[The following is blurry, but perhaps that is for the best. It is the only full version of the performance at issue currently available on YouTube, and it may not be there for long. Watch at your own risk.]
To listen to the horrified reaction to Miley Cyrus’s relatively obscene performance at the nationally televised MTV Music Video awards (not so long ago, Miley was that cute tween Hannah Montana on the Disney Channel) , one would think that rock and pop stars intentionally crossing the established lines of symbolic pubic sexual decorum was unprecedented. The furious and shocked condemnations seemed to emanate from some parallel culture, like the alternate universe that implicitly exists on CBS’s updated Sherlock Holmes drama “Elementary” (Sherlock is a precariously recovering alcoholic and drug addict; Dr. Watson is a former Charlie’s Angel) where nobody ever heard of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” Basil Rathbone or the dancing men cipher, because Arthur Conan Doyle never invented the character. ( The British updated Sherlock, uncreatively titled “Sherlock,” is so far superior to “Elementary” —which isn’t bad–that it’s unsettling.) Have Isadora Duncan, Josephine Baker, Sally Rand, Elvis, the Stones, Jim Morrison,, Madonna and Christina Aguilera been erased from the past by some music-hating cyborg from a dystrophy future where everyone sings like Matt Munro?
Gross simulated sexual display on television prime time has unethical elements, to be sure. It’s uncivil, to begin with, intentionally placing socially objectionable content before a lot of viewers who don’t want to see it. That’s a breach of respect, but a minor one in this context. Janet Jackson flashed a breast during the Superbowl half-time show, after all: the argument that this was a family event that shouldn’t have been unexpectedly transformed into a peep show was grounded in fact. This week, however, I heard earnest mothers protesting that their delicate pre-teens were watching the MTV awards and had the innocence cruelly seared out of them by the unexpected and horrifying sight of Miley twerking ( simulating sex while dancing—a brand new addition to the Oxford dictionary) on Robin Thicke, dressed as Beetlejuice. Those mothers, not to be excessively cruel myself, are idiots.
What did they expect to see? This is a live show populated by competing shameless self-promoting narcissists who know that the performer who says or does the most outrageous thing will win the publicity game, and be a topic of debate for days or even weeks. Miley won, that’s all. If a child saw something age-inappropriate, the parents can only blame themselves. This was roughly the equivalent of letting your kid watch “The Walking Dead” and complaining to AMC that the show’s violence is excessive for children. Ethics breach #1 is by any parent who allowed a child to watch this show while wanting to protect the child’s exposure to sexually provocative material. Irresponsible, incompetent, and stupid.
What else? Well, Miley Cyrus is technically an adult, but she is still (clearly), like most graduated ex-child stars, a victim of arrested development. Her advisors, handlers, staff and whatever other grown-ups who surround her and get paid for the privilege let her make a fool of herself. I can easily peer into the future and imagine a middle-aged Miley, trying to keep her own kids in line, downing a bottle of barbiturates after seeing her daughter watch a clip of this disaster.
It was an ugly, desperate, sad, “Look at me!” act completely devoid of sexiness, devised to give a promotional boost to Miley’s new song, about, you guessed it, twerking. (The song itself, for you Mel Brooks fans, is unlistenable, a 2013 equivalent of the atonal rock song used to kill Dick Van Patten in “High Anxiety”). The people who she should have been able to trust to keep her from public humiliation failed her, but like the protesting mothers, Miley has been in the entertainment buisness long enough to know that only money rules, ethics are as extinct as passenger pigeons, and it’s everyone for themselves. The aggressive sexualizing of female child stars is part of the whole unethical culture around that disturbing segment of the business, and this is the best perspective from which to view Miley’s degradation.
What is a post-puberty Disney star to do? She has known only celebrity and privilege most of her life, and now the choice seems to be between exploiting the sexual fantasies of the young boys who grew up with her, or declining into anonymity until a VH1 “Where Are They Now?” installment in ten years or so. One door leads to Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, or Taylor Momsen, the other to Amanda Bynes, Dana Plato or Erin Moran. What kind of choice is that?
I think that Miley Cyrus herself is the individual most in peril here. Our culture and our youth survived Elvis’s gyrations, and he was far more dangerous than Miley, having genuine charisma and talent. She is the victim of the trap of child stardom. Twerking is only the slow dancing of 2013. This is called “progress.”
Two final observations:
- There is hope. Christina Aguilera navigated the shoals of her filthy stage and appears to have emerged as a thoroughly grounded, healthy, canny survivor with her career and sanity intact. Former Disney moppets Hillary Duff and Jodie Foster also have survived, so far at least, with brio.
- Cyrus’s flailing once again reminded me of the recently departed Annette Funicello, who managed to continue her career by stoking the libido of teenage boys without diminishing her image in any way, and mostly without showing her bellybutton.