Okay. It’s true that many women who use their bodies to make money ARE degraded, by others or themselves. It’s true that many women don’t have a choice in this, and/or don’t believe they’re worth anything “better.” And our desire to change the socio-cultural situation for the benefit of such women is admirable, and necessary.
But we must not fool ourselves that any woman who uses her body sexually is motivated by low self-esteem or poor morals. This assumption is simply another way to dehumanize the woman while feeling good about ourselves. By expressing disappointment in Miley’s decision to “degrade herself,” we access a rush of moral, psychological, or even feminist superiority, which can feel great. But such superiority relies on a willful skirting of Cyrus’ intellect, agency, and personhood. How do we know that she has degraded herself? And how CAN we know, unless we allow the woman to be a person – and to speak for herself?
The assumption that any woman who uses her body sexually is diminished as a person is a sign of our ongoing dissociation of female sexuality from humanity and agency. If we perceive female sexuality as “dirty,” “impure,” and/or intended strictly for male enjoyment, then the viewing of it all out in the open, seemingly of a woman’s own volition, will be troubling to us.
And it’s this very perception of female sexuality that we must question – particularly in a culture that, for men, readily embraces desire, lust, and a “healthy sex-drive” as symptoms of being fully alive. For women, when publicly revealed, these are symptoms of debasement, slutty-ness, and embarrassment.
When it comes to women, we tend to think, Obviously, this sexy-fied woman is incapable of thinking or speaking for herself. So I’ll assume I’m the more intelligent, self-esteemed, morally-sound person, and blindly project onto this woman the degradation I’d feel if I were in her place. I won’t ASK her, or leave room for the possibility that she thinks differently (let alone intelligently!) about her work. Instead, because she’s using her body in a sexual manner, I’ll assume she doesn’t know what she’s doing, doesn’t know who she is, doesn’t have good guidance, doesn’t have sound life goals, and certainly that she doesn’t have anything to tell me. In fact, I’ll assume she needs me. If only I could be her mentor!!
I’m not saying Cyrus was legitimately empowered, or that she was expressing her full agency as opposed to playing to the entertainment industry or to a sense of needing to shake off her Disney persona.
I’m just saying we don’t know. And we don’t seem to care to wonder.
It seems to me that, aside from transgressing cultural boundaries as a means of gaining media chatter, what Cyrus did on stage was: sing, dance, communicate a love of sex, touch herself sexually, touch others sexually, and make it clear that she’s a sexual being who’s sexually available. Men do this all the time, including on network TV, and no one blinks. Such men may be perceived as “sleazy” or as “douchebags,” but they’re not pitied. We don’t assume they lack control, agency, or brains. We don’t assume they need us.
We can’t know what led to Cyrus’ choices without treating her like a human being with a brain. That we assume her performance precludes humanity and intelligence – or removes her right to be perceived as a human being with thoughts – reveals volumes about our inability to reconcile a woman’s sexuality with her personhood.
A man can be overtly sexual, even sleazy, and yet be perceived by society as a human being who thinks for himself. I’m troubled that this is so rarely the case with women.