Twerk Ethics

[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.

23 thoughts on “Twerk Ethics

  1. Entertainment people have done and will continue to do the most degrading and despicable acts of depravity. And I’m just talking about Jack Warner and every Hollywood Producer since!

    Judging a 20 yo woman in entertainment who is exploiting herself (is that possible?) is just a bit hypocritical, isn’t it? There is no gray area in Hollywood regarding ethics.. If it sells it’s fine!

    So many child stars have self destructed because their incredibly short shelf life has left them bereft of a future. As far as we know, Miley hasn’t been arrested, gotten drugged up or drunk, crashed a car, had a sex tape or exposed herself?

    It’s a well know joke entertainers remove clothes to cover up for their lack of talent.. .Maybe that’s what Miley is doing because she doesn’t want to see her career die a slow death.

  2. That so many want to destroy female child stars, by throwing them to the wolves, for their own fantasies, feel smugly superior, or make a buck on their degradation, shows how bad the rot has gotten. Annette Funicello is the model of how a Disney star did navigate that path to adulthood well. Her longer success should be the rule not exception.

    Holmes is an adult character whose problem with his seven percent solution has been used in productions for decades; both shows use it as drama fodder. Former child stars are sadly not fiction. I’m not sure how those dramas are related to exploiting or self-exploitation of foolish young women.

    • Now, I’m pretty sure the context of my whimsical comparison should have been pretty clear, since you have shown admirable reading comprehension in the past, but hey, I’ll spell it out:

      The two Sherlock updates can only exist in a modern world where Conan Doyle never created Sherlock Holmes, and the horror expressed at Cyrus’s antics should only exist in a world that hasn’t seen a century of more of performers and youth dance crazes pushing the then current limits of what was regarded as appropriate performing or dance behavior. Or, in other words, also approximated in the post: Miley is no different in cultural terms than Elvis, just a lot less talented.

      Got that?

      • Not much I can say here Jack apart from “Concur. Stating the obvious”.
        Elvis the Pelvis wasn’t worth clutching pearls and getting the vapours over. This is just more of the same – the only difference is that Elvis had significant talent, even though I’m definitely not a fan of his style.

      • I’m more confused with the world of House, MD, in which Doyle explicitly DID create Holmes, and nobody ever said “Wait, your name is House, your sidekick is Dr. Wilson, you’re an easily bored socially boorish genius who makes a habit of extraordinary deduction based on tiny observations, you are an amateur musician and an addict, and although your brilliance serves the common good it is only as a side effect to sating your curiosity… you’re kidding, right? How has nobody else noticed this?”

        • I feel properly rebuked. No, this never occurred to me, nor have I read it anywhere that I can recall. I never made the Wilson connection. Still, it is in fact all over the web, even in Wikipedia. Thanks for fixing one aspect of my inexcusable ignorance.

          MY favorite TV origins theory, which I have never heard anyone else point out, is that Seinfeld is an updated and Americanized version of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster stories and novels.

          And when it came out, almost no film reviewers picked up on the fact that “A Bug’s Life” was an insect version of “The Magnificent Seven”—which was pretty obvious.

          • I wasn’t trying to rebuke you 🙂 I was commenting on nobody in-world noticing. Back around season 2 or 3 I had a sudden realization and posted it on the show’s IMDB page, only to have a half-dozen people say “you just now realized?”

            And if you want a crazy TV origins theory it’s this: start by taking as a given that two shows that share crossover characters are in the same universe. Homicide: Life on the Street coexists with Law and Order: SVU because David Belzer’s Detective Munch was on both. Based on that theory, nearly every show on TV is in the same universe as St. Elsewhere, and therefore all those characters are within the mind of an Autistic boy. I know Cracked.com included that in an article about weird fan theories.

  3. To be fair, Thicke’s participation should be highlighted by more than signaling out his wardrobe. His mother had the nerve to complain about Miley rubbing up against him. He participated fully in the debauchery – just have a look at the lyrics for his song. It is titled “Blurred Lines” and is about rape culture with the self explanatory title illustrating the depth of the cultural issues at play. I haven’t seen much public outcry against him, the song or his actions. It is telling. I believe Miley is a product of our culture and as long as folks do not see the peril to society in ignoring the roles the boy/ songwriter, the show’s producers, etc played on that stage we will continue to see more of the same.

