Last night, Miley Cyrus performed with Robin Thicke at MTV’s annual Video Music Awards, and everyone is abuzz over how provocative the performance was. (Earlier, Cyrus had said that she hoped to top Britney Spears and Madonna’s infamous make-out session at the 2003 VMAs.) Overly sexualized performances are not a new concept and are certainly no stranger to the VMAs. Much like Spears and Madonna before her, Cyrus is now memorable because of the spectacle she caused. People will remember this performance because the girl they watched grow up as Hannah Montana spent the majority of her 6 minutes on stage “twerking.”
Obviously, as a Christian and as a father of a daughter, I take issue with the manner in which Cyrus carried herself on stage. I could talk all day about how disappointing it is to see yet another young woman express herself so narrowly. However, we can learn some important things from her performance and the spectacle surrounding it.
1. We’ve set a low bar for what is entertaining.
Cyrus’s vocal performance was breathy and uninspired. The breathy part makes sense given how much energy she devoted to gyrating. But aside from some impressive giant stuffed teddy bears that were strapped to her backup dancers’ backs, the dancing was pretty typical. Thus we are left to draw the conclusion that the catalyst behind this performance was to show off Cyrus’s loss of innocence, rather than a give a top-notch performance. One Christ and Pop Culture editor called the performance “exuberant, banal, nihilism.” That seems fair.
2. It was racist.
According to Jezebel‘s Dodai Stewart, Cyrus has been “accessorizing with black people” as she has sought to change her image. Stewart’s article reflected more on Cyrus’s most recent music video, but I think it is apropos to her VMA performance:
If Miley is inspired by gold teeth and bounce music and has friends who are rappers, that’s not a problem. But when she uses these things to re-style her own image, she veers into dangerous territory… it’s important to understand that Miley is very privileged to be able to play dress up and adorn herself with the trappings of an oppressed/minority culture. She can play at blackness without being burdened by the reality of it.
3. We are responsible for Miley Cyrus.
She does not exist in a vacuum. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live your entire life in the public gaze. It is our obsession with celebrity culture that thrusts young women like Miley Cyrus into the limelight and encourages them to seek attention by doing more on-stage humping than the women who came before.
4. We are sexist.
After Cyrus’s performance, many criticized her for the unfortunate message she was sending to young girls who follow and support her. But why aren’t similar criticisms being leveled at Robin Thicke, the guy in the striped suit who was the recipient of Cyrus’s twerking? Why are we so focused on young women presumably losing their innocence on stage but we don’t bat an eye at the men who participate in the ritual?