On Miley Cyrus, the VMAs, and Feminism

So the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) aired on Sunday night here in the U.S., and the highlight of the night was the strippers. Not that they were the high point, mind you. In fact, quite the opposite. This is the low point we as women have worked so hard to achieve:

Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus onstage at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. Image via dailymail.co.uk.Images via www.dailymail.co.uk

They say: take me seriously as an artist. Gaga, with her ARTPOP album on the horizon, is quick to defend her antics as artistic presentations. And then, what do these artistes do?

They strip on stage and dance. We’ve come a long way, baby.

Miley’s tongue suddenly cannot stay in her head as she touches herself (Madonna did it eons ago), touches Robin Thicke, and proceeds to thrust, grind, and twerk her junk (wish that term could just die, already) to the “shock” of the nation. Gaga stripped to two strategically-placed shells and a thong. A THONG. Really?

I  wasn’t personally offended when I watched a replay of Miley’s twisted mix of teddy bears and T&A. I thought it was sad. As I wrote above, this kind of shock-value performance was done by Madonna (Blond Ambition tour, 1990), when it actually delivered a jolt to our collective psyche, and Madonna was making a statement about women owning their sexuality, and owning it blatantly. She called it “musical theater,” and at the time it was so bold and offensive it was actually illegal in some cities and countries.* It had impact. And Madonna was 32, not 20. She had struggled and worked hard for her fame and platform. She was a woman with life experience making clear choices, not a girl blaming/claiming “puberty” for her incongruous behavior as she transitions from a gilded life of childhood stardom.

Which is why I think we found Miley’s performance all the more disturbing. Her display was neither theater nor art; it was a gratuitous attempt by a girl fresh out of her teens to be overtly sexual, controversial, and outlandish—without the life experience, societal oppression, or real struggle that informs most art. It smacked of cheapness and desperation. And immaturity.

As women, we have said: Take us seriously. Pay us equally. Give us the same opportunities. Don’t treat us as sex objects, because we are more than that.

And the best we can do after all feminism and women’s rights have done to level the playing field is strip off our clothes and present ourselves as sex objects. On and off the stage. And before you all jump on me, I know it is feminism that paved the way for Miley to don her flesh-toned, latex bikini and writhe onstage (or on Robin) as she pleases. I know it is feminism that gave her the right to do that.

But now that we can do that, why would we?

*Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blond_Ambition_Tour


  1. This subject almost made me want to take up my blogging again so that I could get on my soapbox! You said it…”Take me seriously! I’m an artist!” I’m sorry, I can’t hear you with your crotch in my face. Seems every time a young woman wants to show she’s grown, she strips off her clothes and performs every sexual cliche she can think of in public.

    I don’t claim to be a feminist, at least not in the way that I’ve been told that feminism means. I’m steadfastly behind, equal pay and equal opportunity. But for me, feminism means that ideally women are free from being defined as sex objects. We don’t need to “own” our sexuality. It’s there. It’s not going anywhere. Enjoy it in the bedroom. I don’t need or want to see it everywhere I look.

    As for Miley, I have a daughter her age. I would spank her butt if she pulled crap like that! I wouldn’t be taking pictures and cheering her on. And then, I would also have to love one her big time and try to find out what is missing in her life that would make her so desperate for attention. I love what Janelle Monae said about how seriously she takes her art: “People don’t ask Jay Z to take his shirt off when he rhymes…[she wants to] redefine what it means to be sexy and what it means to be a woman.” Now THAT is feminism!

    1. Amen, amen, amen! I agree and co-sign 180%. This is a fantastic comment, Serene, thank you. And I’m of the same ilk. I don’t wear feminism as a badge and don’t call myself a feminist, but I am, in the way that you are.

      And THIS—–>> “People don’t ask Jay Z to take his shirt off when he rhymes…[she wants to] redefine what it means to be sexy and what it means to be a woman.” Now THAT is feminism!


  2. I agree with what you are saying wholeheartedly. As I watched her performance (if you can even call it that), I wondered to myself if I’m just too old. I thought it was embarassing to watch and so ridiculous as to be totally asexual despite the twerking and gyrating. I too thought of Madonna back when she was shocking us all but couldn’t put my finger on why it was different with her but now I see why.

