Considering the long history of young women writhing around sexually in music videos and live performances, it's hard to understand the outcry against Miley Cyrus for her VMA performance with Robin Thicke. A lot has been said about the double standard, how Miley was perceived as demeaning herself but Robin wasn't. But that's just business as usual, men's sexuality being accepted and women's being judged.
What perplexed me was why this performance, as opposed to all the other sexual choreography by female performers over the years, was seen as particularly degrading for the artist. So much so that, the day after, talking heads of every stripe, from CNN anchors to late night commentators to Nigel Lithgoe (from So You Think You Can Dance) made reference to it as a sad, desperate act of a sad, desperate girl. More recently Sinead O'Connor wrote a worried open letter to Miley, allegedly a motherly warning but in reality a public dressing-down in which she says Miley "prostitutes" herself.
Every one of these criticisms may have a basis in reality. I tend to think not, but it's a complex thing. Rather my issue is why these criticisms erupted with such ferocity for this performance and not others. The so, so many others that are equally explicit and sexual. Even performances that were talked about for their daring, like Madonna's infamous crawl across the VMA stage in a bride's dress all those years ago, were scolded for their bad taste or nefarious influence on the young, not because they expressed a fundamental desperation or psychological sickness on the part of the performer. No one said, "Oh, poor Madonna. What's happening to her?" Or "Oh, Britney; why do you feel you have to prance around half-naked with a python? It's so sad." (The sadness of her later breakdown is another thing.)
I think those earlier performances were celebrated rather than tut-tutted over because they made sense in our culture: They were women being sexy. Britney's nearly-nude python performance is justly famous because it was so incredibly sexy, almost an archetypal performance of a certain highly valued sexiness. Her hair is beautifully blond and long. Her makeup is dewy and alluring. Her body is perfect and displayed in a way that communicates an accepted ideal of exotic eroticism, wearing a skimpy jungle bikini adorned with gold jewelry. And her manner is what we associate with sexiness: coyly curved body, come hither eyes, looking up smokily through thick lashes.
Miley's performance, on the other hand, was something entirely, entirely different. She wore a nude one-piece, crazy makeup, and punk hair. She jumped around like a cheetah, with hard angles, bent limbs, no sinuous snake she. She sticks her tongue out—not in a slow luscious lick around her lips but like a wild animal or frat boy.
Maybe here's what was so disturbing to the world about Miley's performance: She was sexual, but not sexy. She was displaying her body, but not performing a striptease. Her hair was wound up in little pig-buns, like a cross between Bjork and Princess Leia, not flowing in long locks. Her energy was wild and free, not alluring and sensual. And that left us wondering: Why the hell is she doing this if she's not going to be sexy? It just makes no sense. There must be something wrong with her.
The word that comes up a lot with Miley's performance is "misguided." As if her performance were a an attempt gone wrong at "guiding" herself toward Britney-style popularity. But what if that python perfection is not her goal? After all, Britney's attainment of nubile goddess-hood didn't serve her very well in the long run. Yes, Miley could go other ways: dressing conservatively, swaying gently as she sings. But that's not her; why should that be her only choice?
There are other odd aspects to the Miley bashing as well. She is criticized for appropriating black culture, which makes absolutely no sense to me in an American pop culture that is so, so widely based on black culture. Almost the whole of pop music is rooted in African American inflection and vocalizing, and nearly every pop performer (God knows Robin Thicke) is steeped in those traditions. Twerking isn't that different from the grinding women have been doing at clubs (and wedding and bar mitzvahs) for years. And she's seen as trying to prove that she's not Hannah Montana anymore, when I'm sure she is way past that. It's us who can't get past it.
Miley is actually just being herself at 20. But we can't seem to make sense of what that is: someone who could be a Britney if she tried but keeps not being it.