The controversy over Miley Cyrus’s performance at the MTV Video Music Awards showed all the problems with the ongoing objectification of women.
Women are still used and abused in the music and entertainment industry. Far from being men’s equals in some liberated post-feminist world, women are still treated as sexual objects. And there is nothing to celebrate about this.
On stage Cyrus proceeded to sing and dance to Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, a song that justifies rape; and spanked and simulated a sexual act on her female backup dancers. One later said she felt used and “inhuman” after the performance.
Of course, some simply blamed Cyrus. Conservatives such as those on America’s Morning Joe shamed the 20-year-old for acting lasciviously towards ever-so innocent and unsuspecting 36-year-old co-performer, Robin Thicke, husband and father of two. Never mind that it is Thicke’s song that trivialises rape by referring to consent as “blurred” and declaring “I know you want it … the way you grab me … I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two”.
Others like Joanna Weiss, columnist for The Boston Globe, endorsed Cyrus’ performance for subverting Thicke’s Blurred Lines video saying, “she didn’t just prance past him or … allow herself to be pet. She sang with him, teased him, challenged him, and proved herself the bigger star.”
Cyrus herself used this argument on Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show to reject criticism her performance went too far.
Sexism and music
But far from encompassing anything progressive, Cyrus’s performance was an essentially commercial venture seeking—as Elton John put it while defending her, to “flatten the competition” in the industry and catapult her upwards in the charts.
The same issues of the sexual objectification of women came to light in 2004 as a result of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s performance at the Superbowl. Timberlake ripped Jackson’s clothes in order to expose her right nipple on stage. This had the same intention of self-promotion through using women’s bodies, and sadly, generated the same success.
Some female artists did highlight the sexism in the music industry in response to Cyrus’s performance. Sinead O’Connor wrote an open letter to Cyrus that pleaded, “The music business doesn’t give a sh– 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 … and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, ‘they’ will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body and you will find yourself very alone.”
British singer Charlotte Church similarly described the pressures placed on women in the industry, saying female artists were often, “coerced into sexually demonstrative behaviour in order to hold on to their careers”. She recalled being reminded by executives “just whose money was being spent”.
But how do we explain what motivated Cyrus, and the decision she has made to objectify herself? She seems to take pride in using denigrating images and stereotypes to boost her career.
It’s easy to dismiss Cyrus’s actions as personal weakness or immaturity. But they are symptomatic of the “raunch culture” described by Ariel Levy in her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs. This is a result of the way the gains of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s have been commodified, repackaged and marketed as a form of empowerment.
Some women now believe they are demonstrating empowerment or being funny or ironic by making sex objects of themselves. Levy writes insightfully that now, “plenty of other women are behind the scenes, not just in the front of the cameras, making decisions, making money and hollering, ‘we want boobs’.”
No one wants to return to the sexually repressive atmosphere of 1950s where women were expected to be housewives, doting slavishly on their husbands, something Tony Abbott would relish. But there is nothing liberating about embracing sexual objectification and trying to call it “empowerment”.
The vast majority of working class women have very little power over their lives and suffer as a result of sexual stereotypes that are impossible to measure up to.
We still need to win genuine liberation, and that means challenging the economic and political system that relies on sexism and racism, not embracing it.
By Jasmine Ali