Is Miley Cyrus a victim of the male gaze and the sexual commodification of young women ... or a heroine of third-wave feminism?
Is the former Hannah Montana a woeful example of how today's female stars are willing to sell out their own bodies and souls in one package deal ... or a victim of "slut-shaming"? Is she the new Elvis ... or just the new Linda Lovelace?
And when Rihanna takes to the stripper pole in her new video, is she giving in to the public's appetite for leering, or sticking her tongue out (to put it in Miley-esque terms) at sexists who don't want woman to be sexual at all?
If you're looking for a definitive answer to these questions, don't look to their fellow celebrities, who are caught up in an international debate that mirrors the one going on in homes around the country.
At first it looked as if the arguments about whether Miley is a righteous champ or pathetic victim might break down along generation-gap lines. Elder stateswomen Sinéad O'Connor and Annie Lennox penned open letters criticizing Cyrus and/or her handlers in the wake of her controversial VMAs performance. Then a rush of younger artists jumped in to defend her, whether in intellectual terms (Amanda Palmer) or, well, less so (Kelly Osbourne).
But as the weeks progress — and someday, we may divide history not into B.C. and A.D. but before and after the Great Twerking Incident of 2013 — we've seen more youngsters come out against Miley and more old farts rise up in her defense. You can hardly keep track of who thinks she's a self-made role model and who's convinced she's a self-whoring tramp without a scorecard.
Paul McCartney is the latest elder to weigh in on the "she's just being Miley" side.
"Mind you, I’ve got a 10-year-old girl, so we listen to that kind of stuff," the former Beatle told Sky News, asked about whether he pays attention to teen pop. On the matter of Miley at the VMAs, he said, "You know what, I don’t think it was explicit at all. You couldn’t see anything. I mean, I watched it, just as an experiment, to check … Obviously, you look at it and you go, What’s everyone shouting about? I mean, she's a young girl; she's like only 20 or something. She’s just having a go. Someone said to me that the world that a lot of those people like Miley live in is all noise and you’ve got to rise above the noise, so you’ve got to do something. So you will see people doing something that I think is only mildly shocking. I mean, she’s dancing with Robin Thicke on the Billboards, and so what? Come on. We’ve seen worse than that!”
But Miley's hyper-sexualization is not just a "so what" to Charlotte Church, who — although she got off to a classier start as a semi-classical star — felt she was forced with some of the same choices when she was pushed into European pop stardom as a child.
"To my mind, what this industry seems to want of its women increasingly is sex objects that appear childlike. Take your clothes off, show you're an adult," Church said in a talk at the at the Radio Academy radio festival, where she addressed a "male-dominated music industry with a juvenile perspective on gender and sexuality. The culture of demeaning women in pop music is so ingrained as to become routine, from the way we are dealt with by management and labels to the way we are presented to the public."
Church could speak from first-hand experience. When she first rose to global stardom at age 12, "there was a big clamour to cover my breasts, as they wanted to keep me as young as possible. Then it became, 'You should definitely get them out, they look great.'" She admitted she gave in, for a time, and regrets it. "Whilst I can't defer all the blame away from myself, I was barely out of my teenage years, and the consequence of this portrayal of me is that now I am frequently abused on social media. Now I find it difficult to promote my music where it would be best suited because of my history."
Church indicated that she thinks Rihanna will similarly regret her "Pour It Up" video someday. "You only have to look at the online response to see that it is only a matter of time until the public turns on an artist for pushing it too far. But the single," Church said, "like all Rihanna's other provocative hits, will make her male writers, producers and record label guys a ton of money."
Are Cyrus and Rihanna airheads who are easily manipulated by greedy men, or are they the sole mistresses of their own undressed-and-undulating destinies? And if it's really all them — not the frequently invoked managers in the shadows — does that make them champions of a new feminism that champions women controlling and even touting their sexuality, or examples of the ultimate self-delusion?
Again, don't expect the responses to necessarily break down along age, gender, or even conservative/liberal lines.
Brooke Shields gave what might have been an expected rebuttal to Miley's coming out as a twerker. "I was Hannah Montana’s mother! Where did I go wrong?” she said on "The Today Show," only half-joking. “I just want to know who’s advising her, and why [the racy display] is necessary. … Our children can’t watch that ... I feel like it's a bit desperate."
