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Miley Cyrus‘ new video features avian headware, backup dancer eye-fucking, tortured visual imagery representing puberty, and copious Auto-Tune. Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown and I respond.
SADY: Why hello! I have worn my bird cage hat of Serious Analysis to this meeting. My Serious Analysis is: The children! Are they getting too sexy? Specifically the beloved starlet children who live as normal tweens by day, international pop stars by night?
AMANDA: Allow me to answer that question with a prediction: In about two years, Justin Bieber will announce his grownupedness by appearing in a video surrounded by women dressed as sexy aardvarks, or something.
SADY: PROBABLY. I think that’s the next big step for the Beebs. That or allowing leaked photos of his very first armpit hair to appear on TMZ. But dudes don’t have to, like, “grow up” by announcing how sexy they are now. Not the way ladies do.
AMANDA: Yeah, I mean, it seems that the sign of grownupedness is ladies without pants, and so if you’re a lady, take off your pants, and if you’re a man, get some ladies and take off their pants. Lady Gaga has of course complicated this equation by making sexiness also about dressing like bizarre animals. Which is hilarious, because now when you have parents clutching their pearls over this, they also necessarily have to be like “And what’s with the kids these days with the bird costumes?”
Not A Girl: A modified Catholic schoolgirl outfit provided ample fodder for creepy adult fantasy, while Britney Spears‘ stated virginity insulated her from the accompanied slut-shaming.
Not Yet A Woman:“Britney, are you sure you’re mature enough to take responsibility for that sensual albino python?”
SADY: Right? Not only do they have to worry about the teens doing the sexy dances, they also have to worry that their wholesome sons and daughters are going to slaughter everybody in the IHOP and get sent to Bitch Prison. I mean, it’s interesting to me, though, like the whole transition from “innocent” (or “not that innocent” in one notable case) to “I am wearing a thigh-high boot, spinning around a pole, and letting backup dancers lick my face” that so many women who grow up in the public eye have to undergo. Like the ONLY OPTION is publicly performing “virgin” or publicly performing “SEX SEX LOOK AT ME IT’S POSSIBLE I MIGHT BE HAVING SEX.” For ladies. Dudes are just allowed to grow up gracefully, more often. And there’s nothing wrong with being licked! Or spinning around a pole, if you want to do that! It’s just like… she HAS to announce adulthood with these very public, very overt signifiers of sexuality.
AMANDA: I know, I was wracking my brain for young pop stars who have not gone through the Not Wearing Pants phase, and the only ones I can think of are a) Kelly Clarkson, who wrote a song about how she doesn’t hook up and how she can clean up the mess your ex-girlfriend made who probably does hook up because all the kids are doing it, and b) Taylor Swift, who, well WE KNOW. WE KNOW ABOUT THAT ONE. For the record, I’m not a pop star, and I’ve attended several parties where I haven’t worn pants the whole time at those parties. IT HAPPENS. But the dichotomy is really frustrating.
SADY: Yeah. I mean, me and pants have a troubled history. There was a time, Amanda! A time when I was convinced leggings were, in fact, pants! A time when I was TERRIBLY WRONG. And I enjoy taking my pants off in certain conducive contexts, of course, as we all do. Nobody wants to wear pants permanently! Except for Tobias Funke!
AMANDA: Haha Indeed. But so, I was thinking about Thinking of the Children the other day. And how Think of the Children is almost always used as a really transparent cover that adults use to condemn something they’re extremely uncomfortable with at all ages, and then claim that they’re only protecting The Children from it, instead of themselves.
SADY: Yeah. And Thinking Of The Children often seems to involve… not a lot of thinking about how The Children actually tend to behave? Like: My shameful secret is that I actually ENJOY THE HELL out of this video. Not because it’s “empowering,” or because I take ANY of its messages at face value, but because — like Miley herself — it’s so goofy and embarrassing in precisely the ways that 17-year-old-girl rebellion is goofy and embarrassing.
AMANDA: It’s pretty much the Twilight of videos. Except less virginy.
SADY: Haha, yeah. I mean, it’s so high school! Like: She is in a CAGE! A CAGE of your JUDGING HER! But she is a bird that Cannot, as the saying goes, be Tamed! or Blamed! She will do what she wants! GET OUT OF HER ROOM, MOMMMMMMM. SHE’LL WEAR WHATEVER SHE WANTS TO WEAR OH MY GOD STOP MAKING SUCH A BIG DEAL OUT OF IT I WANT TO DIE I HATE YOU I HATE YOU. And then the door slams. And the video’s over.
AMANDA: And then she gives this interview where she Explains, like, what the video is about. It’s about being an adult now, GOD.