    1. I don’t think we’re too old. I think there is a major problem with society at the moment. See the comment just below this…Fay makes some excellent points about the connection between the rampant, overt sexuality and teen pregnancy.

  3. I’m so so tired of seeing popstars strip down to what amounts to underwear and simulate sex on stage. Miley, Gaga, Rihanna etc. What does this to say to this generation’s young girls? That women are only sexual beings and you can’t get anywhere without stripping off and being overly sexual in public. You can sell records without resorting to such antics, Adele is proof of this (I love her). This is more of a problem in the west and this culture no doubt is linked to the alarming rates of teen pregnancies etc.

    Compare it to female kpop stars where they’d never dream of going on stage in undies and grinding against a man almost twice their age. Yes kpop stars are sexy but in a different way. It is sexy to leave things to the imagination sometimes.

    Coincidentally Japan and Korea have the lowest levels of teen pregnancies in the world and the US and the UK have the highest. That speaks volumes.

    1. Fabulous points, Fay. Thank you for making them. I agree…the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Teen pregnancy (and the fact that no one really even cares anymore if children are illegitimate) is indicative of the west’s crumbling morality. It’s not good, I don’t care what people say.

      1. No one cares if a child is illegitimate anymore because its illerelvent although what is relevant is that children are brought into this world with love and support ideally from a mother and a father but even if it happens to be from a single mum who cares as long as the love and support is there. I know a friend of mine who’s parents have been together 22 years had 4 children which are technically illegitimate as there parents have never been married as it never mattered to them in fact they have probably been together long than some couples who have had illegitimate children. Yes I do agree that morality has been crumbling in the west but to care if a child is legitimate is worst than them being being born out of wedlock.

        More on the post point it’s self I think woman who dress like this are rarely doing it out of feminism and forgive me for saying this out of insecurity. Although let’s be fair how much of an outrage would it have caused if the cast of magic mike appeared on screen and did a dance routine? Not a lot I’m sure. This is partly down to mileys age after all she did pair her PVC bikini with stripper moves rather than just wear a revealing outfit. I think the biggest issue here isn’t just feminism it’s self respect if she can hand on her heart say she won’t regret it in 20 years time fair enough but I doubt it. I think this self respect is something that needs to be installed in everyone and for people to love them selfs enough to eat well and maintain a healthy lifestyle. I think self respect isn’t just about how you dress but its also related to what we put in our bodies and doing things willingly. I think teen pregnancy has rised out of a lack of self respect as woman for example believe that is the only thing to do to please a man. Although I believe the pressure is there for young men to but in a different way.

  4. You’re so on point. The whole thing was disgusting. The Smith family had it right with those expressions. I don’t understand why some women clearly don’t think they can contribute valuably to their art without stripping down to nothing in a vulgar way. Yeah, you get attention and clearly the whole world is talking about you, but mostly people are just sad for this girl. {as an aside, I also think her ex/fiance — who can keep up — is totally hot, Liam Helmsworth from Hunger Games, who cares he’s like a decade younger than me, but I’m totally now judging him as well). Total side note from a 30-something with a nerdy crush on a guy but I’m judging everyone around her, who isn’t helping her rise about this.

    1. I think Liam is seriously on his way out. They’ve been photographed only once together in months. I get the feeling they are holding out for something, then they’ll part ways. There is no way he’s going to marry her. She reverted from being an attractive, successful young lady into a vulgar urchin.

      And yeah, he’s hot. But you know I have a thing for Aussies. 😉

  5. 100% FACT, v. couldn’t have said this better. i was so upset watching the awards. in order to get attention, you must not only not wear PANTS, but hey, take off your top as well. it’s all just terribly disturbing that this is now the mainstream message not only younger girls and women as a whole are receiving, but that women are objects. sex objects, objects to be adorned with clothing. it’s really all we are? yet, we fight for equality? it’s all very confusing. i’m sure you have seen miss representation (the documentary) and this whole situation further proves the point of what the message of the doc was. i’m just sad. and i feel hopeless about it, too.