But a contemporary of Shields, Kirstie Alley, had the opposite response. "God I love @MileyCyrus!" Alley tweeted recently. "Matt Lauer tryin (sic) to trip her up on Today Show.. She ain't buyin it... LOL she's Pink Floyd worthy." (What that means, no one but Alley may know.) "Have all u old F's forgotten what it looks & feels like to be YOUNG? Stop actin like U didnt get turned on by Elvis air-grinding his [private parts]."
Pink has been among the Miley naysayers: "I twerk all the time like a mofo. There's a place for that and it's not on stage." As a public display, Pink told E! Online, "I think it's tacky. She's really freaking talented. She's beautiful. She can sing her a-- off and to go up there and do that? She's cheating herself and she's cheating the rest of us. She can do what she wants. People can like it if they want. I'm not going to buy it. She can do better. I've seen her do better."
Count Courtney Love as a pro-Cyrusian, though. "I liked Miley, frankly," Love said during a social commentary break in the middle of a New York show. "I'm gonna be honest, Katy Perry bores the s--- out of me. She's a nice girl, she just really bores me. You know, that hillbilly Miley Cyrus is sort of punk in a weird sex way." She elaborated to the New York Post's Page Six: "She was at least kind of punk-rock, you know? It was openly sexual... like dark and hillbilly and [bleeped] up.” Which, in Courtneyland, is high praise.
"Girls" creator Lena Dunham took a middle path between these polarized opinions, also alluding to the argument that Cyrus was exploiting black culture. The actress tweeted: "Re: Miley- the commodification of women of color deserves big discussion. 'Hey, someone put a shirt on this dumb b---h!' doesn't."
Sometimes the public debate has gotten nasty. Shortly after the VMAs, Kelly Clarkson tweeted: "Just saw a couple performances from the VMA’s last night. 2 words… #pitchystrippers.” Although Cyrus herself didn't respond, one of her best friends, Cheyne Thomas, did, tweeting back: "She’s fat and 30 … The reasons Kelly Clarkson is bitter could really go on for day(s)."
Of course, it's the back-and-forth open letters and tweets between Sinéad, Miley, and Amanda Palmer that have most transfixed members of the public, regardless of whether they feel they have a dog in this particular feminist fight.
O'Connor started it by publicly addressing Cyrus in a blog ... even though you could say Miley started it by citing Sinéad as a kind of role model. Initially, at least, she took the tack that Cyrus was an innocent victim of those who would capitalize on her naïveté.
"Nothing but harm will come in the long run, from allowing yourself to be exploited," O’Connor wrote, "and it is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent. The music business doesn’t give a s--- about you, or any of us. They will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think it’s what YOU wanted … None of the men oggling (sic) you give a s--- about you either, do not be fooled ... You ought be protected as a precious young lady by anyone in your employ and anyone around you, including you. This is a dangerous world. We don’t encourage our daughters to walk around naked in it because it makes them prey for animals and less than animals."
Cyrus proved just what an innocent she is by comparing O'Connor to Amanda Bynes and tweeting a screen shot of O'Connor's public pleas for help when she was admittedly suffering from mental illness two years ago. For good measure, she also bragged that she was too busy rehearsing for her SNL hosting gig to write any open letters herself.
A lesser known but currently hepper artist, Palmer, jumped into the frey, seeming to shield Cyrus — somewhat — from O'Connor's exploitation argument. "Miley is, from what I can gather, in charge of her own show," wrote Palmer. "She’s writing the plot and signing the checks, and although I think it’s tempting to imagine her in the board room of label [jerks] and management, I don’t think any of them masterminded her current plan to be a raging, naked, twerking sexpot. I think that’s All Miley All The Way. Now, would these men ARGUE with her when she comes into the room and throws down her treatment to hop up naked on the proverbial (and literal) wrecking ball? Of course not... We’re mammals... (But) what I see is Miley desperately trying to write her own script; truly trying to be taken seriously (even if it's in a nakedly playful way) by the standards of her own peers.”
The only answer, per Palmer, is to encourage female artists do anything and everything their artsy and/or greedy hearts desire, then hope the worthwhile stuff gets sorted out in the end. "I want female musicians to feel like they can do MORE with their mad artistic energy, not LESS ... That necessarily means there needs to be room on the vast playing field for Adele to wear a conservative suit, room for Lady Gaga to do naked performance art in the woods, room for PJ Harvey to wear high-collared 18th century jackets on stage ... and room for Miley to rip a page out of stripper culture and run around like a maniac for however long she wants to ... I want to live in a world where Miley (or any female musician) can twerk wildly at 20, wear a full-cover floral hippie mumu at 37, show up at 47 in see-through latex, and pose semi-naked, like Keith & co, on the cover of Rolling Stone at 57 and be APPLAUDED for being so comfortable with her body.”
