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Miley Cyrus, twerking, and the 'sexual hazing' of American pop stars

Harry BruiniusThe Christian Science Monitor

Miley Cyrus twerked her way into a cultural maelstrom Sunday, after her tongue-wagging sexual prancing at MTV’s Video Music Awards made her the talk of nearly everyone with an Internet connection.

Yet even as millions of viewers continue to watch and rewatch her VMA performance on YouTube – there have been more than 7 million hits since Sunday night – Ms. Cyrus may have uncovered more than her flesh-colored bikini costume, laying bare as much about contemporary culture as about the young artist herself.

It's a clash straight from the pages of Sigmund Freud: a deeply-rooted desire to gaze on sexual images – of women in particular – while at the same time cluck-clucking about the moral standards of the female performing. This moral ambivalence has become part of what some scholars call a well-rehearsed pop ritual: a female pop star comes of age by becoming an exaggerated sexual caricature, exploiting the moral controversy her performance generates for financial gain. In other words, sex always sells, in the end.

Cyrus’s performance was, in many ways, one of the most explicit and raunchy performances ever seen on MTV – and that is saying a great deal. Coming onstage first in a small, skin-tight leotard, Cyrus performed her summer hit “We Can’t Stop,” a song that celebrates “twerking,” the name for a hip-hop-inspired club dance in which a woman bounces her hips up and down to emphasize her derriere.

She was then joined by Robin Thicke, an R&B artist whose smash hit “Blurred Lines” has also generated controversy this summer, since its video includes nude models dancing around fully dressed men, who sing “I hate these blurred lines; I know you want it, but you’re a good girl.” Cyrus danced and twerked and used a foam “No. 1” finger prop to simulate a variety of lewd acts on Mr. Thicke.

Her performance has obviously tweaked a cultural nerve. The gape-inducing spectacle even made pop stars – no strangers to push-it-to-the-edge performances, to be sure – bulge their eyes and cover their mouths. And many of them joined groups like the Parents Television Council  and other conservative leaders to condemn the former Disney superstar.

But Cyrus is certainly not the first pop singer to provoke controversy at the VMAs. In fact, the annual award show has become known as a kind of debutante’s ball marking the end of a female star’s age of innocence.

Madonna removed parts of her white wedding dress costume and writhed on the VMA stage singing “Like a Virgin” almost 30 years ago. Britney Spears invoked Madonna in her 2001 performance of “I’m a Slave 4 U,” dancing suggestively with a live albino Burmese python – and leaving her school girl outfits behind.

And both performers shocked VMA audiences in another allusion to Madonna’s 1984 performance, when the Material Girl herself dressed as a top-hatted groom and “married” Ms. Spears and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 show – the lasting image being an iconic and explicit kiss between Madonna and Spears.

“On one hand, it is a rite of passage for young women in the popular entertainment industry,” says Gordon Coonfield, professor of media studies at Villanova University in Philadelphia and an expert on pop culture. “Some big event gets co-opted by a salacious performance that pushes the bounds of propriety. This is followed by a reaction phase in which images and talk of the event go viral. More buzz is generated by a completely predictable backlash of moral outrage.”

But the ritual comes at a cost to society's view of femininity, Professor Coonfield says. “Cyrus comes of age under the public eye. And the only kind of womanhood that public seems to permit these young people is that of a grotesquely exaggerated femininity, one that is hyper-sexualized and one that demands and relishes their humiliation.”

It’s the kind of blurred lines that pop songs have long celebrated – think of Billy Joel’s 1977 hit “Only the Good Die Young,” in which the singer tries to coax a “good” Catholic girl to give up her virtue. But once she does, she becomes an object of scorn.  

“Our cultural ambivalence towards women shows up every day in the form of the sexual double standard,” says Kathleen Bogle, professor of sociology at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “But periodically our cultural angst goes public when we react to Madonna, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus or whoever the flavor of the month is at that time. What all these women have in common is finding a formula that simultaneously outrages the public while filling their personal bank accounts.”

So the double standard is caught up in an economic matrix that bestows riches and fame on those pop stars who can cleverly play on these cultural ambivalences, creating another layer, often unseen, to the moral outrage on display now towards Cyrus.

“Miley Cyrus is exploited because she’s a young woman who’s only valued sexually, but at the same time she’s representative of an exploiting group, because she’s a white person who’s essentially using African-American cultural output to amplify her own money and power. And Madonna was similar in some ways,” says Aram Sinnreich, professor of media studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and an expert on the intersection of music and social networking.

“But that’s part of what makes her so compelling and so interesting,” Professor Sinnreich adds. “You don’t know whether she’s the exploiter or the exploited.... She's straddling all those dichotomous positions at once, which maximizes the tension, which ultimately maximizes the marketing value."

Yet Cyrus went beyond the typical Madonna-Britney-Christina template for the coming-out pop ritual for young female artists. And this may also explain some of the vehemence of those now condemning her. With her cropped hair and her appropriation of twerking – commonly seen as an underground club dance by black women – Cyrus touched even more cultural ambivalences.

“Rather than donning the typical tropes of sexy femaleness – blond hair, tight dress – Miley was almost grotesque, with her teddy-bear leotard and ever-present tongue,” says Alice Marwick, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York. “While she was dressed skimpily and groped her co-star Robin Thicke and her backup dancers, this type of aggressive sexuality doesn't fit the mold.”

“In both her VMAs performance and the 'We Can't Stop' video, Miley appropriates urban black culture ... to try to distance herself from her former Disney roots – but also her roots in red-state country music,” says Professor Marwick.

In the end, however, this pop ritual is reserved for young women.

“Justin Timberlake didn't have to endure this kind of sexual hazing to become a serious adult male artist,” says Coonfield at Villanova. “And can you imagine Justin Bieber engaging in a humiliating, hyper-sexualized display like this in order to transition from boy pop to artist?”  

“It is convenient to blame the tabloid press,” he says. “But ... we participate by taking pleasure in this ritual. So while it may be tempting to blame Cyrus, or her handlers, or MTV, this really goes much deeper.”