August 28, 2013
Are you going to write about Miley Cyrus?
An editor asks. I sigh. I was trying not to. But.
It seems to be every American's patriotic duty this week to have an opinion about Miley Cyrus, and about the media coverage of Miley Cyrus, and about those creepy giant teddy bears that pranced around while Miley Cyrus exhibited her tongue and wagged her rump during an MTV awards show that was watched by 1.9 bazillion people, many of whom didn't know until later that her booty behavior is called "twerking," but who were nevertheless delighted to learn a new word, however appalling they may find it.
Twerking? Is that, like, you know, tweeting while you're at work?
Anyway, the whole Miley Cyrus thing makes me tired. Haven't we been here before?
But, out of patriotic duty, I caught up with the alleged atrocity online after the event, and I have to say I was worried:
Miley Cyrus' tongue does not look healthy.
The tongue is a barometer of well-being and hers, which was on ample display Sunday night, didn't look good.
Honestly, I worry more about Miley than about the state of American society as a result of her and her big foam finger.
A recap for those of you who managed to miss it: Miley Cyrus, the former Disney darling known as Hannah Montana, pranced around the stage at the MTV awards in what is politely called "next to nothing," rubbing up against singer Robin Thicke and those creepy teddy bears, frequently deploying a big foam finger in ways that in a family newspaper must be left to the imagination.
Presto. A fresh cultural outrage was born. Let the tweets begin.
Miley's antics aren't exactly new. Outrage over the sexual provocations of young performers is as old as modern entertainment. Even older than that, no doubt, but until the invention of radio and television, which could broadcast nasty lyrics and Elvis' pelvic thrusts around the world, the marriage of sex and music probably didn't seem so apocalyptic.
Were Miley's bumps and grinds that much more threatening to the social fabric than Elvis'? Than Jim Morrison's or Madonna's?
Is pop music really worse now than when I was young?
Such questions always stump me when pop culture offers up yet another the-world-is-going-to-hell-in-a-sexy-song moment.
There are days when I think the answer is yes, especially when I'm at the gym.
Can't a person do squats without having to listen to another explicit, raunchy song about doin' it? Whatever happened to innuendo and double entendre?
And then I try to convince myself that every adult generation since the dawn of mass media has been sure that the younger generations are polluting the world with sexual entertainment.
While Miley was twerking on Sunday night, I was watching the new Netflix series "Orange is the New Black." Set in a women's prison, it's filled with sexual displays that breach the boundaries of what was once acceptable TV.
Some of the scenes make me squirm as much as Miley's MTV shenanigans. But there's a difference.
"Orange is the New Black" belongs to a wave of sexually candid movies and TV shows — "Girls" is another — that are made by women. Those shows aren't traditionally voyeuristic and are designed to counter the traditional "male gaze" on women.
Their exploration of sex aims to put women on equal footing with men, to value women rather than devalue them.
Was Miley Cyrus doing that Sunday night? That's an important question.
Her act was brilliant marketing. Her new single is now No. 2 on the iTunes charts. Another of her songs is No. 5. The Disney doll has morphed fully into an adult superstar.
If Miley, at the age of 20, is in charge of her transformation, if she controls her brand and her sexuality, then more power to her. But graveyards and rehab centers are full of celebrities who kidded themselves that they, and not the entertainment machine that would happily discard them, were in charge.
It's a lesson that many people, male and female, famous and not, learn the hard way, one that young people who want to be like Miley might want to keep in mind:
Exploitation sometimes comes disguised as self-empowerment.
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