‘The Movement’: Miley Cyrus May Be Disconnected, But She’s Not Disempowered

Documentaries are almost inevitably characterized by a tension between how the subject wants to be portrayed and how the filmmakers perceives them. Both want to present their own version of reality, and often the most interesting moments in documentaries come when the two versions become weird refractions of one another. So it went with The Movement, an hour-long documentary on the suddenly ubiquitous Miley Cyrus that premiered on MTV last night and has, predictably enough, been generating heaps of comment this morning.

These things almost always start out the same way: an attempt to show that behind the glitz and glamor, there’s a normal person who, hey, is just like you! But they always end the same way, too, because the thing is that people like Miley Cyrus are not like you and me. The interesting thing about The Movement, then, is the way Cyrus tries to come across as a normal person. In a way, as Pharrell Williams sagely observes at one point, she is just like any other 20-year-old trying to express herself for who she is, not who her parents/teachers/The Man want her to be: “You have to remember,” he says, “that this is a 20-year-old evolving.”

But there’s also something somehow old and perhaps a little harsh about Miley, the way she talks like the industry veteran she is. She speaks about her “movement” with an almost religious zeal, and talks constantly about how she spent her teens being someone who “wasn’t me.” There are constant reminders that this is not a person who lives, or has ever lived, a normal life. Take the bit where she has to perform on Jimmy Kimmel Live but has a cold, for instance: “I paid for $2000 of doctor things and they only made me worse. Every massage has made me worse. We flew some girl in from San Diego and she made me feel worse.”

It seems churlish to complain that, y’know, lots of people in the US have no choice but to go to work when they’re sick, and don’t have the luxury of $2,000 worth of “doctor things” or private masseuses flown in from San Diego. Neither you nor I can relate to Miley’s life at all, so it seems curious to expect her to relate to ours.

And in fairness, she does seem reasonably self-aware about her detachment from the real world — perhaps the film’s most touching moment comes when she talks about how happy she was during the time she spent living in Philadelphia and making her album. “I was in a little apartment and it felt like I was a normal human being for a minute,” she says wistfully. “I’d see people, they’re walking behind their dog, they’re cleaning up the poop. They’re pissed about it. I’m so happy. I’m like, ‘I’m doing a normal thing!’ I’m picking up dog poop in a park. No one’s bothering me. No one’s talking to me. No one’s taking my picture.”

It’s a brief insight into what it must be like to live your entire life in a spotlight, recalling the quietly heartbreaking story about Michael Jackson closing down an entire supermarket so he could push a shopping cart around like “normal” people. (Of course, even then, there was someone filming it.) But it passes, quickly — soon she’s talking again about how hard she works and how the “movement” is the most important thing.

People have used her VMAs performance as a sort of battleground for all sorts of ideological wars about sex-positivity and cultural appropriation and slut-shaming, so it’s also interesting to get a look at the motivation behind it. She’s quite open about it, too — while it’s doubtful that she anticipated all (or any) of those arguments in particular, she certainly knew she was being provocative. She speaks several times about how she wants to emulate previous controversial, attention-grabbing VMAs performances — “What’s gonna be the biggest moment in pop culture?” — and tellingly at one point notes that “It’s better that people talk about you for two weeks than two seconds.”

These are not the words of the exploited ingenue that people seem to want to portray Cyrus as of late. There’s something disempowering about a lot of the post-VMA commentary, both the way in which it’s applied to Cyrus’ backup dancers (“Using black people as props” has been a common theme, although no one’s bothered to ask the dancers themselves — who are apparently friends of Cyrus — how they feel), and to Cyrus herself. Whatever impression The Movement was supposed to give of Miley, the one you come away with is of someone who’s done this all her life and knows exactly what she’s doing.

There’s a lesson here, perhaps: it’s important not to deny Miley Cyrus’ agency, because in a way that’s as disempowering as any other form of sexism. She is in a position to make her own choices, and if this is what she’s chosen, this is what she’s chosen. She’s not powerless, not at all. She’s been doing this all her life; it is her life. In a few years, she may look back at the teddy bear outfit and foam finger and wonder what in god’s name she was thinking, but then, who hasn’t looked back their early 20s and wondered the same thing?