There is a power that teenage and adult women in our culture experience when they appear “dirty,” “naughty,” rebellious or even pornographic. Miley Cyrus has perhaps taken this reality to the absurd in her recent video Wrecking Ball. The video came out this week and set a new, all-time record for the most viewed video in any 24-hour period. At the time of this writing, the video has 1,969,353 hits on Youtube.
Watching Wrecking Ball, it is plain to see Miley is not being coy. She is unequivocally signing on for her own self-objectification in exchange for recognition and, perhaps, millions of dollars.
The juxtaposition of Miley swinging around, almost gracefully, in the nude, on a wrecking ball, while licking a sledgehammer, embodies the kind of naughty and nice pseudo-power that is directly marketed to teenage girls in popular culture. As she sings about a lost relationship and her destructive ways, her tears of sadness appear all the sweeter when contrasted with such a hard, construction-site vibe. The idea being sold is that it is okay and even sexy to be emotionally vulnerable if it is paired with a tough, porn-like, edge.
These kinds of images of girls being overtly sexual all the while soft and tender underneath are administered to girls on a regular basis. And, these are the images that young teens absorb and may use to define for themselves what it means to be sexual and how to go about appearing sexual.
The tough girl, willing-to-do-anything façade is, of course, associated with attracting the attention of men. As she sings her self-incriminating lyrics, Miley plays the character of a girl who might wreck a guy’s life but he won’t mind because she is so hot. Of course, this rebellious sort of “girl power” is about self-promotion and attention not actually helping girls to truly feel empowered.
How those girls who applauded Miley when she played the chaste role of Hanna Montana for Disney interpret her new behavior is important for them and for the people who care about them. Telling teenagers that Cyrus is immature and selling herself short may not be a welcome message for teens who admire her as a rebel. And too, that sort of declaration tends to cutoff honest discussion.
Listen to the lyrics and watch these kinds of videos with your teenage daughters without judgment—after all, you can’t avoid them entirely. Work to elicit and understand your daughter’s thoughts and opinions about what she is seeing. In some of my talks with girls this week, many are embarrassed and horrified for Miley. For others, there is an edgy, rebellion that is appealing because it seems to open a door for them to a certain kind of power.
As you hear your daughter’s perspective, consider asking her if she thinks Miley appears ‘sexy’ and what does sexy mean to her? Observe how Miley is paired with certain images and appears to be willing to do anything, is there something sexy in that? Point out how pairing sexy and destructive attracts attention and, at times, male desire. It is understandable if this attention feels alluring and appealingly powerful, but point out examples of how it is almost always short-lived and culminates in feeling powerless.
Open a dialogue and work to notice together when a girl or woman is exemplifying real power or a kind of trumped up, pseudo, ‘girl,’ power. For instance, identify other successful, female singers who have not taken this route. Explore and find examples of edgy and sexy media that are not tinged with female objectification (sexy songs, movies, books…examples do exist).
Point out the important difference between appearing very sexual and actually enjoying sexual experiences. The ‘dirty’ and rebellious persona does not necessarily translate into a woman who has more enjoyable sexual experiences. Feeling comfortable in one’s skin, fully bringing oneself to the table, developing one’s talents, knowing one’s body, developing meaningful emotional relationships with sexual partners is the path to enjoyable sexual experiences for most women.
Jill P. Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships. Click here to follow Jill on Facebook or here to follow Jill on Twitter @DrJillWeber