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Tuesday, 27 August 2013

VMAs 2013: Media and Sexuality

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.


  1. It's unfathomable how stupidity continues to elicit genuine discourse but I digress… It’s become a common theme for everyone with a soapbox to use widely viewed events as a jumping off points for their unrelated, but relevant to them, exposés on the trials and tribulations of the modern world. Slut-shaming? Racism? Feminism? Seriously? (We’ll revisit these)

    Our propensity to ignore the past has somehow allowed the soapers to disregard that in 1984 Madonna was using the same literal platform to gyrate around stage in an ironically currently in vogue wedding dress (thanks Pinina), evoking religious imagery, singing about losing one’s virginity, separated in age by only a few years. Miley’s performance wouldn’t have warranted batting an eye lash if we weren’t all so loathingly self involved.

    Somewhere along the never ending tangent of over the top political correctness, it’s become unacceptable to express displeasure with someone’s behavior if it can be vaguely related to female sexuality. Imagine for a second the outrage if Robin came out in assless chaps and a cod piece and began thrusting the teddies. Seriously think about it. What explicit sexual act has the media given him the old boys will be boys pass on? Allowing himself to be Miley’s ass scratching post? Men aren’t immune to disapproving brows, context is important. Consider for a second that Miley was bent over with her tongue out wagging her ass at the crowd before he got there, only to follow up such wholesome behavior with not so subtly fingering herself and preceding to grind against a man 18 years her senior in purposely nude coloured undergarments. Before you chalk it up to a rebel without a cause (clue?), ask yourself why anyone would want to convey such an image. She knows what she’s doing, she’s acting like a ho, it’s ok to acknowledge that. These are not choices anyone would be happy to see their daughter imitating, it’s nauseating hearing the cries that she has a right to self expression.

    Fitting today is the 50th anniversary of “I Have a Dream.” I shudder to think what Mr. King might think of what’s become of his hope that “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” and that he has “a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” The article that you linked vilified Miley for her wanting to adopt “a black sound” and “her use of full figured black women” as back up dancers (I still can’t discern if the article is just a thinly veiled “race card” in its questioning of the ethnicity of award winners and suggesting there’s a correlation). I can’t seem to find an article with such passion when Beyonce “uses” her backup dancers of various ethnicities and genders… Regardless, I wonder if he could have ever imagined we’d get to a point where adoption of “black” culture by whites would be misconstrued as perpetuating racism. There in lines the real question of racism. Jay-z (an often cited black success story) incorporated a shout out to Miley and her moves on his latest record, Juicy-J (with whom she performed) created similar outrage in offering up a $50k scholarship for the best “twerker.” Using this as your race bait is a very slippery slope as even those whose culture the sounds and moves supposedly belongs to seem to find no offense. Speaking of which, when did we get back to things being ok for them and not us? Jesus.

  2. Feminism
    Poor helpless Miley is the latest victim to have been forced by her no doubt male dominated record label to become over sexualized. A sexuality which of course should be her inalienable right lacking coercion. Why can’t anyone wrap their head around the FACT that Miley’s target audience is tween-teen girls. How many males would one expect to have downloaded or purchased a Miley song/album? Looked at a Miley crowd? There’s a large segment of little girls who have no interest in being judged on the content of the character. They’re taking the low road on purpose and that seems tough for people to admit. It’s easy to blame men for this, but the question everyone should be asking is why would females want to used and objectified? If the low cut shirts and yoga pants disappeared tomorrow would there be a spike in celibacy? Miley is using her sexuality as a means to an end. Given the obvious quality (good on you Kelly) of her vocal talents and writing, she’s doing what it takes to remain relevant. There’s no secret that Adel is rather overweight (this shouldn’t start an image debate), wears long black dresses and dominates the charts. The women is a world class, once in a generation talent. Her songs bring tears because she wrote them, based on a common experience of the human condition. To cry foul because Miley acts like a skank and is shunned for it (despite engaging in a long term, monogamous relationship) is just desperate and undermines what Adel is able to accomplish.

    This isn’t controversy; it’s never been about controversy. This is another ham fisted attempt by an entertainer to extend their 15 minutes. Why would the major news outlets rather give this endless run time than talk about chemical weapons being used on civilians in a country that we helped destabilize only to back away and “let the mess sort itself out”? Because we commit endless human travesties on a daily basis and at the end of the day who is really left holding the bag? That’s democracy’s dirtiest little secret. Only 61% of eligible voters chose to do so. Ironically 61% of those that chose to vote didn’t vote for the elected party. Did you vote to sit idly by? Did we even get to?

    You had Marilyn in the 60s, Madonna in the 80’s, Brittney in the 90’s, Gaga in the aughts and miley for the new 10’s. But let’s not let that get in the way of some more opportunistic crocodile tears.