was exactly the opposite of what is expected of a young woman. Masculinity, if performed successfully, is a role of dominance, power, and control. The same things that make masculinity so powerful, however, simultaneously make it precarious and in need of constant reinforcement. The reason that Cyrus’ VMA performance caused a widespread moral panic is not because of her own sexual agency or moral corruption. It is because in her assertion of her own sexual dominance and her disregard for set gender roles threaten to upset existing systems of dominance and oppression. By vigorously and publicly slut-shaming Cyrus, American media and the morally outraged citizens of Facebook and Twitter are reinforcing their patriarchal values and sending a warning to girls who might be tempted to follow Cyrus’ lead. The message is clear: step outside your box, and be ridiculed, shamed, and disrespected.
Miley Cyrus continues to be a hot topic of conversation, fueled in part by this week’s release of her music video for “Wrecking Ball” which features the starlet nude and licking a sledgehammer. She doesn’t have to do much—a couple music videos and one five-minute performance do not a movement make—to start an outright moral panic in our hair-trigger social climate. While “Wrecking Ball” is a far cry from feminism, Cyrus is challenging the constructed notions of gender roles and leaning into the snarling face of a slut-shaming culture. One has to wonder, is Cyrus’ post-feminist utilization of the male gaze and self-objectification progressive? Is her apparent enjoyment of patriarchal moral outrage empowering? Her public persona has certainly gotten people talking, but until the dialogue of shock, horror, and slut-shaming is combined with and counteracted by a feminist curiosity, our rigid rules for gender and sexuality are not going to budge.