Yes, Miley Cyrus' VMAs Performance Was Problematic, But the Body-Snarking and Slut-Shaming Is, Too

So a 20-year-old pop star set out to shock us with some hyper-sexy stuff. Apparently it worked. Can we move on yet?

Aug 26, 2013 at 7:00pm | Leave a comment

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By now you've seen Miley Cyrus' outrageous, oversexed Video Music Awards performance from Sunday night. If you haven't seen it, you've read all the SHOCKED CRAZED INCREDULOUS WTF ZOMG reactions all over the Internet -- how could you not? They've been absolutely everywhere, and impossible to avoid.

I won't lie: I thought her performance was over-the-top, unoriginal and icky (Madonna rang, she wants her shock value back). There are valid criticisms to be made, for sure, especially about the racial overtones -- Vulture calls Cyrus out for essentially leading a "minstrel show," noting the offensiveness of Cyrus' recent "annexing [of] working-class black 'ratchet' culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies." That's a valid criticism to level at the pop star, and one that deserves attention.

But other responses to Cyrus' performance have been borderline offensive in their own right, and in some ways, I'm more grossed out by certain reactions to her show than the show itself.

I woke up to one of my Facebook friends -- a smart, funny, usually awesome woman I know from different San Francisco circles  -- sharing this jarringly nasty status: "Is it just me, or is Miley Cyrus a dumb cum slut?" Which, of course, prompted 18 "likes" from her/our friends, before goading an array of others to share THEIR keenly informed perspectives that, yes, Cyrus is OBVIOUSLY a "dumb cum slut." (Seriously? "Cum slut"?)

My friend wasn't alone in her opinion; plenty other acquaintances weighed in all over FB and Twitter with variations on that "HOW DARE YOU, WHORE" theme. And the reactions didn't stop there -- an assortment of critics, celebrities and other public figures weighed in, too. Brooke Shields, who used to play Cyrus' mom on "Hannah Montana," said, "I feel like it's a bit desperate. She's trying so, so hard." Figure skater Johnny Weir tweeted, "The WORST thing I have ever seen." Richard Lawson joked about Cyrus' libido: "Does anyone know if Miley Cyrus has become a sexual being? She's been so silent on the matter." And model Brooklyn Decker tweeted the admittedly pretty awesome, "I am too old for this sh*t. Who is this child in leather? I am sad."

The most messed-up reaction I saw, though, was MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski's of "Morning Joe." A seriously shaken, scornful-looking Brzezinski shamed Cyrus on live TV before offering her completely non-expert opinion on Cyrus' eating habits: "That young lady, who is 20, is obviously deeply troubled, deeply disturbed, clearly has confidence issues, probably an eating disorder and I don’t think anybody should have put her on stage. That was disgusting and embarrassing ... That was not attractive. That was not fun. That was not funny. That was really, really bad for anybody who’s younger and impressionable and she’s really messed up." (Please, Mika, tell us how you really feel!)

Brzezinski's comments were especially troubling considering her own vocal struggle with food; she wrote a book, "Obsessed," about her secret eating disorder, and once told Cosmo, "I’m always grabbing my side and squeezing it and feeling like there’s an inch I need to get rid of. In the past, those moments were followed by binging and starving myself."

Um, does does anyone else smell the faintly repugnant whiff of projection here? I don't know what Brzezinski's basing her statements on, but how the hell would she know whether Cyrus has an eating disorder? She looks fine to me, but I'm NOT A DOCTOR so I'm not exactly qualified to say. And neither is Brzezinski. As The Gloss asks, "Is it possible, just maybe, that ... Miley feels good about her body to the point where she felt comfortable dancing around in a leotard in front of a nationally televised audience? That performance was a lot of things, but insecure it was not."

Miley Cyrus is a 20-year-old pop star in the middle of a very public, years-long image overhaul. She's been working overtime to divorce herself from her earnest, sparkly Disney Channel beginnings, as well as to split from the shadow of her famous country father. She's a KID, basically, trying to rebel and shock and titillate and reinvent herself.
 
Which doesn't -- not by any means! -- excuse her flagrant cultural appropriation and "race problems."
 
But I CAN understand, to some extent, her crazy sexual antics, because I was the same way when I was her age (albeit on a much smaller scale). I was lucky -- no one was WATCHING all my ill-informed attempts at being performatively "sexy" in the relative secrecy of New England dive bars and college bedrooms. She's doing it live, on stage, in front of millions of people. Which is her choice, obviously. And who knows? Maybe it's a choice she'll look back and bemoan, laugh about, or cringe at. Or maybe she'll have no regrets at all.
 
But why are we so shocked by her hypersexed performance? As Jezebel notes, "If we shouldn't be surprised that this is how Cyrus resorted to 'pushing the envelope,' then we shouldn't be surprised by our own reactions to it. It makes sense that she and Thicke ... would try to sell [themselves] this way. What doesn't make sense is that we keep reacting just the way they want and then acting upset about it." Yup, pretty much.