Just Let Me Liberate You: A Systemic Look at the Miley Cyrus VMA Performance

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Miley Cyrus’s and Robin Thicke’s performance at the VMAs has raised questions about female sexuality and power. Much of the commentary has focused on blaming Miley, but if we truly desire change, then a more systemic focus is needed.

By now, most people have heard about the Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke performance at MTV‘s Video Music Awards (VMAs). For those who haven’t, the former Disney star stripped down to a bikini and simulated sex acts while singing her song, We Can’t Stop, alone and Robin’s song, Blurred Lines, with him. It was a raunchy and disturbing performance, specifically designed to elicit all the controversy that it has. However, despite the myriad articles, interviews and commentary about the act, much of it completely misses the point. If we truly want to prevent this from happening again, we need to stop focusing on the individual and start emphasizing the system.

Many have been calling this Miley’s “coming out party” in which she shed her Disney child star image in order to become an adult. I imagine that was exactly the reason for the exhibition, but few have asked the real question: why does she need to demonstrate her sexuality in order to be taken seriously as an adult performer? I have yet to see any male child stars perform with hardly any clothes and dance suggestively in order to show their age. So why is it that many female child stars believe that is what they have to do? Answer: sex sells.

Female performers tend to gravitate toward objectifying themselves because they know it will get them work. It is why Janet Jackson’s career famously didn’t take off until she lost weight and started removing her clothes. Her talent remained the same, yet it was her body that truly seemed to matter. It is why actresses who keep their clothes on are not hired as much as those who don’t — or did you miss the point of Seth Macfarlane’s tacky We Saw Your Boobs song at the Oscars? And with so few female roles and performers to begin with, many believe they have to play the game in order to achieve success.

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Miley has come in for a huge share of criticism which somehow implies that she, a 20-year-old woman, was solely responsible for what happened on stage. If people truly believe that she single-handedly orchestrated this event, then they are either ignorant or naïve. The music industry is a business, one that has many power players at work behind the scenes. Miley’s sudden change in image had to have been conceived and planned by a cadre of business people from her business manager, publicity director, and financial consultant on down to the costumer, choreographer, and hairstylist. If we as the public hate the show she put on, why are we not blaming the people in charge? Actor James Van Der Beek (he of Dawson’s Creek fame) came closest to doing just that with his tweet, “Things I learned watching the #VMAs2013: There’s nothing you can do with a foam finger that you can’t air on MTV.” In other words, if the money people — the ones truly responsible — did not actively like what was happening, they would have taken steps to stop it.

I do not believe there is anything wrong with sexual agency (i.e., someone taking charge of their own pleasure). I don’t even have a problem with twerking per se. I’ve done it myself in a Zumba class and can testify that it is rigorous exercise and difficult to perfect. But what Miley did at the VMAs was not her owning her sexuality or twerking for the enjoyment of the movement; it was her turning herself into an object for the pleasure of men. I imagine that she felt at least some vulnerability dancing in her barely-there clothes in front of millions of people. If that was not the case, if she was truly enjoying her sexual power, then why is it that the three older male singers on stage with her were all fully dressed? Surely one of them would have liked to show off their sexuality. But no, I cannot remember the last time I saw a scantily clad male performer simulating sex acts in a mainstream public forum. As James Van Der Beek (who is now officially my favorite snarky actor) pointedly tweeted, “Things I learned watching the #VMAs: Only men are allowed to perform with their pants on.”

Which leads me to Robin Thicke and the so-called song of the summer, Blurred Lines. Although he’s come into some criticism for his role in the VMA performance, the married, 36-year-old father has gotten by relatively unscathed. Many have actually sympathized with him for having to put up with Miley’s uncomfortable antics! Even Robin Thicke’s mother (who really should know better), gave him a pass, “Him? Loved it…I don’t understand what Miley Cyrus is trying to do…I was not expecting her to be putting her butt that close to my son.” Right. I’m sure that Robin had no idea what she was going to do (did they not rehearse?) and allowed this vixen 16 years his junior to do things he did not like. If Miley was in complete control of what she did, then Robin had just as much control and was equally to blame. And if logic is not enough to convince people, perhaps they can use their eyes and see how the video of Blurred Lines (in which Robin is surrounded by and nudged against several nude and scantily clad models) is very similar to the VMA performance. Yet, despite this evidence that the performance was probably more Robin’s idea than Miley’s, he gets a pass because he did not gyrate on stage.

If we’re going to talk about sexually inappropriate behavior, then why isn’t Blurred Lines getting more flak than it is? The song itself is a creepy and disturbing piece that seems to promote rape by saying things like, “And that’s why I’m gon’ take a good girl; I know you want it” and “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your a** in two.” Apparently it is empowering and I just didn’t realize it (silly me) because Robin went on Today and said his song was supposed to be feminist. Yet despite lyrics like “You the hottest b**ch in this place” and “Do it like it hurt, like it hurt; What you don’t like work,” no one has contradicted him. Could it be that feminism is so publicly watered down that people might actually believe he is correct?! Can you just say something is feminist and because you’ve said it, now it’s true?

It seems like feminist analysis has been so silenced that people no longer even attempt to evaluate the larger systemic factors at work in our culture. Lisa Belkin (yes, that Lisa Belkin of The Opt-Out Revolution infamy) inexplicably continues to get work despite giving absolutely no historical or cultural context to individual behavior (which is just shoddy journalism). This time, she reported that what she saw was a little girl trying to act grown up and laughingly stated that she’s glad she only has sons. Yes Lisa, I’m quite certain that boys and men play no role whatsoever in the objectification of girls and women, so those of us with sons have no responsibility to teach them differently. Good call. That will certainly affect change.

Then there was an article in The Atlantic which suggested that perhaps they were trying to parody the Blurred Lines song, address the criticism of it and empower women through Miley’s performance. Well, if that was what they were going for (which I doubt), they failed miserably. And no wonder because to appropriate the male gaze is not a winning strategy. As Audre Lorde said, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” In other words, if we want to transform the culture, we must change the game.

And really, the game is all that we saw in Miley’s and Robin’s VMA performance. In direct opposition to Miley’s lyrics of “…Doing whatever we want; This is our house; This is our rules,” she was, in actuality, playing in the master’s house and abiding by his rules. In an ironic twist, the exhibition showed just how much the lines between female sexuality and disempowerment are, in fact, blurred. Miley’s blatant display of sexual behavior wasn’t a positive statement about what brings a woman physical pleasure; it was all about what men like. Her song might have made her sound strong, but her dancing made her look vulnerable. And, just as planned, the combination of strength and weakness made her a target.

If we truly want to it to be “we who own the night” (to quote Miley) and if we believe Robin when he says, “That man is not your maker,” then we must stop being such hypocrites. If you don’t enjoy watching adolescent girls strip in order to ‘age,’ then do not support it. Quit buying music and books that promote the objectification of girls and women. Stop watching television and movies that encourage the male gaze and severely limits a comprehensive female narrative. Actively protest any kind of entertainment and social media that supports inequality. Refuse to use sound bites and poorly researched articles as news sources and demand more analytical and systemic commentaries. And put blame squarely where it belongs instead of on a young woman who is merely following the rules. Remember: hate the game, not the player.

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