Thursday, August 29, 2013

The VMA's: Slut-shaming and sexual currency

There's been a lot of buzz lately about Miley Cyrus' recent performance at the VMA awards. And as your neighborhood Mormon hippie feminist blogger, I'm going to add my own two cents. One cent is about the phenomenon of "slut-shaming" and the other cent is about using sexuality as currency.

I've heard a lot of negative responses to Miley's hypersexualized performance, everything from women telling their daughters to let Miley Cyrus be a lesson to them to women calling Miley out on the racist implications of her performance. I've also heard a lot of people dismissing the performance because it was the VMAs, and Miley is not the first artist to do something wildly controversial at the ceremony. It was certainly a strong move on the part of some publicist--gone is the Hannah Montana mousketeer image. But it seems that the general feeling is that the 20-year-old singer "shocked" and "disgusted" a nation.

Basically, there's a lot of "slut-shaming" going on. And if you ask me, that's a problem.

You can read a more in-depth explanation of the term "slut-shaming" here, but the basic definition is attacking a woman for having sexual feelings, expressing her sexuality, or being sexual or provocative in a way that isn't generally accepted in a society. And it's dangerous for a lot of reasons. A lot of people unconsciously "slut-shame" as a cautionary exercise--making sure good girls stay good. But that very act delineates women and girls into 2 categories: "good" and "bad" girls. And "bad" girls aren't victims--they had it coming. But if other people get to decide what a "good" girl and a "bad" girl is and then categorize people according to those definitions, then...

You see how this is problematic?

It takes a lot of power away from women. I hear a lot of people say that women can be empowered by acting "like a lady." But here's the flaw in that philosophy: acting "like a lady" is different in every society, and is constantly changing. By trying to empower themselves by acting a certain sexual way, women are simply puppets.

There are a lot of people who say that what Miley did clearly crossed the line, so we're justified in calling her out on it. It's not like we're saying she had it coming if she gets raped or something. But deep down, it's the same thing. We're still dividing women into "good girls" and "bad girls" to justify how we treat each other.

The phenomenon of "slut-shaming" demands that we draw lines and then blame people for crossing them. This seems like a reasonable, moral thing to do. But this argument is about who gets to draw the lines, and whether or not we're justified in how we treat the people who cross them.

What about women in strict Muslim countries? For them, going out in public without a male family member accompanying her is "clearly crossing the line." So people are justified in calling them out on it. If a woman is wearing a short skirt, and gets sexually harassed, she crossed a line, and "had it coming." If Miley Cyrus gets called dirty names on the internet, it's because she acted a certain way on television and deserves it. Here's the thing. Miley Cyrus could very well beat us all to the Celestial Kingdom. Other people whom we've deemed "bad" people have done great and beautiful things later in life.

With all that said, I didn't like the VMA performance, partly because the whole teddy bear motif was bizarre. I think the general reaction of "Oh dear. Ugghh" was a pretty accurate one, but I don't want to turn that into guile against any one person. I disliked the performance because it was evidence of a society in which sexuality is used not to express affection, but as currency. I know I'm treading on dangerous ground here, because many of my arguments may seem to categorize sexual behavior into "good" and "bad," which I just spent six paragraphs warning against. But my basic thought is that sexuality is, in general, a good thing. But when it's used for attention, for shock value, for manipulation, it ceases to be pure sexuality, and becomes about power. I'm not sure if Miley Cyrus understood the full implications of her performance. She got into a vehicle that's been problematic for centuries. I don't want to blame her for getting into the vehicle. I want society as a whole to torch the vehicle, and get a new one.

Our current vehicle is one which tells people that their value and their sexuality are connected. It includes a "rape culture" in which women are victims of jokes and harassment and violence. It includes a focus on pornography that traps women and men into lives they didn't choose, and can create addictions that destroy relationships. It's a vehicle we've been in for centuries, but I say it's time for a change. I don't have all the answers of what a perfect society would look like. But I know it wouldn't include shaming people for the choices they make, and it wouldn't include a culture that values sexuality as a means of manipulation and power.

11 comments:

K + J said...

So, I hear you. But isn't it also a matter of her being a daughter of God and twisting what should be sacred into something clearly not? I'm really glad that the public still recognizes that something's wrong with the picture.

Kjerstin said...

I don't know if we can accurately criticize Miley for not living up to her potential as a daughter of God. She was raised by Hollywood, not God, and I imagine she has a very weird relationship with attention, fame, popularity, sexuality, and especially self-worth, that is probably so complex and demanding that I can't even comprehend it, let alone judge it. Maybe she did cross a line... But I, as a non-child-star, am the last person in the world to draw it. Liz, well said. You made both of your points stunningly well, and I think you're absolutely right about sex a currency. I have no idea how to culturally address and fix that, though... Money, sex, and power are so wrapped up in each other (and often turn into the same thing) that I have no idea how to untangle them, even,at times, in my own life.

Luna Tsuki said...

"I disliked the performance because it was evidence of a society in which sexuality is used not to express affection, but as currency"

I couldn't agree more.

K + J said...

Kjerstin, you're absolutely right. Amen to the comments on sexual currency. I'm just trying to understand why I personally immediately recoiled from her performance. It's just sad and frustrating that this is a) the only thing the world wants from her, or, b) the only thing she thinks the world wants from her. I'm not condemning Miley or pretending to know what Heavenly Father thinks of her. But I think it's ok to watch something and judge if it's praiseworthy.

Also, I love you Liz.

Jules said...

Agreed with everything you said and would like to add that the other side of the coin is a bizarre modesty culture where women are still reduced solely to bodies.

The main problem I saw with Miley's performance? It was sooooooooo goofy. That hair! That tongue lollying! The obviously uncomfortable plastic underwear! And teddy bears? lol miley lol

Naomi Potter said...

Hey I've blogged hoped from kathleeneys blog. I think they call that stalking... Anyhow this was very thought provoking.

Brandilyn said...

I like this, mostly because I've been really tired of the "See, daughter, you are worth more than this," etc etc posts floating around. I will never turn MTV on with the expectation of wholesome family programming--why is everyone so surprised that something overtly sexual was shown on that channel? All the buzz about how disgusting, etc the performance was is only giving them what they want--video views and hype. I'm ready to move past the whole episode.

Marla said...

Interesting dialogue. I enjoyed & learned from reading it. My concern since Miley "performed" on the VMA is that she must have thought she was going on stage to do something outrageous... and the people around her were okay with it. The VMA's don't have a lot of limits. And perhaps the producer of the show saw it as what it has become: a huge marketing play. My question to you all is this: When do singers stop being singers and their voices become secondary to the dancing and their behavior on stage? I'm a country music fan because the country artists sing and play instruments on stage. Nothing else is needed. (Taylor Swift left the country genre when she started voguing and having an entourage of back-up dancers.)

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