This essay was originally written as my final paper for my Discourse Analysis class, taught by Theresa Cowan, in Fall 2014 at The New School.

Despite the dichotomy typical of the Western worldview, there is more than one stereotypical positive feminine role allowed within a patriarchal system. Alas, there is not necessarily a whole lot of variation among these roles. I have already discussed the Cool Girl and the constrictions enforced by that stereotype, and how damaging it can be even when those limitations are followed. Now I will be considering a relative of the Cool Girl – the Good Girl – and what tenor the discourse takes on when that role is transgressed. Specifically, I will consider this topic in light of pop star Miley Cyrus’ performance of “We Can’t Stop” and “Blurred Lines” at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.

Controversial performances had been nothing new to the VMA’s in 2013. Previous moments that had media watchers talking include “Like a Virgin” by Madonna in a slinky wedding gown in 1984; “I’m a Slave 4 U” by Britney Spears decked out in a green bikini top, jean cutoffs, and a live Burmese python; and “Like a Virgin” again in 2003, with Spears and Christina Aguilera joining Madonna for the song and some liplocking. There have been some controversial VMA performances by male artists as well(such as a beer-spilling Noel Gallagher of Oasis), but rarely have they had the insidious overtones of controversial female performances. Cyrus’ routine, like Madonna’s and Spears’, was from a sexually inclined young woman (Cyrus was 20 in 2013, Madonna was 26 in 1984, and Spears was 19 in 2001), but the tone of the criticism of Cyrus is on another level compared to that faced by her forebears.

When analyzing the discourse around Miley Cyrus, it is important to keep in mind the pre-twerking portion of her career. When the likes of Madonna, Spears, and Aguilera began their musical careers, their sexuality was a big part of their acts almost immediately. “Like a Virgin” was one of Madonna’s earliest hits, Spears debuted with her Catholic schoolgirl outfit in “Baby One More Time,” while Aguilera slunk around barefoot in the sand at dusk in her “Genie in a Bottle” video. Whereas Cyrus’s initial pop success came at the start of her teenage years, with the music from her Disney Channel series, Hannah Montana. These kid-friendly tunes mostly focused on fun and self-empowerment. Romance was mostly eschewed, and when it did appear, it was age-appropriate. Hannah Montana ran from 2006-2010. Three years after the finale saw the release of Cyrus’ album Bangerz and its debut single “We Can’t Stop,” which was one of the biggest hits of 2013 by the time she performed it at the VMA’s that August. In between the end of Hannah Montana and Bangerz, she released one other album, Can’t Be Tamed, which indicated an attempt to break out from her family-friendly image but did not have quite the same impact as her subsequent release.

With her child star days not very far in the past, to many she was still that adorable blond-wigged moppet. In contrast, Madonna’s fame began with her debut album, so she was not dealing with any preconceived notions. Spears and Aguilera, however, actually do share a Disney child star past with Cyrus, having been members of the cast of the 1990’s revival of The Mickey Mouse Club. But TMMC was never the cultural force that Hannah Montana was. Also, Cyrus was very much the star and face of her program, while Spears and Aguilera were merely part of an ensemble. Furthermore, there was a gap of about half a decade between their child star days and their singing careers, whereas those stages overlapped for Cyrus.

Thus, Miley Cyrus was implicitly branded a Good Girl, a stereotype which could not possibly sound more positive. Any explanation of how “good” and “positive” are synonyms is likely to be a tautology. Good is good because it is positive, and positive is positive because it is good. But anyone identified by this moniker is aware just how restrictive it really is. At least the Cool Girl allows for seemingly incompatible behavior to exist within the same person (although in specifically defined settings). The Good Girl, however, could not be a better example of a dichotomous western worldview. Here is a perfect illustration of the “antonyms in pairs” noted by Simone de Beauvoir: “saintly mother” and “cruel stepmother,” “angelic young girl” and “perverse virgin” (60). Are these not all just variations of the Good Girl and the Bad Girl? In 2013, any publicly visible transgression made by Miley Cyrus, intentional or not, was going to be met with horror by anyone who had her pegged in a very specific, constrictive box.

