Miley Cyrus: struggling to be an adult
There’s more to being a grown-up than having sex.
Miley Cyrus’s performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards (VMAs) this week was clearly designed to provoke controversy. She emerged from a giant teddy bear, her tongue lasciviously protruding from her mouth and proceeded to ‘twerk it down’ on to the stage. After this incredibly subtle intro, she pulled off her already scanty outfit to reveal a flesh-coloured bikini and did so to a soundtrack repeating the lines: ‘It’s our body, we can do what we want.’ She then joined in a duet with Robin Thicke while simulating self-pleasuring actions with a giant foam hand.
Unsurprisingly, the criticisms came quickly. The Parents Television Council (of which Miley’s father, Billy Ray, is an advisory member) issued the following press release: ‘MTV continues to sexually exploit young women by promoting acts that incorporate “twerking” in a nude-coloured bikini. How is this image of former child star Miley Cyrus appropriate for 14-year-olds?’
As the star of Disney’s pop vehicle Hannah Montana, Cyrus’s music was always derivative and sterile. Little wonder then that her attempt to sex up her act should be even less graceful or finessed than Rihanna’s. But her critics miss the real point. The problem is not that such a raunchy performance supposedly corrupts children or offends women; rather, Cyrus’s metamorphosis demonstrates how difficult it is for one of the world’s most famous child stars to find any way of attaining adult status other than through sex.
Becoming an adult used to mean entering into a world of big and important things, like work, political engagement, argument. In a word, it meant taking life seriously.
Today, with public life diminished, and everyone so closely focused on their own bodies – whether through food, exercise or glamour – it is no surprise that the only thing to set adults apart from children is sex. This is not solely a problem for feminists, either. Women’s bodies have historically been used by men as a focus for desire. And some women have become adept at exploiting this. The problem was never that men might find women’s bodies desirable, but that they attempted to reduce women to the realm of sex and therefore excluded them from the adult world, while at the same time asserting men’s natural right to rise above the body.
This is not the case today. While men are not in the habit of narcissistically expressing themselves through displaying their bodies to the same extent that women are, men are finding it difficult to discover anything other than sex through which to assert their adulthood.
The sexual objectification of women’s bodies is no longer (if it ever really was) a form of male exploitation or sexism, as some feminists argue. But then neither is there anything liberatory about asserting our right to show our bodies off. Yes, becoming an adult does mean becoming sexual, but it is also supposed to mean much more.
Chrissie Daz is a writer and cabaret performer living in Birmingham.