When the brouhaha erupted over Miley Cyrus’s sexually charged performance with Robin Thicke at MTV’s Video Music Awards, I didn’t comment, for a couple of reasons. Firstly because the antics of 20-year-olds do not interest me in the least. They are, from my point of view, still children, and they’re going to do goofy shit that us old farts find offensive or unfathomable, and it’s best to just give them the time and space to grow up like everybody does eventually. And secondly because I only needed to see one picture of the performance to easily predict the content of every article about the incident (all of which I avoided): it would be a lot of pearl-clutching, hand-wringing outrage at Cyrus’s unladylike behavior, a massive dose of slut-shaming, which I don’t need, (which nobody needs, actually), and a wondering aloud of where her parents went wrong to create such a wild and wanton girl child. Tsk, tsk.
I guess I might be more concerned about “unladylike behavior,” if the the last man to be called out for “ungentlemanly behavior” weren’t Mr. Darcy. And even that was in private (and, not insignificantly, fictional), not splashed across every news outlet on the planet. Thicke didn’t receive a fraction of the criticism Cyrus did, despite being fully involved in the same performance and the fairly overt rapeyness of his song “Blurred Lines.”
And it blew over, though not without a little flare-up when Cyrus’s recent video for “Wrecking Ball” came out. In any case, she’s still a 20-year-old, and I really don’t care what she’s up to. However, I found myself more than a little incensed when this picture turned up on Facebook and elsewhere this week.
The girl in the bottom picture, if you don’t know, is Malala Yousafzai, a 16-year-old Pakistani education activist and recent Nobel Peace Prize nominee. She was the victim of an assassination attempt by the Taliban because of her work in promoting education for girls, work that is ongoing, as is her status as a target by the Taliban who have vowed to try again until they succeed in killing her. She is, without question, an extraordinary young woman. I saw her on The Daily Show, and her intelligence, strength, wisdom, and courage shine almost visibly. She is a force to be reckoned with, and frankly, I think we should all be proud that someone like her is sharing the planet with us. I certainly am. She is a true hero, and I have no objection to people recognizing that.
What I object to, however, is pitting these two young women against each other, and the implied criticism of the image that basically dismisses Cyrus out of hand in comparison. Because evidently, the only way you become a valid human being as a young woman in this world is by going to school, speaking out about it, and taking bullets to the head and neck that nearly kill you for your trouble. Anything less makes you unworthy of respect.
This is a divide-and-conquer tactic that has been pitting women against each other for eons, since the 13th century BCE when respectable, wealthy married women were required to be veiled and poor women, slaves, single women, and prostitutes (an interesting and telling collection) were prohibited from veiling, so everyone would know who the good, worthy women were and and who they were not. Similar tactics have been keeping us so busy fighting among ourselves in the intervening 3,000 years that we have no time or energy to focus on the actual enemy: patriarchy and ingrained misogyny globally. As long as soccer moms and childless-by-choice women, and straight and lesbian women, and cis women and trans women, and women working for pay or working at home, and wealthy and poor women, and white and brown women, believe that they have nothing in common with women in other walks of life, we’ll continue to squander our greatest power: that of numbers, and of solidarity within those numbers. Every time we put one kind of woman on a pedestal while trashing another, we are doing patriarchy’s work for it. And frankly, it doesn’t need our help.
Yet by offering photos of these two young women, supposedly juxtaposed, we are continuing this unhealthy dynamic into yet another generation, without for a moment considering the culture that created and contributed to Miley Cyrus and the actions for which she is now being criticized from all quarters. She is a girl who has been sold and bought by Disney, by her record company, by any number of merchandisers wanting to cash in on her Hannah Montana popularity, by video directors, and perhaps even by her family, who have been controlling her and her career from the time she was 11 years old. She has grown up in a society that consistently and relentlessly teaches both boys and girls that girls’ only value is in their appearance and perceived sexual availability, yet punishes and slut-shames those same girls if they take advantage of either.
It is rare to find a self-possessed, confident 20-year-old woman (or, really, a woman of any age) with a comfortableness with her body and a healthy sense of her own sexuality and agency anywhere in this culture, and anyone who observes the culture we are steeped in should not be the least bit surprised that’s the case) but I would argue it’s probably even rarer among the child-star set. I would further argue that Miley Cyrus is no less a victim of a society of people who do not, in fact, have her best interests at heart, and expect her to conform to behaviors that have nothing to do with the care, feeding, and protection of her unique soul than Malala Yousafzai and her sisters are at the hands of Taliban. We decry the Taliban who would imprison women, preventing them from going out, from going to school, from getting medical care; the Taliban who would prefer that women not be seen at all. And then we turn around and hurl all manner of insult and abuse upon a young woman because she’s dancing around lewdly (using moves she learned from only a million other videos) in a flesh-colored bikini, and we think she should put some clothes on and behave “properly,” however the critic at hand defines that.
The irony is staggering, and yet most people do not see it. Instead, they set Miley Cyrus up as the bad example versus Malala Yousafzai’s paragon, without any appreciation of the fact that we still privilege the veiled woman over the unveiled, simultaneously failing to recognize that both of these women are under similar, and similarly damaging, cultural pressures, and that we are failing them, and 3.5 billion more just like them, in our willful blindness.