Reactions of moral outrage were to be expected. It is not strange that a scantily clad woman miming analingus on one of her backup dancers or bending over and grinding against her significantly older male duet partner would upset some people. But what set the negativity towards Cyrus apart was just how personal it was. Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’S Morning Joe had one of the most memorable reactions. A clip from the performance played at the top of the program the day after the VMA’s as a highlight of the major events of the weekend. Brzezinski appeared to be surprised by the inclusion of the clip and responded, seemingly off-the-cuff, “That was really, really disturbing. That young lady, who is 20, is obviously deeply troubled, deeply disturbed, clearly has confidence issues, probably an eating disorder, and I don’t think anybody should have put her onstage. That was disgusting and embarrassing.” Her patronizing was underscored when she added, “Someone needs to take care of her.” Host Joe Scarborough had a softer, more typical “who will think of the children” take on the moment (Joe Coscarelli of The Daily Intelligencer described him as “playing the experienced but gravely concerned dad”) when he reminded everyone, “We’ve got kids watching the show!”

While Scarborough did come off as out of touch in this situation, his remarks were not particularly damaging. He was a bit of a fuddy-duddy, taking the position of trying to prevent offending anyone. He was not trying to stifle Cyrus from expressing herself, just requesting that she do so in a less public venue. He was focused on the masses instead of this particular, or any other, individual. There was a hint of paternalism (“the experienced but gravely concerned dad”) to him even thinking he had the authority to make such a pronouncement, but he was far from as stringent as he could have been and others were.

Brzezinski, however, was incredibly presumptuous and perhaps the most prominent media personality to take the sort of stance that she did. The assumptions that she was making fit into a stereotypical narrative of young female celebrity, a narrative with some elements that Cyrus’ story fits but not enough to peg her in there as much as Brzezinski did. The interpretation of an eating disorder is bizarre – Cyrus certainly has a small frame, but she did not look noticeably skinnier than usual. But when that claim is viewed alongside the telling descriptors “troubled,” “disturbed,” and “confidence issues,” it is clear what Brzezinski is getting at. There are multitudes of former child stars who have ended up in therapy or rehab because of mental health or substance abuse issues, and this is the narrative that Brzezinski sees Cyrus following. In this story, any public transgression must be a sign of instability. A young female celebrity could not possibly have her own agency when making decisions aiming to shock.

Much of the criticism of Cyrus ignores the role played by any of the men who were a part of the performance, most notably Robin Thicke, who joined the stage after “We Can’t Stop” for a duet with Cyrus of his hit 2013 song “Blurred Lines.” The flashpoint of this section of the performance was Cyrus twerking against Thicke, her rear end suggestively close to his waistline. Brezinski’s criticism fits squarely within a discourse in which a young woman acting sexually aggressively must have been taken advantage of. Even though Thicke remained mostly passive during this most charged moment, his agency was hardly questioned to the degree that Cyrus’ was. His mental state was hardly ever in question. The language of media disgust is not quite so quick to assume that men are disturbed. Although, Ironically enough, a year later, Thicke was dealing with a separation from his wife and admitting that he was high on marijuana almost constantly during the height of “Blurred Lines” fever.

Miley Cyrus had been no stranger to controversy before the VMA’s. Her relationship with her father and Hannah Montana co-star, singer/actor Billy Ray Cyrus, has played out publicly in occasionally uncomfortable fashion.   Most notably, they appeared together in a Vanity Fair cover story, accompanied by a photo shoot that included topless pictures of the younger Cyrus (her front was covered by a sheet, while her nude back was visible) while she was still a minor. She has also been spotted taking part in recreational drug use. But she has never been in rehabilitation, at least not that has been publicly disclosed. In the months immediately after the VMA’s, she was interviewed for a Rolling Stone cover story, in which she explained the motivation behind the style of her performance, and she was hosting an episode of Saturday Night Live, parodying her controversy in the show’s opening sketch. If she were deeply troubled, she was doing a thorough job of burying her issues and constructing a deception of being well-adjusted to fame. Yet the perception of her as desperately in need of help was a powerful one, powered as it was by her rejection of the Good Girl persona.

Another notable aspect of the discourse of outrage towards Cyrus is its effect of setting women against women. Brzezinski is so taken aback by Cyrus because she, consciously or not, sees that she is not following the feminine roles allowed by society. Contrast this with the treatment, or lack thereof, of Robin Thicke, whose role in the affair, while not exactly considered acceptable, is not especially of note because he is not exactly stepping out of the bounds of society’s male roles. To be fair, Brzezinski is not really calling out Cyrus, she is calling out the people responsible for her who allowed her to perform in a supposedly regrettable state. But because she does not call out anyone specifically from that group, the heat falls on Cyrus herself. There is a patriarchal overtone here that suggests that young women cannot be entrusted to make their own decisions. While Brzezinski purports to be taking on a perspective of concern, her stance reinforces limiting power structures. Even if any of her inclinations about Cyrus are correct, she is still contributing to a discourse that stymies individual expression in favor of general appeasement.

