Sunday, 15 September 2013

Miley and the Virgin/Whore Dynamic

First of all, I have been remiss in posting on this blog recently. This is mostly because I’ve been busy graduating and trying to find a job but also because I haven’t found a subject I’ve wanted to write about enough to feel like the post would be good. I write at my best when I’m passionate about something, or more often, when something pisses me off.

So, to Miley Cyrus.

This isn’t really a post about Miley Cyrus herself. I’m aggressively annoyed every time anything like this happens – someone does something remotely controversial and “news” outlets everywhere keep on writing about it long after the story is dead. I’d love to not write about this, I’d love to live in a society where people don’t care about this kind of thing. But, unfortunately, culture is so often dictated by the masses and the masses care about this, so it becomes important to discuss the real issues in play here.

The majority of the coverage of Miley’s VMAs performance and her new music video has ranged from misogynistic slut shaming to people “genuinely concerned about her welfare”. People seem to either think she’s a harlot or that she’s “going through something” when in reality it’s probably neither. Miley Cyrus is just doing what everyone expects her to do. She’s doing what society wants her to do, being the person society needs her to be for her to stay interesting, stay relevant. All these “think-pieces” about her mental state or whether her performance was “inappropriate” are just reinforcing the virgin/whore dynamic which so insidiously and wholly permeates every aspect of our culture and our society. To be a woman means treading a fine line between these binaries. It means picking and choosing which one would best suit the situation, which one will get you judged the least. Miley spent years playing the virgin as a child star surrounded by sexualised images of women and being prevented from actually coming of age in her own time in order to continue the success of the franchise. She’s not a child star anymore, so what is there left for her to do? What else can she be now other than “the whore”? The public has been objectifying and sexualising her way before it was legal or decent to do so, but now she’s taking that into her own hands, now she’s sexualising herself, now she’s choosing to be naked in a music video or to dance provocatively onstage, now she has agency, the very same people who posted the egregiously creepy and borderline paedophilic “all grown up” articles as soon as she hit 16 are denouncing her for being a slut. Denouncing her for doing the thing they wanted her to do, for being the person they forced her to be.

This isn’t even new. It’s been going on for decades. It happened to Drew Barrymore, it’s the entire reason for the movie Spring Breakers and now it’s happening to Miley Cyrus. Every time a female child star stops being a child she is shunned for becoming too sexual, too wild, too much of a “whore”. Drew Barrymore stopped being Gertie, stopped being the girl the patriarchy wanted to take care of, to protect, and started being a woman, started having power, having agency, and so she was denounced. Miley Cyrus stopped being the wide-eyed country girl and now society has no idea how to handle her. The world is scared of women with power and Miley – rich, famous and only 20 years old – has a hell of a lot of it. So they put her in her place, they dismiss her as a slut, as someone having a breakdown, rather than confront the possibility that perhaps this woman who can and should do exactly as she pleases, is merely playing the game by the rules they invented for her. It’s telling that the words being thrown around about Miley are the two most commonly used insults to dismiss women or to “put them in their place”. Slut- a word with no real meaning intended to shame a woman into hiding her sexuality, or perhaps more accurately, only showing it to the male using the slur – chastises her for owning that which society commodifies anyway. Crazy tells the world that she is not worth paying attention to, that her voice shouldn’t be heard.

This issue is overwhelmingly gendered. Male child stars come of age by taking on a serious role – Daniel Radcliffe in Equus, Josh Peck in The Wackness – whereas female child stars must exhibit their sexuality to mark their transition into adulthood. The attention paid to Lindsay Lohan and more recently to Amanda Bynes, rarely centred on their substance abuse issues or their criminality but instead revelled in stolen upskirt photos and explicit tweets. Society is both fascinated and repulsed by female sexuality, especially that of women in the media whose lives have been public since they were children. It is interesting to note the recurrence of comments akin to “what must Billy Ray think?” in all the talk about Miley Cyrus, the media themselves acting like an overprotective father abhorred by the idea of their “little girl” growing up. In a society where adult women are reduced to their sexuality, how else could Miley show the world she’s no longer Hannah Montana? The world gave her no choice but to trade on her sex appeal and then demonised her for it.

This double standard forced upon women invades every aspect of female life. You are expected to wear make-up but then chastised for trying too hard. You are expected to look “attractive” when you go out but are reprimanded for taking too long to get ready. You are told you must be beautiful but when you make the effort to conform to their ideal, you are ridiculed for your work. Women have too many shoes, too many clothes, too many beauty products but the world tells us time and time again that without those things we are ugly and if we are ugly we are worthless. We are expected to be sexually available for any male who wants us, expected to take street harassment as a compliment and never turn down a come on, but if we adhere to those rules we’re whores who’ll put out for anyone who asks. As Ally Sheedy’s Allison so succinctly puts it in The Breakfast Club “Well, if you say you haven't, you're a prude. If you say you have you're a slut. It's a trap”.

Society fetishizes innocence which is both a linguistic oxymoron and an impossible reality. Catholic school-girl porn, the demonization of female pubic hair and of course the afore-mentioned “all grown up” articles, all make youth, and by association virginity, desirable yet when a woman who society is used to seeing as a girl wields her sexuality like a weapon she is shunned, painted with a red A and assumed to be mad. The camera sexualises women no matter their age. The media asked why Jodie Foster’s parents would let her play a prostitute at 13 but no one questioned the director or the writer for creating a character sexualised so young. Taxi Driver is a classic and Bugsy Malone is still performed in schools. Similarly no one directed their ire towards Robin Thicke, the 36 year old married man writing songs about date rape, using women as objects and simulating anal sex with a 20 year old on stage. No one asked about the VMA directors, or those responsible for putting the show together, no one blamed the guy directing Wrecking Ball. They blamed the woman, and they blamed her for becoming what they all wanted her to be.

Of course there are issues surrounding cultural appropriation and the racism involved in Miley’s VMA performance but I am nowhere near qualified enough to comment on them. These issues however are of course not what the media is focusing on. The world is just yet again punishing a woman for owning the sexuality they define her by and it’s sending a sickening message to women everywhere: your sexuality is not your own, and as soon as you claim it for yourself, as soon as you try to take control of the identity we’ve forced upon you, we’ll hound you for it.