Miley, as Everydaughter

By A. G. Moore 10/5/2013

Magdalene Laundry in Ireland, where “promiscuous women” were institutionalized
Photo in public domain, copyright expired, permission PD-US-1923-ABROAD.

Time to comment on the Miley Cyrus foam-finger/Thicke-twerking/tongue thrusting dust up.

I join those who are dismayed because a performer has once again sacrificed taste for publicity-generating scandal. But really, isn’t everyone being a bit hard on 20-year-old Ms. Cyrus? As I read statements of outrage about Ms. Cyrus and I recall the act that has offended, I wonder why so many people want to punish this young woman. Usually, when people are this angry, it means they feel threatened.

What, exactly, is threatening about Miley Cyrus? Is it not so much what she did–admittedly crude, tasteless and almost unwatchable–but the fact that she did it, which caused the furor?

Ms. Cyrus twerked Robin Thicke. She stuck out her tongue salaciously. She strutted the stage in a cartoonish takeoff of burlesque. And she manipulated a foam finger with unmistakeable auto erotic intent. Ms. Cyrus did these things, herself, to herself.

I think this may be where her performance rises to the level of threat, in the eyes of many. Miley Cyrus is young and audaciously sexual. She demonstrates a post-pubescent delight in exploring her sensuality. This offends, understandably. She has done publicly, on grand scale–because as a star that is her platform–what daughters have done since time immemorial; she has proclaimed her sexual emancipation. If she were not female, if she were a son, rather than a daughter, this affront to authority would surely provoke protest, but not this kind of protest.

The morning after the show, Mika Brzezinski suggested on Morning Joe that Ms. Cyrus might be mentally ill. The Blaze posted a letter from a concerned mother in which she promised to duct tape her daughter’s mouth shut if she did what Cyrus did. The Blaze sums up parents’ scarlet woman apprehension elicited by Cyrus: “Mothers everywhere,” Jason Howerton of The Blaze writes, “(are) hoping and praying their daughters would not go down the same path to promiscuity.”

Cyrus isn’t the first entertainer to test the limits of public morality with sexual exhibitionism. But contrast Cyrus’ challenge to that presented by someone like Mick Jagger, a performer who successfully exploited sexuality as a way to promote his music and his celebrity.

For the sake of comparison, I”ll begin by talking about Mr. Jagger’s tongue. The image of that tongue and his mouth, as depicted in a 1971 poster, became an iconic Rock Stone symbol. This protruding tongue is actually a Rolling Stone logo; in 1973, a photographer captured the Rock star in a pose mimicking the poster, and that photo also became iconic. The tongue image, though shocking to some, never elicited the suggestion that Mr. Jagger might be a danger to himself. Rather, the perceived danger was to daughters, to frenzied females whose overcharged libidos would be no match for Mr. Jagger’s frank invitation to defy convention, to help him “get satisfaction”.

Then there’s the matter of flesh peddling. Ms. Cyrus has been excoriated for wearing nude-colored clothing in her VMA performance and for her state of undress in a recently released music video. Now let’s look at Mr. Jagger’s use of flesh. The jacket on his 1983 album, Undercover, featured a naked woman whose “private parts” were minimally concealed under strips of Velcro. As was true for most of his career, Mr. Jagger’ calculated use of sex to create controversy in this instance garnered attention necessary to promote sales. There were expression of outrage in response, but no suggestion that Mr. Jagger had lost his mind.

Finally, there’s the matter of sexual assertiveness. I’d be the first to admit that Ms. Cyrus does not project a passive public persona. She unapologetically claims her sexuality. Mr. Jagger also asserts sexual prerogatives, although in his case it’s not free expression he’s exercising, but the freedom to sexually possess other people. His PR campaign for release of the 1976 album Black and Blue, for example, included billboards that showed a woman bloodied and bruised. The woman’s hands were bound and her knees were spread apart. Under her picture were the words, “I’m Black and Blue from the Rolling Stones–and I love it!” The anticipated outrage followed and the billboards came down. Although Mr. Jagger was faulted for mixing violence with sex, he was not suspected of being mentally ill–merely of showing poor taste.

While it is true that Mick Jagger’s convention-bending PR brought him infamy, it is also true that his assault on public opinion cemented his celebrity and mystique. He has not been threatened with commitment to an asylum but has been invited, instead to Buckingham Palace where he was knighted in 2002 by that avatar of middle class morality, Queen Elizabeth.

Both Mr. Jagger and Ms. Cyrus decided that sex sells; in Mr. Jagger’s case, the formula has worked outstandingly. The future will tell whether Ms. Cyrus’ calculation meets with similar success. However, there is, so far, a significant difference between the way Miley Cyrus and Mick Jagger have exploited sex as a marketing tool.

If Ms. Cyrus has exploited anyone, it has been herself. She has demonstrated authority over her own body. Mr. Jagger’s exploitation, on the other hand, invariably has been of others, and always those others were women. In the case of the Undercover album, not only did the cover show a naked woman, but consumers were invited to manipulate the woman’s image, to remove bits of Velcro and put them back at will. Thus was the idea of subjugation emphasized; the woman was passive and compliant.

The Black and Blue billboard really doesn’t require explication. A woman beaten, bound and expressing pleasure in the abuse is certainly light years away from Ms. Cyrus’ taunting, exuberant self possession.

I wonder, why do Mr. Jagger–and Mr. Thicke for that matter (Ms. Cyrus’ partner on the stage that night)–escape suggestions of retribution and Miley Cyrus does not? Surely it has to do with a cultural bias that favors passive women and active men.

Is this sexism? Probably, but that’s such a loaded term I hesitate to use it. A better question might be, is this fair?

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