    1. Agreed, agreed! It is a sad state of affairs. Not only are girls getting the message that they need to be super sexy and super exposed to be attractive, but they are getting the message from like four years old. Our children don’t have childhoods anymore. It’s just awful. I seriously couldn’t take the stress of trying to raise a child and keep it safe, and its head screwed on straight in these times. It’s CRAZY.

  6. darn! there was a glitch and my comment was somehow deleted after i pressed submit. i wrote a long response, but now will just say that i agree 1005 with you and was thinking this the entire award show. sicking and sad.

  7. I’ve had a lot of *head desk* moments over the past two days after seeing these clips from the VMAs. You’re right…what they’re doing isn’t art, it isn’t theater. It isn’t even daring. It’s just sad and desperate. It doesn’t even have shock value because lawd knows we’ve all seen Lady Gaga naked more times than we ever cared to. Miley seems to be in the middle of some little mixed up rebellion that is just confusing. Like…why?

    I’m sure many people watched both performances and found them neither sexy nor provocative. It’s like, “OK, we get it. SEX.” It’s not subtle. It’s just crude.

    Miley’s performance brought me back to Britney’s performance 13 (!) years ago when she tore off her clothes to reveal a nude body suit. The difference between Britney and Miley is Britney was performing. It was fantastic, sexy yet the whole time she really wasn’t *that* undressed. Miley just looked foolish dancing around on stage, molesting bears and Robin Thicke. It was just weird.

    1. The comparison to Britney’s performance is a good one, Courtney. Brit DID perform, and she WAS sexy, but it wasn’t vulgar or try-hard.

      HAAAAA this made me laugh: “Miley just looked foolish dancing around on stage, molesting bears and Robin Thicke.” Yeah. Weird, with the obvious nod to drug trips and all that. It was just pathetic all the way around. I’m surprised Robin Thicke went for it.

  8. I also want to add that I’ve heard Miley’s stylist defend her wardrobe choices by saying her body is great and she’s hot (http://popstyle.ew.com/2013/08/22/miley-cyrus-stylist-talks-dressing-the-we-cant-stop-singer-and-launching-her-own-line-of-handbags/). Neither of those things are excuses for poor wardrobe choices and bad showmanship on stage. Heck, if Miley was a great singer live, we may have forgiven her poor wardrobe choices. But she’s not even that.

  9. It was just sad, and pathetic. And yeah, Miley’s bff, I’m fat and even (shock!) way older than thirty. (Her bff tweeted that Kelly Clarkson was “fat and 30” in response to Kelly’s shock tweet over Miley’s “performance”.) What Miley did doesn’t make me think “oh wow, she’s all grown up and hot and sexy!”, it makes me think “poor girl, she’s so sad and desperate.”

    1. I’m glad you brought this up, because I thought: “Oh, just wait til YOU hit 30. And 40. And beyond, if you’re lucky.” Her BFF’s defense was as immature as the presentation itself. In fact I’ve been looking at Miley’s behavior, the hair, the clothes, thinking that she has reverted to about age 16 instead of going forth into womanhood with grace.

  10. THANK YOU!

    And, ps, wtf Robin Thicke? Not even just this, but have you seen the unedited video for “Blurred Lines”? I loved the song and now all I can think about is how cocky and gross he is. People are like “they’re just boobs, get over it” but do I need to see a 21-year-old’s boobs? I have my own to look at, thanks…

  11. Love this V, because it’s exactly what I was thinking. I was doing something else when the VMA’s were on in the background, so I heard the song but didn’t see it. I only watched Justin Timberlake 20 minute love fest, then I did laundry.

    I went back yesterday and watched the Miley bit, and it also made me sad. It smacked so much of desperation and screamed “Accept me, I’m cool, right?!” Even when Britney did her sexy little thang in her nude pantsuit a few years ago on another VMA, it was way more tasteful than what Miley did.

    I’m sure Miley is looking back at recordings of her performance and saying to herself “What?! Pffft – Haters gonna HATE…” But what will she be thinking 10 years from now?


