She's just being Miley: On the VMA scandal of the season

By Kira Dault| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
blog Culture Women Young Adults

OK. Let's talk about Miley Cyrus, shall we?

I'm not of the Miley Cyrus generation. I'm of the Britney Spears generation. And I remember the Britney Spears implosion(s) with the kind of recall usually reserved for national declarations of war or really big hurricanes. I came of age right along side the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, both of which gave us all new and exciting ways to gossip.

That's got me thinking as I come across story after story and internet meme after internet meme regarding Miley Cyrus' now infamous VMA performance. I had not actually watched the performance until last night when, after reading so many excoriating reviews and feeling like I should at least get to know the subject matter, I actually watched the YouTube version of the performance.

The performance itself was baffling and uncomfortable. Between the sad dancing teddy bears and the foam finger, I was mostly confused for the six minutes of airtime.

But by the end, I was waiting for Miley Cyrus to yell to the audience, "Are you not entertained?"

This particular meme comes from the film Gladiator, the 2000 epic drama starring Russell Crowe as a military general-turned-gladiator, Maximus. In the most iconic scene of the film, Maximus, who has grown weary of the bloodlust, decimates the other gladiators in the ring - brutally and swiftly - and then yells to the stunned crowd "Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?" I can just imagine the Roman commoners going back to their homes, clutching their pearls saying, "Oh but that Maximus was just so violent."

Let's leave aside the fact that Cyrus is the topic of conversation, rather than the much older, married man who used her as a prop. Let's also, for the time being, set aside the racial politics that went into the choreography for the performance. Those topics have been covered well enough in other spaces. Suffice it to say - yes. There are sexual and racial politics that were on display during those six minutes.

But here's a little perspective. This performance happened at the MTV Video Music Awards. The VMAs are where Lady Gaga wore her meat dress. Britney Spears kissed Madonna and Madonna kissed Christina Aguilera. And way back in 1984, Madonna rolled (or maybe writhed is the right word) around on stage in a see-through wedding dress singing "Like a virgin."

What I'm saying is Ms. Cyrus had some big--and extraordinarily weird--shoes to fill. The VMAs have traditionally been about shockingly bizarre performances. This does not make Miley Cyrus disturbed. She's just being Miley. She certainly should not be shamed for stepping onto the stage and attempting to meet exactly the expectations that were set up for her by a culture that both over sexualizes and infantalizes women. Yes, Ms. Cyrus has agency and choices, but she was also there to entertain. Sadly, for our current culture, entertainment is equal to these overly and overtly sexualized antics. And on top of that, the VMAs are particularly designed to be shockingly inappropriate.

In other words: Mission accomplished.

Miley Cyrus' performance at the VMAs was shocking, yes. But it was shocking mostly for what it says about us: about the kind of entertainment we expect and consume; about the way we view and understand women; even about how our culture understands sexual and racial relationships. That is shocking, and that should leave us feeling convicted in the knowledge that we are all - on some level - complicit in the exploitative culture that we turn around and criticize with slack-jawed horror.

The rest, as they say, is just entertainment.

Image: Miley Cyrus in 2008, Music4mix CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons