I’m not sure why everyone is talking about Miley Cyrus. Maybe it’s because the situation in Syria is too difficult to think about or maybe it’s just that she’s another attractive, scantily clad woman that people can project their own causes onto.
Some have complained that her performance at the recent Video Music Awards was too raunchy or shocking. Others think it was sexist. Still others claim the backlash against her is really slut shaming (a term I hate), while other are using it to discuss race since the male rapper was white. All of these points have their interesting elements, but given how excited people are, I’m surprised there isn’t a massive stampede to English or Women’s Studies departments, because this kind of cultural criticism has become their currency. Ultimately, I think everyone has missed the point.
Given the fact that my last post discussed the importance of challenging assumptions, I thought it would be useful to isolate a presupposition of all of these analyses. Everyone is treating the concert as if it were spontaneous, as if Cyrus rolled out of bed after a long night of humping pandas or whatever it is she does, grabbed the leftover lingerie that she had crumpled into a ball the night before, ran to the stage, and sang her song. What people are ignoring is the fact that this was a performance that was planned, designed, rehearsed and evaluated for many weeks. It involved hundreds of people, not the least of whom work at the standards department at a television studio. There were choreographers, costume designers, lighting specialists, and lawyers…lots and lots of lawyers. And while at least one friend of mine speculated that she improvised to make it more raunchy, doing so in this kind of number is virtually impossible. She has to hit her marks exactly--for the dancers, for the lighting, and most importantly for the camera. There was nothing here that wasn’t a group effort.
Her performance was no more shocking than Madonna simulating masturbation on the VMA stage in 1984. I wasn’t much raunchier than Christina Aquilera’s video Dirty in 2002. But regardless, the person who performed on stage was not Miley Cyrus, but Miley Cyrus™. She doesn’t write her own songs, she doesn’t choreograph her own dance, and she doesn’t design her own costumes. I don’t know how much creative control she has, but she has been performing as instructed her entire life. Why wouldn’t she do it now, especially when all the people who make money from her (including her) know that everyone—including some philosophy professor in North Dakota—will talk about her? This isn’t about sex and it isn’t about shock. It’s about getting free advertising for a product in a saturated market that caters to consumers with no attention span and voyeuristic gossip-fueled libidos
At the heart of this though, is the philosophical concept of “agency.” An agent is a person or group who is responsible for initiating an action and is to be held accountable for its consequences. Miley Cyrus isn’t a person, she’s a brand, and it is questionable whether, in the end, we can blame her more than we can blame the producers that control her. In other words, all these people who are accusing her of being whatever it is they object to or believe in, are claiming than she has more agency than I think she actually does.
This is not just a gender thing. A similar situation happened last year when Seth McFarlane hosted the Oscars and there was uproar about his jokes. People condemned him as a horrible sexist, but he didn’t even write most of his dialogue; someone else did. And again, it had all been rehearsed and passed through the lawyers for weeks before the live event.
The nature of fame in the contemporary world is that everyone is a product. It may be the case that in the end, the person whose name is being used is the person who is ultimately accountable (just ask Paula Dean). But the idea that anything they do in a planned performance gives us any sense of what he or she is like as a person is ludicrous. America has lost sight of the distinction between theater and reality. We have forgotten the difference between the character a person plays and the personality of the actor who play it. Miley Cyrus is a fictional construct designed to make money. About the woman who makes her come alive, we know little or nothing.