The Problem With Making Miley Cyrus the Lightning Rod for All Our Angst About Female Sexuality

This post is not about Miley Cyrus. Well, at least, it’s no more about Miley Cyrus than anything else that’s been written in relation to her in the last week or so — because really, over the six weeks since her already infamous VMAs performance, the discussion about America’s newest controversial pop star has slowly shifted from discussions of Cyrus herself (or, god forbid, her music) to a sort of generalized discussion about the social trends that she’s perceived as representing or embodying. In this respect, much as I hate to draw a parallel that can’t help sounding like SEO gold, she’s this year’s Lana Del Rey: an artist whose persona has become a battleground over which people fight pitched ideological skirmishes that have very little to do with the artist in question.

In this case, the discussions have focused largely on — surprise, surprise — what young female sexuality should or shouldn’t be. Was it or wasn’t it “inappropriate” for Miley to wear what she wore at the VMAs? Should Miley be “prostituting herself” to the music industry, or is accusing her of doing so just slut-shaming by another name? (Hi, Sinéad!) Is posing nearly naked for Terry Richardson empowering or exploitative? Is white America’s adoption of ratchet culture the evidence of an increasingly colorblind society, or is it cultural appropriation? Etc, etc.

The entire spectacle has become like watching a bunch of nagging relatives scolding a teenager for going out wearing that. Is anyone really surprised that Cyrus — a 20-year-old who probably has pretty good reason at this point to argue that she knows what she’s doing — has responded exactly like you might expect a 20-year-old getting harangued by a bunch of adults to do? To the surprise of precisely no one, she’s told her critics to shove it and kept on keeping on.

But even her responses don’t really matter at this point. This is something she also seems to have realized, because after Sinéad O’Connor’s fifth — fifth! — open letter, Cyrus sighed to the Today show that “it’s all good… [O’Connor] can write as many open letters as [she] wants.” And sure enough, the letters and opinions have kept on coming: Sufjan Stevens, Charlotte Church and, inevitably, Amanda Palmer, who’s never seen a controversy to which she hasn’t wanted to hitch her publicity wagon.

In each case, the opinions in question — yes, I read them all so you don’t have to — were less about Cyrus and more about the person doing the opining. If there’s anything that unites Stevens’ curious grammar lesson, the tut-tutting of Church’s and O’Connor’s letters, and the “HEY LOOK AT ME I HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY TOO!” of Palmer’s screed, it’s a desire to use someone else’s life to promote an ideology and/or a message. (And the author’s career, but that’s another matter.)

This isn’t to say the arguments that are being had are irrelevant or pointless — there’s definitely a discussion to be had over the way that the music industry sexualizes its female stars, and, um, probably one about the incorrect use of “lie” and “lay,” too. But they have only oblique relevance to Miley Cyrus, and making her the subject of them serves no one’s purposes but those of whoever’s doing the letter-writing, because they’re piggybacking off someone who’s not nearly as interested in the subject as they are. So it went last year with Lana Del Rey and discussions of authenticity (and, again, female sexuality), and so it’s gone this year with Miley Cyrus and discussions of sexualization and/or hypersexualization, in particular.

It’s interesting that Church chose to cite Rihanna along with Cyrus as avatars of the perceived hypersexualization of female pop stars, because anyone with even the most cursory familiarity with Rihanna will know that she tends to do what she wants, when she wants. It’s hard to imagine there are nefarious men in the shadows urging her to make bondage-themed music videos or tweet about what she just saw at a very questionable-sounding Thai sex show. So it goes also with Cyrus; as I argued a couple of weeks back, she might be disconnected from everyday reality, but she’s not disempowered.

Clearly Church’s experience is her own, and as someone who was the subject of a notorious online countdown clock anticipating the moment when she became “legal,” you can certainly understand her skepticism of the use of sexuality in the music industry. But ultimately, this is her own experience, and while it’s no doubt not an isolated one, projecting it onto Cyrus and Rihanna only serves to do to them what people have done to women forever: to speak for them, to patronize them, and to deny their agency in determining the course of their own life.

We should be having large-scale discussion about society, culture, and the way in which women express their sexuality, but they should be framed as such, because using a 20-year-old singer as an ideological football only obscures what the real debate should be about. It’s unfair to her, because it ascribes various motives and narratives to her that may or may not be reflected in reality. In trying to adapt reality to fit whatever your argument is, you only undermine that argument — not to mention prevent any larger discussion of female sexuality, a topic that has the potential to be a whole lot broader than Miley Cyrus.