  12. Great post V! Didn’t see the performance by Miley Cyrus but your description says it all. More people need to be calling out this kind of unnecessary objectification of women in popular culture. The comparison you’ve made to what Madonna did back in the 90s and the context around why she did it is brilliant.

  13. Just watched it again with my husband. And while I agree with you wholeheartedly, I was interested to see his reaction. He hadn’t read or heard anything about it (he works a lot and we live in Singapore– easily done!), so I casually put it on and sat back and watched.
    He wasn’t attracted to her, he didn’t find it sexy, he didn’t respect her, he said it made him sad. Sad that she felt like this was some great, mature, adult statement. Because it wasn’t. It felt desperate.
    And yes, she claims she doesn’t care what others think- and that is a good thing. But I can’t help wondering, what does she think???

  14. I’ve been reading a lot about Miley last night and this morning… got to stop, it’s making my head hurt 🙁 Firstly: I agree 100% with what you wrote, V, and thank you for writing it so succinctly (many articles and posts have been far too long about the subject).

    I will say this though: not matter what is said about her, good or bad, the point of her performance surely was to get everyone talking about her (and I don’t condone that as a reason for her doing it at all). She wins either way: it’s the old cliche about there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Everyone knows who Miley Cyrus is now – there’s no way we *wouldn’t* be talking about her performance, but if only we could restrain ourselves from doing so, there would have been no point to such a display. Stories like this sell newspapers + we write about it online + they’re talked about on social media = she gets her publicity.

    And look, I’ve done the same – I’m contributing to her getting her name known by commenting on sites and discussing it with my friends and family! Unfortunately the implications of her actions matter to us and to society, but not to her and her advisors (and that’s not good). But the media complain about these sorts of performances one minute, then publicise them the next – they’re to blame as much as she is. It’s a vicious circle we have no idea how to break. And yet it continues…

    C x

  15. I agree!!! My husband and I saw that performance and our first thoughts were “OMG what if our daughter was old enough to watch this?” Then I get to thinking of all this young girls becoming young mothers because they were doing these grown woman things too early and then they teach their daughters to do the same. Feminism was and still is about being respected as women. How can we ask men to respect us when we don’t?

  16. So well said! This post is thoughtful intelligent and in every way asking all the right questions. These actions ARE NOT revolutionary. By today’s standards, they ARE immature and desperate. I see examples of it everyday. Younger woman strive to be taken seriously, but at the same time, look up to these woman who spread a message of self appreciation by acting like cheap whores. The entire thing makes me sick to my stomach. Two years ago I had to stop and think where we were as women when 100’s were posting on Twitter that they’d let Chris Brown beat them. Really?!? Joking or not, the fact that women were saying they would willingly put themselves in a violent situation just to date a musician is beyond any sort of rational or well educated judgement.

    I’m putting a link to this post on my twitter today. I know many of my friends would strongly agree this this.


  17. So crawling out from under a rock, over here in Perth…I noticed this all over my Facebook feed the next day. When I finally saw it my stomach churned and I could almost the feel waves of mortification emanating from her poor fiancé, Liam Hemsworth. There is just no way he could stay with her after that. Not only the performance itself but the fact that she’s constantly – and on that night too, photographed draping herself in the arms of everyone but the poor guy. I’m really surprised he is still around…most Aussie men I know are very masculine and he’s a cuckold if I ever saw one.

    And the performance?
    She looks like she is on drugs. Full stop. She seems very malleable and drugs remove peoples boundaries and make them very open to suggestion and degradation. I think that she isn’t old or savvy enough to have created this persona or image in a vacuum and will regret this.

    There are definitely others in the shadowy background orchestrating this and egging her on. You are right, Madonna was in control and made conscious feminist statements about sexuality back in the day – as an adult. Miley reminds me of Taryn Manning’s character of Nola in the movie Hustle and Flow. Trying to find an identity, using her body to get ahead and totally confused at the same time. And interestingly enough – it was a woman – Diane Martel who directed both the Blurred Lines and Can’t Stop Video… Yet, throughout the VMA performance Robin Thicke (sorry, ew…not into him at all) but I’ll give him this…he looked awkward as though the whole thing had gone “off-script.”