SADY: Right! I mean: We talk about growing up in public. But Miley Cyrus, despite (DON’T READ THIS PART, MILEY CYRUS) having released some of my least favorite songs EVER, actually seems to be, like… growing up. In public. With all the associated awkwardness. But that’s the thing, about Thinking About the Children: We have this very idealized normative concept of how a “good” teen behaves and it’s just not in line with these realities. At all! And honestly it is, as you said, just about shoving aside what makes us uncomfortable.
Not a Girl: In Christina Aguilera’s first hit single, she waited for someone to release her from the confines of bare midriffed virginity.
Not Yet A Woman: In 2002, assless chaps were considered a strong indicator of adulthood.
AMANDA: Yeah, and why the fuck are we acting like all our insecurities can be resolved by Miley Cyrus not doing some weird shit in a music video? I’ll also add that Miley’s actually doing pretty fucking awesome at navigating all this stuff. In February, she said this: “My job isn’t to tell your kids how to act or how not to act because I’m still figuring that out for myself. To take that away from me is a bit selfish . . . Your kids are going to make mistakes whether I do or not. That’s just life.” Coming from someone who was EVISCERATED for appearing in a magazine with her back visible, that point is well-taken.
SADY: WHOA. Miley seems really together! In that quote! Sorry, Miley! I mean, yeah: I think the fact that our cultural insecurities CAN be raised by just such a video is pretty telling. Like that not-really-pole-dancing she did that one time, or the Liebowitz shot: A lot of it was just grown men (and women) being all, “I’m afraid this might turn me on! And I’m scared!” And, yeah, you ought notta be eroticizing the teenagers. But constantly monitoring this one specific female teenager to determine whether she’s inappropriately sexy is, like… Not that much less creepy? I think young women’s sexuality is often put in that place of overtly well-meaning, covertly creepy monitoring. Like, we’re SO OBSESSED with young women not being sexual (which they really usually are) that we constantly evaluate how sexual they are. And then there’s all the teen-eroticizing that takes place ANYWAY, because it’s so taboo. And the result is Britney, America’s #1 Virgin, dancing in a Catholic schoolgirl outfit, and later sort of cracking under the weight of how VERY many contradictions she was expected to represent.
AMANDA: Right. I’ll take the bird costume. And the adult hand-ringing: It is extremely creepy, and it’s directly related to people being freaked out about their own interest in Miley Cyrus. But like, for 17 year old boys and ladies, a crush on Miley is extremely reasonable? And Miley is, as I read in a recent story, 17 AND A HALF. A half! She’s almost 18. Let her wear not-pants!
SADY: Yeah, exactly. Like: I think it’s totally fine for teens to be sexual, WITH EACH OTHER. Provided they’re educated enough to not take stupid risks and hurt themselves or others. Even if I was like, “it’s not okay! Stop doing that, teens! STOP IT RIGHT NOW BECAUSE I SAID SO,” they would do it anyway. But there’s no safe space in this culture for a young woman to sort of grow into her sexuality, because it’s fetishized and demonized and the fetishization and the demonization are directly connected. So people want you and they hate you and they hate you because they want you and they want you because they hate you and it is basically a wonder any of us gets through it even semi-intact.
Not a Girl: As a Cheetah Girl, Kiely Williams sang about doing her best and following her heart.
Not Yet A Woman: As a young adult, Williams’ heart led her to eroticize passed-out sex.
AMANDA: Right. It’s just important to make the distinction between OH MY DISNEY GIRL SEXY AVIAN COSTUME WHAT ARE THEY DOING TO OUR CHILDREN! and saying, Hey, it must be hard to be a Girl, Not Yet A Woman in the spotlight and be criticized no matter how you want to grow into adulthood. I will say that the song kind of sucks, in a not-criticizing-her-burgeoning-sexuality kind of way.
SADY: Oh, yeah. I mean, I am not going to the “Miley, your expensive silver corset denotes your Brainwashing By The Patriarchy” place. Not in my lifetime! And I hope I’m not saying that I think she’s stupid or anything — just in a really awkward place, and I kind of find the very awkwardness of the place charming, because I have so been there. Also her Auto-Tune makes her sound like a cartoon animal, though. Which is not a criticism of her sexuality or body, just of the fact that it like squeaks and she reminds me of a Forest Friend offering helpful advice. “You can’t be blamed either Sady! Come with me to my land of mystical enchantments! We’ll have a tea party with all the other bunny rabbits!” EEK.
AMANDA: I can’t wait until Auto-Tune is recognized as a feminist issue.
SADY: WHY MUST WE DEFORM OUR SISTERS’ NATURAL TUNELESSNESS TO APPEASE THE MEN?
AMANDA: Yes, but on the other hand, Auto-Tune helps to equalize a patriarchal music industry standard which prefers women with naturally pleasant singing voices.
SADY: That’s so last-wave-of-Auto-Tune politics! I prize the sound of ALL voices! Howsoever sucky!