By which I mean feminism… why, which F-word did you think I was talking about?
Yeah. Feminism isn’t something I think much about as a general rule, but there are a lot of disparate threads wafting out in the ether right now that are semi-sorta-feminist in nature in that they are all about the boundaries that women should (or shouldn’t) observe.
Let’s start by re-affirming the obvious. Feminism isn’t mutually exclusive with adoring men. I, for one, am completely enchanted with the xy of the species. I love the way they walk, the way they smell, the way they are so unmistakably different from me. I am a full-on, full-time man lover. I also happen to think that I’m no one’s inferior simply because I have indoor plumbing. And that, really, is the crux of what feminism is all about. Of course, there are implications and those implications we are seeing played out rather publicly in the sphere of pop music.
Miley says that she took inspiration from Sinead O’Connor. Sinead warns Miley about being exploited by her record label and tells her that her body should be for her and her boyfriend. Miley makes fun of Sinead’s mental state. Sinead calls her names. And the whole world weighs in pro or con. This is fundamentally a feminist question, with a number of reasonable answers.
So let’s start with Miley’s provocative VMA performance. Any more shocking than Madonna kissing both Britney and Christina? Probably not. More risque than Madonna simulating masturbation in her concert? In the annals of shocking behavior, Madonna’s name comes up repeatedly and I don’t think anyone would mistake Madonna as a woman who isn’t in charge of her image and her career. Why should that same benefit of the doubt not be extended to Miley?
Miley’s body is ultimately hers to do what she will with. Whether or not that is “tasteful” is a separate question. It’s telling that Robin Thicke, a man who put out a video for his latest single full of bare breasts, tried to distance himself from Miley’s performance… So the risque and provocative is okay when you’re the one paying for the models in question, but an artist under her own volition is to be given sole responsibility for a joint performance? Somehow, I don’t think that bothers Miley too much because at the end of the day, she did what she wanted to do. And let’s face it, she is getting rewarded for it. As she herself said (paraphrased) “look, it is two weeks later and people are still talking about it.” There is no other news story that hangs on in the media for that long. Not chemical weapons being used against children in Syria, that’s for damn sure. So who is really to blame here? Miley the exhibitionist, or a nation of voyeurs? And if we are so damn determined to watch, why shouldn’t she shake her groove thing any way she wants?
Which is to say that Miley is of age and like every other adult I know, will have to take the consequences of whatever she chooses to do – be it getting out there and dancing or retreating to mourn the death of her relationship (as I think the tut-tutting hoards would find more comfortable). Either way, at the end of the night, Miley is the only one who has to live with what she does. The rest of us can turn off the TV.
What I think Sinead fails to realize is that exercising one’s autonomy over one’s body and how it is monetized is 100% the purview of feminism. She chose to do it in the 1990’s by shaving her head and wearing a turtleneck. In the 2010’s, Miley is doing it by riding a wrecking ball in the nude with no more on display than you’d get from side-boob on the red carpet. From either side of that divide, they are both observing their feminist-won right to do whatever seems best to them at the time.
The question of whether or not all of this sexualization is good for our daughters and sons is a completely different question. But by G-d, feminism fought for the right for the woman inhabiting the female body to have absolute dominion over it. This is what it looks like.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have 16-year-old pop prodigy Lorde. She is in the news this week for a number of things, including saying that she didn’t want to put herself out there with the cool, unattainable perfection that Taylor Swift projects and saying that she didn’t want to write songs about being on call for a guy like Selena Gomez. First, if no one else thanks her for being intentional about wanting to remain as authentic as possible to the flawed person that she most certainly is (because let’s face it, our external image be damned, being flawed is universal), let me be the first. Thank you Lorde, for being thoughtful and as smart as only a 16 year old can be. There’s too much Keeping up with the Kardashians and not enough clear-eyed, occasionally sullen, always outspoken critics of that version of reality. Our cultural landscape needs you desperately. (For the record, I was that smart when I was your age and then I grew up and started making mistakes my 16 year old self would never have made. It happens to us all. )
And herein lies the point. We have allowed the boundaries for our young women to narrow. They must be smart, but not too smart. They must have toned bodies and display them, but not too much. They must be sexually adventurous, but not with too many people (a target that is forever moving). They must have something to say, but that something should involve how they are subservient to their need for love. They must be strong, but not so strong that they threaten their man. They must keep quiet about anything unlovely or uncomfortable.
How are any of us supposed to navigate this landscape where we are forever told that we are not enough in one respect and too much in some other?
And why must we deny feminism, who’s only contribution here should be to defend the right of all of these young women to be exactly what they are: In your face with her pastiche of sexuality, Ms. Miley. Coolly perfect and forever writing songs about dumb ex-boyfriends and how they did her wrong (and not much else) Taylor Swift. Selena Gomez dancing her butt off to “your boyfriend’s a douche-bag” in one week and singing about being at his beck and call in the next. (Don’t get me started on the stupid, stupid nature of using douche bag as a pejorative.) Sinead with her shaved head and chest tattoo and Vegas wedding and mental health issues and relentless determination to be herself, whatever that means from day to day. Outspoken, smart Lorde who, at 16, is already delivering amazing music. And more… Pink, who invariably kicks ass. Jill Scott, who goes her own way and does her own thing and is all the more beautiful for it. Lissie who isn’t boxed into the pop-star mold. Algebra Blessett, who more people should have heard of because she’s awesome. Britney who wants to find some balance between being a mom and a sex symbol. Emile Sande, who genuinely seems like a nice, grounded person and seems driven to put a little more love into the world. Tori, G-d bless her, who wrote about her rape and then built RAINN, a charity for survivors of rape, abuse, and incest – a force for good in the world that is so much more than a vanity project. Adele, who carries herself with dignity and grace and is phenomenally beautiful without having caved to the standards of beauty for an entertainer.
There are so many more to name and consider – none of them cookie cutter stepford-types. They are women. They have the incontrovertible right to be who they are and get some things right and other things wrong and to learn and (hopefully) laugh along the way.
Feminism denies the boundaries set up to confine our person-hood to what is comfortable for the powers-that-be. So why are we, the direct beneficiaries of this gift, so damned determined to set them up around each other?
(If you need to find your inner feminist, go watch Caitlan Moran. She’s genius.)