  4. Here are the preliminary Miley-the-Business numbers:
    +Digital downloads of “We can’t stop” UP 20% from previous week.Likely to reenter top 20.
    +Digital downloads of new song (released 24 hrs before VMAs) “Wrecking Ball” on pace for first week top 20 debut.
    +50,000 new Facebook ‘likes’ during the show.
    +306,000 TPM (tweets per minute) during her performance. Last presidential debate averaged 320,000 TPM.
    +New album “Bangerz”, (really!), released 24 hrs before VMAs is tracking to debut at #5.

    There’s much more, but, 2 top 20 singles, and a #5 album. Exploitable social media growth. Looks like a success. I expect that her management is paying for “outraged” comments to keep this little tempest spilling over the edges of the teacup. I would.

  5. “Twerking is only the slow dancing of 2013.”
    Only in a world where there are no objective standards.
    “each person owes a duty to behave as a reasonable person would under the same or similar circumstances”
    While many people would and have done this none of them could be described as reasonable

    • “Each person owes a duty to behave as a reasonable person would under the same or similar circumstances” is an overly restrictive standard when applied to entertainers in the process of entertainment.

      Dancing has always had sexual content and communication. Translations differ and evolve. A dance, like the tango, develops as sexual innuendo, then becomes art, loses its sexual communications value, and is superseded by something more overt. If the dance form doesn’t become art, ironically, it is deemed ugly and dies out anyway—that will be twerking’s fate, I think.

      Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse are acting out lovemaking in “Dancing in the Dark,” and it’s a lot sexier and more evocative than anything Miley Cyrus did…and nobody complains when they show “The Bandwagon” when the kiddies are watching. Go figure. And watch…

      • “Evocative” versus blatant. They have nothing in common. Rape and pornography are nothing like making love. Twerking is nothing like dancing.

          • I know this, and I think there is a line and twerking crosses it. We sometimes keep running up to the line and putting a toe over it and flitting back and forth over it until we can no longer discern it. Twerking is a tiny step removed from having actual sexual intercourse and calling it entertainment. Fottage is a sexual act.

          • They might have SAID it back then (and perhaps with some justice, as we can now see what it ultimately led to) but would you truly compare the jitterbug to this “twerking” thing we’re seeing now? You might well say that parents who let their children watch this televised event (or were ignorant of the upcoming content) were at fault. But whose fault is greater; their’s or the system that spawns such visions? Why is it that parents have to virtually keep their children locked up to deny them access to filth and sexuality from a broad host of sources?

            When we were children, public lewdity and contributing to the delinquency of a minor were real, punishable crimes. And can anyone doubt that this production was aimed at young people… as young and as many as possible? This was “Hannah Montana” performing! Naturally, Miley Cyrus’ name would attract clueless kids who still watch her series reruns on the Disney Channel. The names of past or present child stars will invariably attract children- just as cartoons do. Look what they now get in both genres.

            Desecrating child idols or leading them into such infamy has become a staple tactic of the Industry. They can now get away with it and profit by it, as no standards of conduct or enforcement of previous anti-obscenity laws exists to any real degree. One of the worst aspects of this is the “conventional wisdom” that’s foisted upon those young performers. If you want to go on to a career in your adulthood, either “go low” or sink into obscurity. But who has ordained this one-or-the-other choice? The same people who make their living by presenting young audiences with the spectacle of former (or current) kids in acts or scenes of dire depravity.

            • They said it back then because to them it seemed exactly as outrageous as Miley’s obscenities seem to us now. Probably worse, since they had nothing to compare it with. Of course, if someone twerked in the 30’s, they would have been arrested and institutionalized.

              • “Of course, if someone twerked in the 30′s, they would have been arrested and institutionalized.”
                Exactly my point!
                Is there a point at which it’s no longer anything but porn and has no intention to be anything else? And we can demand that it end?
                When and if we get there, if we’re not already, what will we say? It’s not really all that different from twerking?

                • I’d say that this “twerking” thing is only an extension of previous forms of obscenity that now have few legal or ethical restraints. If some performer of limited talent wants to extend her valueless career, she turns (or is turned) to some form of self-degradation with a personal twist to it. Miley found her’s. She probably figured she had nothing to lose. Besides, it sometimes works.

  6. Some observations…..

    1. If Miley wants to be treated like an adult, she shouldn’t dance with stuffed teddy bears.
    2. Miley does a poor imitation of Madonna — who used to dance in that same outfit and hair.
    3. The tongue thing looked forced and stupid. Was that supposed to be sexy?
    4. Why was Thicke dressed like a referee?
    5. My niece and her friends thought Thicke was hot until they found out that he is the son of the dufus dad from Growing Pains.
    6. Twerking is NOT new. Check out any Madonna video after she made it big. Now it just has a name.

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