While Cyrus as an individual deserves as much benefit of the doubt as anybody else regarding her own agency, that does not mean that her performance was not part of a historical pattern that is bigger than her. There were several elements of her performance that co-opted stereotypical elements of black culture. Her propensity for twerking (which originated in the New Orleans hip-hop scene), the fact that all of her backup dancers were black women (with the possible exception of those who were wearing giant teddy bear outfits), and her act of mock analingus on one of her dancers (with a large rear end) were all codes that fit squarely within the stereotypical narrative of black women as more sexually wild than non-ethnic women.

In a reaction piece posted the day after the show, Jody Rosen of Vulture described the performance as “a minstrel show routine whose ghoulishness was heightened by Cyrus’s madcap charisma.” By Rosen’s estimation, the reason these racial codes were utilized was because it was good for business, presumably as a signal that Cyrus indeed had been purposefully trying to break free from her Good Girl persona as she moved forward in this new stage of her career. This argument clearly allows agency on Cyrus’ part, but it clarifies that hers is not the only voice in this matter but that a publicly mediated spectacle such as this one is bigger than any of the individuals who worked on it.

Rosen took to Twitter in response to some of the criticism of his piece, clarifying the he does not have a problem in general with Cyrus’ music nor does he believe that she is a racist. As he saw it, her intentions did not matter. Whether or not she was trying to act black, whether the racial makeup of her dancers was accidental or intentional, whether or not she was the one making or approving every last decision, the images of her performance fit within decades of racial history that have reduced black women to “totems—of ‘nasty,’ outré sexuality.” Ignoring Cyrus’ intentions may seem antithetical to the point that dismissing her agency reinforces patriarchal notions. But Rosen’s point is dealing with an issue with a different sort of power structure. Statements that ignore Cyrus’ agency by analyzing her state of mind are problematic because they are attempting to apply general rules onto an individual. Stereotypes are damaging because they apply broad narratives too specifically. Mika Brzezinski and others are attempting to say that Cyrus fits completely the role of the Good Girl gone bad. Whereas the racial issue suggests that the VMA’s performance is only one part of a much larger social situation. Cyrus, wittingly or not, entered into a problematic social sphere that existed long before she became a part of it. If she chose herself with a clear mind to make her performance as much of a spectacle as it was, that matters very much regarding her well-being. But on the other hand, whether or not she meant to reinforce them, racial stereotypes still exist.

The racial imagery of the VMA’s performance suggests that Cyrus is a participant in the “commodification of Otherness” in mass culture, as described by bell hooks in “Eating the Other” (366). Cyrus is not perfectly analogous to the white male students hooks observed discussing the social and transcendental value of sleeping with ethnic women, as she has not publicly confessed that her twerkmania and record of black female dancers is an attempt to be black and experience blackness herself. Claiming that this has been her motivation (even if it proved true) is unfair because it involves too much analysis of one individual’s mental state. But what can be analyzed here is how the observable actions of Cyrus fits or does not fit within the style of co-opting racial behavior or subjugating a social group for the sake of pleasure. Cyrus provides the perfect image for this metaphor by pretending to lick the rear end of her black backup dancer. This is the very moment at which Cyrus sheds her white Good Girl image by eating the Other. The idea of eating the Other is literally that the properties of one entity can be conveyed to another through consumption. The consumption of the male college students is sex; Cyrus takes it a step further with sexual eating.

The racial analysis of hooks may also be illuminating towards the moral outrage of Cyrus’ performance. Her discussion of black men as “both dangerous and desirable” brings to mind the complete total pleasure related to death as evoked by Michel Foucault (377). Blackness is feared, but it is also pleasurable, because white culture is so stricken by anhedonia. Thus, the cultural vanguard that is aghast at Miley Cyrus may be unable to experience the pleasure that this moment is meant to convey. Most of the patronizing concern towards her completely ignores the racial issue. Instead, the interpretation is that a good white girl who is acting transgressively must have something like a death wish.

