It's been a week now and we're still talking about Miley Cyrus, who, despite the backlash, is probably thinking "that's preddy cool". What's not so cool though is the swarm of negative feedback she's received - some of it legitimate, more of it sexist.
I'll admit, my initial reaction was one of anger after watching Cyrus' performance on the VMAs. My genuine, instinctual thoughts were: Why are you doing this to us, Miley? Why are you hurting women? You're not empowered, you're not confident. You're corrupted. You bought into the lies and now you're perpetrating them with your star power. Jeez, celeb women are so predictable!
No doubt I was unfairly blaming Cyrus for the sexualisation and objectification of young girls and women everywhere, and I felt bad about that. Especially when considering that Robin Thicke was right there. Funny, I had barely noticed him.
I consider myself a women's rights activist of sorts, so I try to consume media critically and always check myself when commenting on women's behaviour or lifestyle, whatever it may be. Yet every now and then, I can't help but get angry at them. Sure, I go on raging rants about disgusting, misogynistic lyrics (cut to Kanye West's "Yeezus") or music videos (cut to almost any music video) from men as well. But most of the world doesn't share the love as equally as I do. Our focus is usually on women. And that got me thinking: Why are we so consumed with women's sexuality and not so much with men's?
First, there are the obvious explanations, like double standards. The double standards between men and women, but also the ones between women themselves. Oh, didn't you know? Not every woman can have the privilege of expressing her sexuality without being called a whore, that would be crazy! There are rules. Nobody really knows what those rules are, but if you don't follow them, you're a slut.
Second, there's our conditioned abhorrence toward women who express themselves sexually. Don't deny it, we've all done it at one time or another because that's what we've been taught. There's no other explanation for why Cyrus was hit with 306,000 tweets per minute of derogatory comments after her performance. Almost every name in the book was used from "slut", "easy" and "crazy", to "trashy", "diseased" and "stripper". These words don't come from a place of reason or constructive criticism, they come from a place of hate.
But I think there's yet another layer to all of this madness. Coming to the defence of Cyrus, people have said that it's unfair that she has been so harshly criticized when men do the exact same thing yet go unscathed. I do agree that this is the case a lot of the time (e.g. men are applauded for how many people they've slept with, whereas women are shamed), but I don't agree that it accurately describes the criticism against Cyrus or other women in similar situations. When it comes to expressing sexuality (in North America), men and women don't actually act the same.
I get the impression that exploring or expressing one's sexuality is a personal journey for women. Whereas for men, it seems like sexuality is relational to others. While for women, it forms a part of their identity; for men, it comes down to how they treat women.
For example: In lyrics, men use women's bodies and sexuality as metaphors (Kanye West's "Who Will Survive In America" off his "Dark Fantasy" album is a crude example of this). We have men commenting on women's bodies in songs too. We have men talking about how much women want it. In videos, we have fully clothed men with naked or half-naked women. We have men standing there, while women dance around them. It kind of seems like without women, men would have nothing to go on. The women are doing all of the work (without any of the benefit, I might add).
Thinking about this reminds me of the sexist concept that women are the gatekeepers of sex (also known as Victim Blaming 101), which maintains that it's up to women to control men's sexual desires. If you don't want a man coming after you, don't arouse him or be sexy; it's as simple as that. Of course that's a bunch of BS, but many people sadly still view the world this way. And it's interesting to see the physical form that this notion has taken on in the entertainment industry. Women bring the sexy, while the men dominate it and take pleasure from it. That's basic objectification right there. Women are mere sexual objects that men (and sometimes women) use when they want to, say, spice up a music video.
So it's no wonder we're so consumed with women's sexual expression. They've been made to be the sexual expression. The only thing worse than that is the fact that women then use that expression to define themselves. That's why I say it's personal for women, and I believe that this is especially true in the entertainment industry. Why else have we been told that "Miley was just being Miley", or been asked "why can't you just let me be me?" after any wardrobe, music video, song, or performance "scandal"? Why is sexuality a means for celebrity women to reinvent themselves and their brand? Why is the coming of age of young female stars usually marked by their sexual maturity? It's an identity thing.
There's nothing wrong with being sexual, discovering your sexuality or embracing sexuality. There is, however, something troubling about making it the essence of who you are - because women are much more than sex. But unfortunately, young girls and women are not taught that. Instead, we're told over and over again that the essence of our worth and power is determined by our looks and sexual expression.
On the other hand, men are taught different lessons. Among those: to conquer women, especially sexually. It's no surprise then that we don't see men stripping off their clothes, or touching themselves, or molding their bodies into sexually provocative positions. What we do see and hear is them objectifying and degrading women. Ultimately, the sexuality involved doesn't attach to the man's identity or sense of self the way it does with women. Rather it's more of a behaviour or conduct, so that when we ask men to change it, it can be done without challenging who the man is.
So what does this all mean? For one, I think this is another reason why women get so much of the attention, if not all of the attention. We don't relate sexuality with women the same way as we relate it with men, and that's why it's so easy for the latter to fall under the radar and evade personal attacks. We might think we'd react to a man's performance the same way as we did to Cyrus's, if he acted in the same manner. But the fact of the matter is, a man would have never performed the way Cyrus did. In fact, we already know exactly what a man's version of that performance would have been: standing there, with women doing all of the work. Remember Robin Thicke?
Secondly, the intertwining of women's identities and their sexual expression makes it difficult to criticize women for playing a part in the oppression of women without sounding patronizing and without taking away from a woman's autonomy and sexual freedom. That's why I felt bad for having those thoughts about Cyrus and for being angry with her. Who am I to say she's not just having fun and being herself?
Overall, let's open our eyes wider and not be fooled by appearances so that we can focus our attention onto where it's due. Robin Thicke was a major creep on that VMA stage, and we need to be able to recognize that - even when he isn't bare-naked or twerking.