Miley Cyrus isn’t Jewish. Baruch Hashem. She isn’t ours to worry about — to define, to defend, to forgive or condemn.
We can’t get off that easy, however. We may have had nothing to do with the creation of Cyrus but all of us had our part in setting the stage, physical and otherwise, upon which she performs.
The transformation of Cyrus from a sweet Southern Baptist Disney star to a scandalous bra and undies-clad twerker was, whether we like it or not, the single biggest cultural event this year. Time magazine shortlisted Cyrus, along with Edward Snowden and eventual winner Pope Francis, as the person of the year, and MTV named her the best artist of 2013. No cultural figure was responsible for more spilled ink, or keys clicked by feminists, music fans and cultural critics on the left and the right than Cyrus. And very few of them actually discussed her songs.
Cyrus’s recent provocations include: miming masturbation with a foam finger, performing in see-through tops, exposing a curlicue tongue in every photo, and, yes, finally, twerking. If you haven’t seen it, to twerk, according to its recent appearance in the Oxford Dictionaries online, is to “dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.”
The crux of the debate surrounding Cyrus is the question of who’s in charge in a culture where girls-gone-wild is the surest way for a female entertainer to get a whole lot of attention and a whole lot of money. Is Cyrus a victim of a culture that forces women to get nude to be noticed, as Gloria Steinem suggests? A pawn of the pimps in the music industry, as Sinead O’Conner told her in an open-letter? Or a “genius” and “provocateur who has launched a conversation about female sexuality” as pro-Cyrus magazine editors defended her in a backlash to the backlash trend piece in the New York Times style section?
What the many opinions surrounding Cyrus make clear is that as a society we are still not quite sure what to do with female sexuality. We throw around words like “slut-shaming,” “porn-culture,” “sex-positive” and New Yorker writer Ariel Levy’s term, “female chauvinist pigs” as we attempt to make heads or tails of the fact that women have, and enjoy, sex. The semiotics of a scantily clad woman is one of contradictions and, as the Cyrus conversation reveals, we still can’t get beyond these things as either empowerment or exploitation.
It may seem like we have heard this story before, though Cyrus’s antics did mix things up a bit. Sure, she is yet another young starlet who is marking her transition into adulthood through sexual rebellion. But unlike the many that came before her, Cyrus’s sexiness is a coarse, sometimes even ugly one, and she appears to aim to frighten rather than please. (Cyrus also showed her rebellion through an appropriation of black culture and the use of women of color as background props in her performances. This is a topic that is also worthy of, and has been subject to, a fair amount of digesting and critique.)