After watching from the sidelines for the past few days, I’ve decided to wade into the fracas over Miley Cyrus’ performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. As shocked as some people allegedly were about Cyrus’ stage antics I’ve been much more surprised by the staggering amount of blog posts, tweets, editorials, and television coverage that’s been produced in response to it. Normally I’d ignore something like this—celebrity gossip is for rubes and philistines and I gave up on MTV long ago —but this occasion merits comment. And before you click away, this isn’t another blog post bashing Cyrus or even MTV, at least not primarily. No, my real target is you.
For those who missed it, Cyrus performed her hit song “We Can’t Stop” while dressed in a leotard and occasionally bent over and twerked for the crowd. This was immediately followed by a duet with Robin Thicke of his song “Blurred Lines” for which Cyrus stripped down to a flesh colored two-piece and spent the song grinding against Thicke’s groin. You can watch the full performance here.
Social media users immediately responded with memes and posts, mostly mocking her performance. The ridicule was deserved. As anyone watching the performance can see, it was crap. This young woman has all the stage presence of a wet t-shirt contestant and there really wasn’t any dance choreography aside from the twerking (and I don’t think that counts). For “We Won’t Stop,” Cyrus sang along to a prerecording, making little effort to synch her raspy voice to the auto-tuned vocals piped through the sound system. For “Blurred Lines” she didn’t really sing much at all but stomped around the stage, shaking her ass and wagging her tongue as though the audience had never seen a twenty year old woman’s midriff before.
And that is why the outrage over this performance is so peculiar. Both “We Can’t Stop” and “Blurred Lines” have been among the most popular tunes of the summer and nothing on the stage was far from the lyrical content of the songs or the images in the music videos. Further, nothing Cyrus did on that stage was unprecedented in the history of MTV. Near or partial nudity, outrageous costumes, public grinding, drug metaphors, and sexual simulacra are par for the course at the VMAs and in mainstream American culture. In fact, Madonna’s 1984 VMA performance of “Like a Virgin” was and still is far more provocative, not to mention better sung.
But singing is not the issue here. Cyrus’ performance, and for that matter the Video Music Awards themselves, are not about singing, music, or videos. They are a platform for pop stars to gain media attention. And when someone as bereft of talent as Miley Cyrus takes the stage, she has to put on a show that will distract the audience from the fact that she can’t sing. And she did that. After all, few were actually complaining about the quality of the musical performance. From Twitter users ridiculing the diminutive size of Cyrus’ backside to media figures calling for MTV executives to be fired, the discussion about the performance was strictly within the parameters that Cyrus and her handlers intended.
All of you who took to social media to complain about the morality of Cyrus’ performance gave her exactly what she wanted. And you were glad to do so. After all, she enabled you just as you enabled her.
Let’s be honest: you didn’t hate the performance. Secretly, way down in places you won’t admit around the water cooler and not even on Facebook, you loved it. And you loved it because it enabled you to participate in one of America’s most enduring pastimes: slut shaming.
Obsessions with public morality go back all the way to the puritan root of this culture. One of the key aspects of puritanism is a constant paranoia that one is not pure enough. When virtue is mistakenly taken to be synonymous with self-denial it quickly leads to public abstinence contests in which the most inured and emasculated party wins. But this kind of conspicuous abstinence is not virtue. It’s sadomasochism.
The masochistic impulse manifests itself in slut shaming. The moral crusader needs the sinner to construct an illusory moral hierarchy in which he is able to place himself at the top or at least above other people. That’s done by belittling others. The fallen woman is a popular target of the moral crusader. In a society that still propagates the myth of virginal purity and in which the worth of a woman is associated with the integrity of her hymen, the supposedly virtuous woman represents our highest ideals while a fallen woman is held as a threat to the social order.
There is a compact between those who entice puritanical vitriol and those who do the shaming. Entertainers like Cyrus offer themselves up as a social pariah to be condemned by the usual moral authorities. When that happens, her public image gets a boost and the audience gets to feel superior. This is consensual bullying and that’s what public morality campaigns are all about.
Miley Cyrus is not a victim of slut shaming. She is a willing participant. Only the most naïve entertainer would plan and carry out that performance without anticipating what the reaction would be. She played the system and won. For that she deserves some begrudging respect. But I’d suggest that the next time Cyrus performs in public she should show up dressed like Hester Prynne, complete with a scarlet “A” appended to her outfit. At least then audiences and performers in this masochistic paradigm would have to be honest with themselves and each other.
All of you who spent time and energy this week expressing disgust for Miley Cyrus gave her the social media spanking that she wanted. And let’s be entirely clear: none of this vitriol was about protecting the soul of America, advancing the dignity of women, or preserving the innocence of children. That’s a smokescreen of self-deceit intended to heighten your own ego. The slut shaming of Miley Cyrus was about taking shots at a willingly fallen woman in order to feel better about yourself.