    At any rate…I feel sorry for my nieces. They loved Hannah Montana. And Billy Ray? Her mum? Her family…where are they? Technically I guess she’s an adult…but still. Sad. The times in which we live, eh?

    1. Hi Diana…rescued your comment from the spam can. Rest assured when you don’t see it posted immediately, I find it in spam. I check everything in the spam can before I delete! Would hate to lose all your brilliant comments.

      Yeah, the Liam thing…you’re right. Aussie men are a different breed. I imagine very soon we will see the big split announcement. It’s almost as if he’s delaying it until he’s done with his current film and can deal with it. That’s what I think, anyway.

      And Miley IS on drugs, admits it. That’s another thing Madonna has over Gaga and Miley: she never did drugs at the pinnacle of her career or after. She kept her nose clean, worked out like an athlete, and aside from that she is mega intelligent. I don’t necessarily agree with everything she has done, or her political diatribes, but I respect her for her discipline and pure, raw strength.

      Thanks again for chiming in!

      1. Oh, totally…there is something fishy as to why he is laying low. And yup – Aussie men are a different breed alright!
        I haven’t personally followed much of her music or career over the last decade. Especially the political stuff. But Madonna was a champ at the height of it all – totally disciplined and a machine! 🙂

  18. Oh, boo hoo! I left a comment but it got eaten by the comment monster.
    But, in a nutshell…or a tiny, latex a-cup bra…Spot on post and totally agree with ya, V!

  19. Totally agree with everything you say. I wonder what Miley will think in say, 20 years time when she looks back on this. It’s just so tasteless. Put your tongue back in girl! Not a great look.

  20. I did not even watch the VMAs. However, my Twitter and Facebook were exploding during the program. I watched Miley’s performance the next day online. I didn’t even know what to say.

    I so agree with every point of your post. Yes, the fierce feminists before her allowed her this opportunity/freedom to “express” herself in this manner. But good grief. Talk about one step forward, two steps back!

    I am really sorry for this generation of young women. No real role models. Tsk tsk…

  21. I am so glad I stumbled upon this post! I was in the proccess of writing a blog post about nudity in the ‘fashion’ world, when I decided to search and see if any others felt as I did.

    I’m 23, a female, and not at all happy with the way women are acting now. I don’t understand when women’s rights and women’s equality turned into running around in nothing and exposing yourself so openly. I agree with you: it’s not offensive–it’s sad to see women acting this way. As a woman, I want to be respected and treated well and don’t think this is the way to achieve it. We are taking so many steps back. I’m glad to not be the only person (outside of my family) who is disgusted by these awful displays.

    These women are not good role models. We should be looking up to women like Margaret Thatcher and Mother Theresa! True women who have overcome so many obstacles–without taking off their clothes.

    1. Thank YOU, Evelyn, for taking the time to comment.

      I think this post (or a similar one) actually really teed some of my former “followers” off…but I think more of us were on the same page than not. I agree that as women, we ARE taking so many steps back. I’m glad that you have yourself together, though, and at such a young age.

      I wish more young ladies had your perspective; it’s so different now with social media. When I was 23, we could cut loose a little, and maybe even make some bad choices, but it wasn’t broadcast to the world via the Internet. Now it kind of feels like social media is just another platform for competition…and of course, in the folly of youth, most girls tend to think the sexy, promiscuous girl wins. It’s easy to post something risqué and get wrapped up in the likes and what not; not so easy to remove it when you’re older and trying to start a serious career or a family.

      Anyway, thanks again for chiming in!

      1. I’m sorry you lost followers due to the post. I can only hope that you planted a seed and in time they will come to see the importance in what you wrote.

        Our point of view is often lost due what we see on tv and in magazines. Girls like us don’t fit in with the celebrity lifestyle. To be cool we have to be like them. The problem with that is, their lifestyle isn’t always as desirable as it seems. There are many things we don’t see.

        Knowing that, I really believe there are more people on our side then we realize. 🙂