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Twerk Heard ‘Round the World: Miley Cyrus VMA Goes Too Far

How does a feminist make sense of Cyrus and how is it related to desensitization

It was the Twerk seen all around the world—or at minimum all of social media was a-Twitter after 20-year old Miley Cyrus’ wildly provocative performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards (VMAs). I cringe to even refer to it as “provocative,” because in truth, pornographic is a better word for it. The barely legal Cyrus was grabbing her pelvic area, dropping her ass in all kinds of directions, simulating having sex with a foam finger, and twerking up a storm in Robin Thicke’s nether regions—all as a distraction, I presume, for the real truth her and her handlers were trying to hide for the entirety of her “musical” number—namely, that this girl has zero musical talent.

Is it just me or are the rest of you tired of seeing young women like Cyrus actively playing a role in objectifying themselves to gain more popularity? I mean, can anyone imagine a songstress like Adele ripping off her outfit mid-ballad to reveal a nude bra and panty ensemble? Is this what popular culture has reduced us to, spectators to the next sensational meltdown or nipple reveal that then catapults the next person lacking in legitimate talent or depth into celebrity status (albeit temporarily, until something even more ridiculous starts trending)?

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I don’t have a problem with Miley Cyrus personally, she is free to do as she pleases, and it looks as if she is having a good time doing it—but unfortunately, popular culture does not exist in a vacuum. There are real effects—subtle, implicit, and then more direct or explicit—that come from living in an era of ubiquitous media where women’s bodies and personas continue to be objectified at every turn. And hey, this isn’t pre-feminism, so women and girls are often times actively or deliberately playing a role in their own objectification. Let’s face it, it wasn’t Thicke who was twerking or ripping off his pinstriped suit to reveal a pair of nude boxers or briefs on stage for millions of viewers to see—the only barely clad person on stage was a girl, and yes, I use the term girl, because Cyrus is still more girl than woman.

After the missing Ohio women and girls were rescued and Ariel Castro was charged with kidnapping and multiple counts of rape, I read a searing editorial. When reflecting on how these types of atrocities against women and young girls still continue to exist in America, the writer blamed, in part, what she referred to as the pornification of our culture that contributes to creating a value system within this society that degrades and undermines women and their humanity. Such a value system enables the types of atrocities Castro’s victims had to endure for over a decade to happen and offers for perpetrators a justification for their persistent and violent violation of their female victims. We need to promote values within our culture that cultivate not only equality between the sexes but that also raises awareness that women’s purpose and position within the culture is greater than the sum of their body parts or how they can serve to satiate or gratify men.

Perhaps Cyrus and others see her performance as an embodiment of female power or prowess—that often touted “girl power” mantra that our younger generations of girls are socialized with. If anything, though, this performance was a subversion of such a mantra. I would argue that Cyrus’ VMA performance was not indicative of feminist prowess or triumph so much as it resembled recycled and scripted performances from the past, but magnified or escalated in content because the “shock value” barometer keeps on getting higher and higher.

What can a female performer with marginal musical talent do at the VMAs to still “shock” or make headlines when Britney Spears’ past performances have already covered it all (Strip down to what looks like nothing but turns out to be a nude costume underneath—check. French kiss a woman on stage, and Madonna at that—check. Gyrate on stage with a snake coiled around bare shoulders and neck—check)? This process of constantly “upping” the ante and escalating the level of graphic content that we are exposed to as consumers is a direct byproduct of the process of desensitization. Spectators develop tolerance for graphic content so that for performers to remain relevant or “shocking”, they constantly have to one up the last performance. At some point, simulating sex on stage or even taking off virtually all of one’s clothes may not be enough—and then where will pop culture lead us?

Hey, how’s this for shocking? What about if the next female performer on stage keeps her clothes on, and lets her voice/talent sing for itself? In this era, now that would be truly shocking.

Copyright 2013 Azadeh Aalai

 

Azadeh Aalai, PhD, is a Tenure-Track, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Queensborough Community College in New York.

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