Blame the Industry, Not Just Miley

Published in University of Edinburgh’s ‘The Student’ on 15/10/2013

Take a minute to imagine something: Chris Brown grinding against a wall while wearing only his underwear; Olly Murs rolling on the floor, in a see-through spangled leotard; Flo Rida, slut dropping and slapping his ‘big booty’. These make utterly bizarre and inappropriate images – and yet for women in the music industry, this sort of behaviour is all par for the course. Fortunately however, this issue is at last getting the attention it deserves.

In response to Miley Cyrus’ infamous hammer-licking video for Wrecking Ball, Sinead O’Connor last week urged the young singer not to let herself be ‘prostituted’ by the music industry. Claiming to do so out of concern, O’Connor also acknowledged Miley’ talent, but her advice was not taken gladly and Miley justly lost much public sympathy after mocking O’Connor’s former mental health struggles on twitter. Coupled with her controversial VMA performance last month, this has secured Miley’s place as the current focus of debate about the sexual objectification of women in the music industry.

There can be no doubt that the sexually explicit performances of Miley and other artists not only reinforce the vicious cycle of exploitation within the industry, but encourage the objectification and degradation of women in everyday life by teaching young adults that a girl’s sex appeal is more valuable than her personality. Yet Miley’s staunch defence of her behaviour suggests that perhaps surprisingly, she is no victim of a management determined, as O’Connor’s says, to ‘pimp out’ their fresh new talent. Presumably in full control of the provocative material she produces, her goal is clearly both to gain as much media coverage as possible and to distance herself from her squeaky-clean past as Hannah Montana, by portraying herself as an ‘adult’.

So why have Miley’s attempts to ‘own’ her sexuality provoked so much outrage, when Rihanna, Britney and others are similarly provocative without comment? On the surface, it seems down to the fact that Miley’s overt determination to be outrageous comes across as obnoxious, but there’s also something more sinister at work here – the virgin-whore complex still displayed by parts of society. This is essentially the misogynistic categorisation of women who express their sexuality in any way as ‘whores’ or ‘sluts’. It’s interesting to note that while Miley’s self-degrading performances are promoting the cycle of internalised misogyny, so too are her critics by slut-shaming women who express their sexualities in ways they don’t like. Many of the attacks on Miley stem from objection to her transition from the ‘good’, virginal Disney star into the ‘bad’ sexually active performance artist. This is of course ridiculous; Cyrus is a grown woman with the right to control her own body. But it doesn’t change the fact that the way she chooses to demonstrate her control has crossed a line, to the point where she’s paradoxically promoting the very attitude she’s trying to transcend.

It’s depressing that stripping off and twerking is what female artists believe will bring them popularity and respect, but we must consider who it is that has taught them this lesson. As the consumers of pop culture, our attitude is a major part of the problem. The more the public welcomes artists whose ‘talent’ is clearly down to how much flesh they put on display rather than the quality of their voice, the more the industry will provide them.

If we want the exploitation of women in the music industry to end, then we’re going to have to stop listening, and start doing the talking. In an ideal society, the public wouldn’t judge Miley Cyrus for choosing what to do with her body. But more importantly, in an ideal society, Miley Cyrus wouldn’t need to be sexually provocative with her body in order to get attention in the first place.