The contrary view to that, as expressed in a headline in London's Independent newspaper, is: "What we are watching is the blurring of pop with porn."
Lennox, not known as the most conservative artist in the 1980s, took that view in her own blog: "It seems obvious that certain record companies are peddling highly styled pornography with musical accompaniment. As if the tidal wave of sexualized imagery wasn't already bombarding impressionable young girls enough ... I believe in freedom of speech and expression, but the market forces don't give a toss about the notion of boundaries. As long as there's booty to make money out of, it will be bought and sold. It's depressing to see how these performers are so eager to push this new level of low. Their assumption seems to be that misogyny utilized and displayed through oneself is totally fine, as long as you are the one creating it. As if it's all justified by how many millions of dollars and YouTube hits you get from behaving like pimp and prostitute at the same time. It's a glorified and monetized form of self-harm."
What perhaps everyone on all sides of these debates could agree on is that the standards are rarely the same for both genders in pop music, and that women come in for extra levels of scrutinization, not all of it theoretical or academic.
Lauren Mayberry of the band Chvches posted a provocative blog about the misogyny and "sexually explicit abuse" she's endured online for no other reason than being a public musical presence who happens to be a woman. "Last week, I posted a screengrab of one of the many inappropriate messages sent to the band's social networks every day ... At the time of writing, Facebook stats tell me that the post had reached 581,376 people, over five times the number of people who subscribe to the page itself, with almost 1,000 comments underneath the image. Comments range from the disgusted and supportive to the offensively vile ... (from) 'This isn't rape culture. You'll know rape culture when I'm raping you, bitch' (to) 'It's just one of those things you'll need to learn to deal with. If you're easily offended, then maybe the music industry isn't for you.'"
Truer words may never have been spoken in the Internet age, but Mayberry isn't resigned to just accepting it. "Is the casual objectification of women so commonplace that we should all just suck it up, roll over and accept defeat?" she wrote. "I hope not. Objectification, whatever its form, is not something anyone should have to 'just deal with' ... Women are spoken to like this every day, and not just those deemed to be in the public eye."
But are women fulfilling a role as the agents of their own commodification?
Here's Pete Wentz: "I back @MileyCyrus - awesome to see someone be herself and be fearless in an age of ppl faking it in utter fear of 24 hour news cycles."
Of course, the idea that Miley might live in any fear of news cycles should have been demolished by her post-VMAs tweet of triumph: "Smilers! My VMA performance had 306.000 tweets per minute. That's more than the blackout or Superbowl! #fact." Does she who dies with the most TPM (tweets per minute) win the feminism game, all moral issues aside?
Gloria Steinem says blame the game, not the player. "I wish we didn't have to be nude to be noticed," the 20th century's greatest feminist icon told Yahoo's omg! "But given the game as it exists, women make decisions. For instance, the Miss America contest is… the single greatest source of scholarship money for women in the United States. If a contest based only on appearance was the single greatest source of scholarship money for men, we would be saying, 'This is why China wins.'... But that's the way the culture is. I think that we need to change the culture, not blame the people that are playing the only game that exists."
Talking with Vulture, Steinem was slightly more pointed about Cyrus. "I think (she and Sinéad) have different views of the world, and I would much rather be O’Connor. I mean, she’s a serious human being. Perhaps they both are, but we don’t know that yet... (Sinéad has) been sexually abused. She was courageous in pointing out sexual abuse by the Catholic church. I’m sure it does pain her to see a young woman being oblivious to the endangerment of sexuality."
But to many younger female stars, to criticize Miley is to want to damp down all young female sexuality. Said Rosario Dawson: "For some reason, when men do it, it’s kind of like, cool, and masculine and mannish. But when these girls do it, it’s like, ‘You’re too young.' And there’s this responsibility that’s put on them just because of being female, that they’re supposed to be these role models. And I am interested in the idea that they’re kind of flipping the bird to that and just going, ‘I’m doing my thing.’... I kind of dig some of the ways these girls are twerkin’ it."
Old-old-school feminists may enjoy that these issues are even being discussed, in terms of what's best for women... even as they might wistfully sigh and dream of a day when this much debate could be spurred by an act of actual substance.