On Sunday night the MTV Video Music Awards were presented, shining a spotlight on American culture. Much has been written about Miley Cyrus joining Robin Thicke onstage for the controversial summer hit "Blurred Lines". I've been busy paying attention to what's going on through social media, television, and online articles written from numerous perspectives. I want to state some things that I thought were relevant, which I'll hopefully do succinctly below.
Instead of trying to explain what happened, I'll leave you with the performance itself so that you can have an unfiltered explanation. There's a lot to take in, that's for sure. The performances were, firstly, absolutely atrocious. I found the singing and dancing to be pretty abysmal, but quality is not the primary focus, not by a longshot. The sexualised nature of the performance has drawn criticism from hundreds of millions of people.
The media reaction has been swift, and it has developed into a massive storm. Social media sites, Twitter in particular, have been inundated with posts about the VMA performance. The mainstream media has gotten in on the action, with CNN (among other guilty parties) privileging the VMA scandal over the developments in Syria where civilians were gassed. Largely, the reactions have been to the effect of slut-shaming. Twitter has been awash with statements condemning the performance and the mainstream media has joyfully jumped in, with some even going so far as to question the sanity of Cyrus. The central arguments seem to be that this was an over-sexualised act marketed to children, and that it is offensive because it is "indecent".
The feminist blogosphere, however, with sites such as Feministing and Jezebel, has countered some of the major discourses coming out of social media, print, and television. They have been quick to hit back that the performance is offensive, but not really for the reasons listed above. While the acts were sexual in nature, the problem, to many, has been the overtones and undertones or race, sexuality and gender.
We live in a society where sex is a significant part of public life. The VMAs, in my opinion, were complicit in normalising behaviour where men and women play oppositional roles and are therefore viewed through radically different lenses. Thicke's actions have not come under scrutiny thus far, and it seems likely that they will not, despite the rather expressly rapey content of his single "Blurred Lines".
I've read some great articles that also highlight the degree to which young female artists break the mould by becoming "rebels" by adopting selected parts from myriad western queer and black cultures. ThinkProgress' Alyssa Rosenberg put it nicely when she said this is common for young peformers who wanted
to "demonstrate a certain kind of rebelliousness, while still remaining
largely acceptable to a mass-market audience" without struggling with the loss privilege that transgressing these lines would entail.
I think that what's missing, from my perspective, is a serious discussion about agency. I
won't pretend to know what's going on behind the scenes or even on stage, but I imagine there's an
intricate balance between the actors we see and the actors we don't see
that produces this type of stuff. Matthew Good sums it up quite well when he states that female child performers
"no longer have access to the machine that made them stars, one so
powerful there is almost nothing comprable in entertainment, so
decisions have to be made". It's no surprise that the trajectory taken Cyrus is a well-travelled road. The larger cultural attitudes
are certainly propagated by young artists, but I'd argue that they are reactions to a culture that
finds it satisfying to observe and an industry that feeds off this system. Again, slut-shaming and talking about sex is more interesting to the average American than a discourse on economic inequality or human rights violations. I believe it's easy for people to have an opinion on something like
this so the volume of participants is high. It helps that this is so controversial that it is no problem to sustain.