There were actual a few media responses that responded to Cyrus on individual terms with understanding and a lack of judgment. One notable example is the FUSE television series Billy on the Street, a comedy game show that consists of comedian Billy Eichner walking around New York City, asking pedestrians their opinions on celebrities and pop culture. The chances for winning any of the prizes on this show usually reside in contestants’ ability to have their opinion match those of Eichner. In the season immediately following the 2013 VMA’s, the topic of Miley Cyrus came up multiple times.

In one online-only clip, Eichner approached two older women with the conversation starter “Miley Cyrus: then and now.” The first woman initially just shakes her head, but then clarifies that she does like Cyrus, just that “she needs to bring it down a tone.” Her child star past is evoked when the woman mentions that she used to be a Disney star, prompting Eichner to make the point, “Hannah Montana has a pussy now, and she wants to use it.” The first woman responds, “And she absolutely should,” while the second woman replies in kind, “Let her use her pussy,” which becomes more or less the de facto slogan of this encounter.

This can be contrasted with another clip from the same year in which Eichner approaches a trio of teenage or twentysomething girls in Union Square in New York with the query, “Do you think Miley Cyrus is on point?” The first girl laments how she is no longer Hannah Montana, which Eichner insists is an unreasonable expectation. The next girl is worried that she is going through a “hard time,” which Eichner treats with incredulity, pointedly making note of Cyrus’ agency, saying that she is “completely in control, the whole thing.” The last girl basically agrees with Eichner’s positive opinion.

While it is unfair to extrapolate that these particular encounters represent the typical opinions of these age groups, it is striking that the older women are basically supportive, while those close in age to Cyrus and presumably her target audience are much more ambivalent. It is another example of the prescriptivism of the Good Girl stereotype. The girls’ laments that Cyrus could have behaved so differently illustrate their distaste for the transgression that so defines her. Eichner’s questions do not specifically reference the VMA’s performance, but the discourses he prompts provoke the same narrative that sprung up around it: little Hannah Montana is going through so much trouble and crying out for attention.

Eichner’s lack of attention to the racial issues is understandable given his positive personal opinion on Cyrus and also due to his focus on her individuality rather than the wider narratives that she has been a part of. His aim is a corrective to what he sees as an overreaction of the segment of the audience worried over her mental well-being. He rebukes the patriarchal assumption that young female entertainers cannot possibly be in control of their own situations. In this alternate viewpoint, Cyrus is hardly perfect, but her talent and accomplishments are proof enough that she deserves to be grappled with on her own terms.

The furor over Cyrus has since died down (for the time being), and she has not suffered any major breakdowns. But that does not mean that all the sensitive issues raised by this flashpoint have been solved. They could not possibly have been. They go beyond any one individual person, or any one individual event. But her story is a demonstration of the dangers of placing all the weight of society’s problems on an individual. Cyrus may have been guilty of minstrelsy, but that does not mean that she is the most racist person alive or that her performance included every conceivable historical racial ill. Nor is that what the likes of Jody Rosen are saying, but the scores of vitriolic comments that articles like his receive paint a picture of a society that is missing that distinction to a wide degree. There is a much wider discourse that so many people are missing and in so doing, damaging stereotypes keep being reinforced.

 

Works Cited

Coscarelli, Joe. “Mika Brzezinski’s Epic Shaming of Miley Cyrus on Morning Joe Went on Forever.” Daily Intelligencer. 26 Aug. 2013. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

De Beauvoir, Simone. “Myth and Reality.” Feminisms and Womanisms: A Women’s Studies Reader. Toronto: Women’s, 2004. 59-65.

Eels, Josh. “Good Golly, Miss Miley!” Rolling Stone 10 Oct. 2013: 40-46. Rolling Stone Archives. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street. FUSE. Television.

Handy, Bruce. “Miley Knows Best.” Vanity Fair June 2008: VanityFair.com. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” 1992. Media and Cultural Studies: Key Works. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001. 366-80.

“Miley Cyrus.” Saturday Night Live. NBC. 5 Oct. 2013. Television.

Morning Joe. MSNBC. 26 Aug. 2013. Television.

Rosen, Jody. “Rosen: The 2013 VMAs Were Dominated by Miley’s Minstrel Show.” Vulture. 26 Aug. 2013. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

Vulture Editors. “Miley and Minstrelsy: Jody Rosen Responds to His Critics.” Vulture. 28 Aug. 2013. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

 

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