Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Blurred Lines

The amount of attention I have paid to Miley Cyrus in the past decade is slightly more than the amount of time I have spent thinking about my ear wax, but not by much. Even though I have kids the right age to grow up with Hannah Montana, they didn't watch Disney. (Except when visiting the grandparents who, unlike us, had cable TV.) I was vaguely aware Cyrus's career had gone all Britney Spears and I've felt a bit sorry for her, and that's about it.

Then the chatter about the Video Music Awards hit my newsfeed yesterday and I got pulled in. I watched Cyrus's VMA performance with fascinated horror. Fresh Air had a segment on Robin Thicke earlier, so I was caught up on him. When they got home from school, my kids made me watch the original video to "We Can't Stop." ("Mom, you think the VMAs were bad? You haven't seen the real video.") I had a real clutch-the-pearls moment, let me tell you.



As I followed the different reactions around social media, and added in my own two cents, I kept thinking, why am I paying attention to this? I still don't care about Miley Cyrus or Robin Thicke. But somehow the story felt like it mattered. It began to gel for me after I remember what feminist comedian Caitlin Moran said about the pornification of pop-culture: that young people, especially men, are growing up watching readily available porn and it's defining how they think about sex.

This is a problem, of which Cyrus and Thicke are just symptoms. And this problem matters to me because I'm a parent, raising kids who will soon be adults. Not only that, I'm a woman. How society views women should interest all women — and everyone with a wife, mother, or daughter.

I'm not especially prudish, and feel the ubiquity of porn might not necessarily be a bad thing if healthy sexuality was being depicted. If women directed it, if women consumers were the targets, porn would be different. But with a few niche exceptions, porn is male directed and utterly focused on male fantasy. The music industry has taken its cue and turned music videos, especially hip-hop videos, into soft porn. It's not a coincidence that both Cyrus and Thicke have deliberately decided to mimic hip-hop culture.

Porn culture has set the sexual stage for young people today. It circumscribes how they are to behave sexually, and what to expect (and demand) from their partners. Women under 30, and sexually active teenage girls, get Brazilian waxes routinely; boys will not touch them unless they are bare as a 10-year-old. Women buy poles for their own bedrooms so they can bring the striptease home. The idea that women should a) remain as little-girl like as possible and b) spend their sexual lives performing for men is something we see reflected in Cyrus and Thicke's videos.

Miley's first scandal: she was 15
The music and porn industry could each be liberalizing sexuality in a good way. Feminists who engage in slut walks and remind people not to "slut shame" scantily-clad women have a point: women have a right to be just as comfortable with their sexuality as men. That people reacted far more strongly to Cyrus than Thicke is predictable: calls for modesty are aimed only at women — you don't see men in burqas. But the hyper-sexualized entertainment industry isn't liberating women. Miley's near-nude pose for Vanity Fair in 2008, when she was only 15, made use of the trope that vulnerable half-naked children are valid sex objects. This empowers no one. Thicke's "Blurred Lines" video is a wink and a nod to rape — oh, she's saying stop? She really means she wants you. The line between "yes" and "no" is the "blurred line" he speaks of. This is the same culture that brought you the Steubenville rape case, the appalling mayor of San Diego, and the countless military sexual assault victims.

It's easy to dismiss the VMA flap as pop-culture fluff, and to sanctimoniously demand everyone pay attention to "the real story," whatever you think that is. But a culture that demeans women and celebrates rape is as much a problem as a culture that worships guns and war.


14 comments:

  1. It's sad, but as far as can tell young women now have less sexual freedom than I did 30 years ago if we are talking about what's expected in how they look and behave. It looks far less fun, too.

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    1. It does seem a monumental waste of effort. I spend enough time with teenagers to know plenty don't buy into this pressure ... but quite a few really do.

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  2. except brazilian wax is not the same as shaving all your pubic hair to resemble a 10-year-old. plus in brazil both man and women shave/wax. i get your point, though.

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    1. Full Brazilian is the whole area. Landing strip is probably what you're thinking of. Good old Wikipedia has a whole page on this, along with helpful photographs. "Brazilian waxing is the removal of all hair in the pelvic area, front and back, while sometimes leaving a thin strip of hair on the pubis. It can be used by those who wear thong bikinis. It is a form of bikini waxing, and involves the complete removal of hair from the buttocks and adjacent to the anus, perineum and vulva (labia majora and mons pubis). If a thin vertical strip of hair is left, it may be called a landing strip. Brazilian waxing is also known as a full Brazilian wax, full Bikini wax, Hollywood wax or the Sphinx. The Sphinx variety involves the complete removal of all hair in the pelvic region. The name is derived from that of a naked breed of cat from Canada. The smooth-skinned, hairless Sphynx cat was a genetic oddity discovered in Toronto in 1966. Some salons refer to the Sphynx as the Hollywood."

      The things you learn while researching! I was unaware of the Sphinx.

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  3. I used to watch my mother, who was a school psychologist, handle kids who were acting out by dressing or acting in what they thought were transgressive ways, by basically smiling gently and saying things like, "Oh you've had your hair done? How nice." or "You want to get a tattoo on your face? I am sure it will look fine." By acknowledging them and giving them freedom they often found they didn't need to do the extreme things they had thought were necessary.

