By now, you will have seen or at least read about Miley Cyrus’s provocative performance at yesterday’s VMAs. The former Disney star is the most talked-about person on the internet today, as bloggers share photos and GIFs of her fondling her crotch and twerking up on Robin Thicke, and write hand-wringing editorials pondering where it all went so very wrong for the poor lamb. Of course, this was the idea all along. Cyrus’s performance did not just happen spontaneously; it was carefully planned and executed, and its success counted on one crucial truth: that mainstream media and internet commenters love shaming and discrediting women who behave in a sexualised manner.
Everyone has a take on the song and dance routine, from gossip blogs like Gawker right through to respectable news outlets like CNN, who would never normally sully their front page with a pop star like Cyrus. Local outlets News Limited and Yahoo are presently engaged in an arms race to see who can be the most outraged, while the crew on The Project devoted a fair chunk of last night’s episode to smirking and moralising about the incident. The question of race also came up – specifically, Cyrus’s appropriation of black culture in an attempt to ‘sex up’ her formerly squeaky clean image.
Twitter users, of course, chimed in on the performance in their own mature and articulate fashion: competing to see who could come up with the most colourful way to use the word ‘whore’ in a sentence.
While the overall tone of the response is that young Ms Cyrus should be very ashamed for flaunting her sexuality so blatantly, and should probably be sent to bed without any supper, there are several distinct narratives emerging.
‘Miley Cyrus Is Disgusting’
A sense of outrage and disgust hangs over much of the commentary around Cyrus, ‘how dare she flaunt it like that?’ being the typical reaction. “We can’t un-see what we’ve just seen, but oh how we wish we could,” began one fairly typical Yahoo editorial on the subject. Most outlets chose to illustrate this sense of disgust and dismay by showing audience reaction shots from the VMAs ceremony. One commonly-used image shows Drake averting his eyes from the spectacle in ‘gentlemanly’ fashion, while another features Rihanna giving side-eye as the members of One Direction leer behind her.
The most widely-shared image, however, is one of Will Smith and his family, their jaws hanging open in various states of shock and disbelief as they observe the performance – E! News went with this particular image as their money shot. MTV have since clarified that the photo was actually taken earlier in the night, during Lady Gaga’s performance, but nobody is letting that get in the way of a good outrage.
In twerking all over the stage, simulating masturbation with a foam finger and doing other varied sexualised things, Cyrus is not behaving as proper young women are supposed to. The clear implication behind these pictures of Smith and family recoiling in open-mouthed horror is that any right-thinking family person would be outraged by such a wanton display, because sex is dirty and should be kept under wraps.
‘Miley Cyrus Ruined My Childhood’
Claiming that the actions of former child stars can somehow retroactively ‘ruin’ entire childhoods is a popular internet pastime. When former Disney star Raven-Symoné came out earlier this month, various dismayed fans took to Twitter to bemoan how this had somehow sullied their childhood experiences of watching That’s So Raven. Here’s the thing, though: nobody, not even lesbians, can travel back in time and destroy your happy childhood memories, and if you think any different, then you should probably be asking yourself some serious questions about how you manage to function as an adult.
Needless to say, after yesterday’s VMAs performance, ‘Miley Cyrus ruined my childhood’ became a popular Twitter refrain. The implication being that the emergence of Cyrus as a sexualised adult can somehow irrevocably sully an entire generation’s memories of her fresh-faced, well-scrubbed Hannah Montana character. This in itself is farcical, but it also leads to one of the more troubling aspects of the discussion. Namely:
‘Miley Cyrus Is A Slut’
Very few people (outside of Twitter) have come out and used that word, of course, but the implication is coded right there into every article. “The singer, whose song ‘We Don’t Stop’ [sic] includes drug references, seems to have finally shaken off her Hannah Montana wig and become an ‘adult star’”, began another Yahoo editorial. “And by adult star, we mean a scantily clad, twerking girl who shocked the audience (and TV viewers) with her crotch-grabbing, bump-and-grind performance alongside fellow singer Robin Thicke.”
No, you don’t. By ‘adult star’, you mean ‘slut’.
The same Yahoo piece lamented the disappearance of the ‘good girl’ of old: the Disney starlet who was ‘nowhere to be seen’ after the VMAs. The distinction here is also pretty clear. The innocent, virginal Miley Cyrus is no more, irrevocably damaged and broken in the wake of such an open display of sexuality. “While the singer has been keen to shed her teen sweetheart image, we’d like to think there are other ways of doing it,” said News Limited, helpfully reminding us all that women are allowed to be sexual, but not too sexual, lest they cross over into slut territory.
‘Miley Cyrus Scarred My Kids For Life’
Mere hours after Cyrus’s performance, the Parents Television Council had made their displeasure known to MTV. They drafted a complaint, posted yesterday on their website, which accused the network of displaying “adults-only material to children while falsely manipulating the content rating to make parents think the content was safe for their children.” They went on to ping MTV for “marketing sexually charged messages to young children using former child stars.” Any complaint from the PTC should be taken with a grain of salt, as they are notorious for spamming the FCC with complaints, and have been called “literally terrible human beings” by none other than Seth MacFarlane. But at least they didn’t call Cyrus a whore.
‘Miley Cyrus Is A Racist’
Though the bulk of the internet stuck to slut-shaming Miley Cyrus, a few took her to task for being racist. Vulture’s Jody Rosen referred to her performance as a “minstrel show”, and accused Cyrus of cynically appropriating elements of black culture — specifically that of ratchett/Dirty South — in order to project a more adult image. Flavorwire’s Tom Hawking called bullshit on this assertion. The argument went back and forth in the comments section of both pieces, and yet somehow, in the aftermath of a six-minute Miley Cyrus performance, the complex issue of racism in America remains unresolved.
‘Miley Cyrus Is Dead To Me’
Judging by the comments under the video for Miley Cyrus’s cover of ‘Jolene’ last year – a song originally performer by her godmother Dolly Parton – the fans themselves are not totally sold on her new direction.
“Who kidnapped her??” asks the wonderfully-named Ben Dover. “Where is the talented woman in this video???I want this Miley back. You can keep the craptastically awful imposter that is using her name now and making a fool of herself.”
A user named kesselhut1989 adds: “we will never forget you “this miley”, may you rest in peace…”
Whether fans are upset about the newly-sexualised Miley of the VMAs or the more urban sound of ‘We Can’t Stop’ is unclear. It’s probably a bit of both, but the discussion reminds me of the time, on Season 12 of American Idol, when the judging panel was rendered speechless in the presence of a young, white woman from rural New Jersey who performed in both the country AND hip hop genres. The young contestant in question sang what I think was a Taylor Swift tune, then followed it up with the rap from Nicki Minaj’s ‘Superbass’, and the judges lost their minds. It seemed bizarre to them that a regular kid might draw on two such different genres, apparently not realising that the current generation grew up surrounded by all these influences and more, and will mash them up however they damn well please.
‘I Don’t Care About Miley Cyrus’
Yes you do, or you wouldn’t have read this far.
It seems bizarre that a former Disney star-turned-twerking pop singer should find herself as the focal point of such intense debate about feminism and race, but here we find ourselves.
I’ll leave you with this, the cover art for what may well become the most talked-about album of the year, Miley Cyrus’s forthcoming release, Bangerz. The internet is a weird place.
Alasdair Duncan is an author, freelance writer and video game-lover who has had work published in Crikey, The Drum, The Brag, Beat, Rip It Up, The Music Network, Rave Magazine, AXN Cult and Star Observer.