Why are we still talking about Miley Cyrus? How is she still getting media attention, including multiple open letters from two (in)famous female artists, Sinead O’Connor andAmanda Palmer, and the attention of mainstream feminist news sites? To me, everything she does reads as an ill-conceived attention-grabbing stunt to demonstrate her break from her Disney past.
So let’s take a wrecking ball to the “feminist” discourse on Miley Cyrus:
Are we “slut-shaming” Miley?
Slut-shaming is a problematic term in that it reclaims the word “slut,” which many feel never belonged to them, but the term is useful for describing the double standard in which women are shamed, punished and ostracized for being sexual while men are expected to be studs and lauded for having sex. So when people criticize Miley for being nude and licking a sledgehammer, many feminists have called those criticisms slut-shaming. Amanda Palmer’s open letter describes how women should be admired for posing nude, for being confident in their bodies. Palmer conflates nudity with confidence, which is not always the case. Sinead O’Connor writes that Miley is being exploited, and we should be shaming her handlers. In this critique, she strips Miley of any and all agency by painting her as the helpless victim of greedy men. I’d disagree with both.
To O’Connor, I’d say give Miley some credit. I don’t disagree that the music industry (and any capitalist industry, for that matter) benefits from the exploitation of women, but projecting victimhood onto Miley risks the erasure of all female artists’ agencies and the sexual agency of young women. The reality is that not all female artists are puppets of an industry; many choose to incorporate nudity or dance suggestively, and that’s their prerogative.
To Palmer, I’d say you’re right that women shouldn’t be criticized if they want to be nude, but not all women conceptualize nudity as emancipatory. I repeat: Nudity is not universally liberating.
Remember that time Miley Cyrus put on a minstrel show at the VMAs?
Well, those who are eager to defend Miley from slut-shaming seem to have forgotten that video where Cyrus capitalized off cultural appropriation and commodified black women’s bodies as literal props. But established white artists and “feminists” are rushing to defend Miley, as a victim or as a revolutionary, when they were silent about Miley’s racism. Not OK.
What we can learn from this ordeal is that:
It is not productive to assign a certain definition of agency to women. Liberation is not universal, and to pretend it is erases the realities of differently oppressed peoples.
Feminism isn’t useful when it has a single lens. We should call out Miley’s fetishization of black women’s bodies as well as engage in dialogue about the gendered policing of bodies.
As bell hooks said, “We have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture because it is normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic.” We need to engage critically in pop culture because it shapes our society whether we like it or not. So we’re not done talking about Miley Cyrus yet, because we’re not actually talking about Miley Cyrus; we’re questioning the racism and sexism thriving in our culture.
*I originally published this on my college newspaper’s feminist blog