    Women and men should be equally free to act inanely as long as they are not hurting anyone else. The world would be a better place if men did not try so hard to control women. I guess in thinking about it, it must mean on some primal level that men fear women and their power.

    I don't know who Ms. Cyrus is, really, but in watching the clip of her performance, it mostly seemed to me, that she was desperate for attention to compensate for her idea, on some level, that her talent is not enough to succeed on its' own. It's also possible that I am now just an old guy, and young people enjoyed much more what she was doing.

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    1. "I guess in thinking about it, it must mean on some primal level that men fear women and their power." That's one of the central points of a book I'm reading now, called "Sex & War," about the biological roots of warfare and terrorism. There is no doubt that throughout our evolutionary history, men have sought to control female sexuality: we still see it here, as well as in the Taliban treatment of women, in genital mutilation in sub-Saharan Africa, and in the recently-abandoned Chinese practice of foot binding. Any evolutionary benefit long ago lost its usefulness: time to get over our inner chimps. And when I see Thicke and Cyrus performing, I do see chimps. (Among lots of other subtexts.)

      Your mom sounds like a very wise woman!

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  4. How horrifying. Or maybe I'm just an old fartessa, because I don't get this whole pornification (great word!) trend. Women fought so hard over the years to be treated as equals, so why are these young women okay with being treated as little more than objects? Brazilian wax? Yipes. Ain't no way. (For my fortieth birthday, a bunch of my friends pitched in and treated me to a make-over with a famous fashion and beauty gal, whose name now eludes me. Anyhow, she recommended that I get my eyebrows and upper lip waxed. Holy crap! THAT waxing was bad enough!)

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    1. I'm an old fartessa right along with you! If my kids hadn't practically forced me to watch the Cyrus video, I wouldn't have; would not have even known it existed. (And would have been happier for it.) Waxing not only really hurts (remember Steve Carrell's reaction from "40 Year Old Virgin?") it's expensive. When I think of the money women shell out to depilate, Botox, and siliconize ... not to mention what they do to the hair that remains ON their bodies. Do you know how much a Brazilian blowout costs?

      And what is up with Brazilians and hair, anyway?

      I think I need a "get these kids off my lawn" sign now. :)

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  5. I didn't watch the performance, but I've seen the photos and read the commentary. I do agree about the pornification of society in the age of the internet. As they say, it's the real reason the net was invented. It's such a fascinating subject. And it's odd to me that young women think this behavior is "freeing" or "rebellious", when in fact it seems to reinforce the opposite, as you stated.

    Anyway, nice to meet you!

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    1. It's true — there is no technology to which porn is not immediately applied. :) I think porn could be feministically done, it just doesn't happen often. Due to the consumers, I imagine.

      Thanks for stopping by, L.G.!

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  6. I agree with all of it, except perhaps one thing...

    I don't think most men actually are comfortable with their sexuality. I think the efforts of some men (and, frankly some women) to narrowly define what the role of women is in society, in the home and in the bedroom stems from their own anxieties about themselves. We all need to be more comfortable talking about these things with one another.

    A quick related story: our daughter recently visited my parents on her own for a week. Early in the trip, in a private conversation with Grandpa, she started talking very frankly about her own impending puberty. He was shocked, amazed but ultimately very impressed. We were all very proud of her for being so open with him and encouraged him to take her comfort as a high compliment.

    So, I think there's hope for us all.

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    1. I agree that we need to be more comfortable talking about these things — and thank goodness we seem to be getting there. As evidenced by your daughter! Good for her Grandpa for being able to adjust so quickly to that development. I think my dad would have run screaming. :)

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  7. Like someone said above, it's ironic (and sad) that now that women are sexually "liberated", they're actually more used than ever (and they don't even know it because they're so young!) The pornification you mention with the waxing and the stripping moves (good thing I was a teenager in the 80s/90s or I would have been visiting the salon EVERY WEEK!) there is another phenomenon known as "barsexuality", where girls kiss other girls in order to either enter a bar or to attract guys. (Notice how Miley also kisses a Barbie doll in the pool.)

    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Barsexual

    It's so disturbing to think that our kids may have to see or go through all this crap one day!

    Also, this article may be of interest to you. Apparently, the Miley Cyrus video is not only about sex and porn, but also about drug use.

    http://www.businessinsider.com/why-miley-cyrus-we-cant-stop-is-actually-the-saddest-song-of-the-summer-2013-8

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    1. I did not know about "barsexual." That is just. Wow. I had a girlfriend (of the platonic variety, I should add) in college who thought we could rebuff annoying males at parties by pretending to be a couple. DID NOT WORK. Guys have watched so much porn featuring two women that they seem to be under the impression that actual lesbians are performing for them. A particularly male form of solipsism.

      I saw that link to the Business Insider story: a friend who was pretty into the MDMA scene in college (back them, we called it X) said that drug makes you very ... loving. I never tried it, it scared the hell out of me, but I sure remember what my friends were like when they were on it. I hadn't really made the connection with Cyrus's song but I can see it now. MDMA can be pretty dangerous in a number of ways, I'm sorry to see it's still so heavily used.

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