I remember trying to describe my reaction to my friends on seeing Miley Cyrus’s video ‘We Can’t Stop’. Like most music videos, it portrays an ideal party. What follows is a hellish three minute celebration, where Cyrus tries to go down both the hipster and the hip-hop routes to credibility simultaneously. Jerky twerking cuts to a shot of taxidermied animals in sunglasses, then back to a Damien Hirst style skull made of french fries, then to a shot of Miley Cyrus in a grill sticking her tongue out. Take that, authority! NWA should be taking notes.
And then, there’s the white leggings. Here, Miley breaks, perhaps what was MTV’s last taboo. After an endless round of videos where female stars are contorted into ever more strange shapes to show as much skin as possible, while still covering the necessary, in an audacious bid Miley appears to have worn the leggings while going commando. Like an electrical brown out that jolts you to attention, I found myself rewinding to see if that suspicious shading that glimmered past my eye really was what I thought it was. At a certain point, while trying to stare up towards Miley Cyrus’s cervix, I realised that the party had indeed stopped, we didn’t run this town, we really were going home, and I was cold and dead inside.
I was spared having to explain my discomfort to others any further by her performance at the VMAs last Sunday. In it, was the same wiggly wiggly bum bum twerking, the racial fetishisation which had previously just been hinted out was now fully fleshed out, as black dancers wearing giant teddy bear heads, literally made into asses on legs, were slapped by Miley. There was her awkward molestation of Robin Thicke. The whole thing was so cringe worthy I radiated in sympathetic embarassment.
And then, I read the internet comments, and it spoiled my fun. Reading their feedback it was the same old tired themes of how women should dress classy not trashy and wouldn’t her dad be ashamed. Miley Cyrus was now the latest woman to step over the fine line between sexy and slutty and she was being excoriated for it. Commenters discussed the finer points of where that line should be. “Didn’t Lady Gaga wear basically the same thing?” “Ah but she’s 26 and that was a g-string, and it was artistic.”
Our culture is so dominated with policing women’s sexuality that every debate of this kind boils down to two camps, “pro-sluts” and “anti-sluts”. Unfortunately, this is not news. What got me about the performance was not its sexiness, but its badly-executed sexiness, its cynical attempt to be shocking, despite the fact of how entirely predictable this was. And yet, there is little space to discuss the artistic merits. For mainstream female popstars, there is really only one metric on which to be judged. Whether you pulled off sexy without going over to the other side.
Poor old Miley is now being marched through the town square, as the crowds jeer. Yes, her performance really does set a bad example to women. It teaches them that in our culture, that you can’t just be crap, without dishonouring yourself.