By Kate Kerns
Last month, my Facebook feed erupted with opinions about the MTV Video Music Awards. This isn’t unusual, as I have many heavily opinionated friends and acquaintances. (What can I say? Like attracts like.) What was unusual was the overwhelmingly negative comments that were being shared, and who was doing the sharing. Everyone — liberals and conservatives, parents and teenagers, the religious and the a-religious — was really, really angry at Miley Cyrus.
If you know me personally, you know that I like to have an opinion on everything. After I read through my Facebook feed, my next stop was YouTube. The video was easy enough to find. (A few weeks later, when I tried to revisit it, the original performance was buried under parody videos and took a good 15 minutes to locate.) I watched it all the way through, and then a second time for clarification. I didn’t feel angry. I didn’t feel offended or violated or disgusted, or any of the other things Facebook said I would feel. I just felt sad.
My favorite litmus test for sexism is asking the question, “Are men doing this also?” (Or, conversely, “Are women doing this also?”) Three men of comparable fame joined Cyrus for the performance, but they were fully dressed and she was clothed only in a skin-colored set of underwear, dancing in a manner that could most tamely be described as lewd. She more resembled a backup dancer — and there were many backup dancers in the show as well, all of them female, scantily clad and following provocative choreography — than an artist in her own right.
I know there are undoubtedly some reading this who have not seen the video, who may have not even heard of this incident. I don’t think you need to preview the content to understand the problem.
The feminist movement was born because women wanted to have more choices, and it could be argued that it is anti-feminist to oppose Cyrus’s right to do as she wishes with her body.
However, the problem I have with this performance is not a matter of her right to make personal decisions, but the broader context of sexism as it was affecting the decisions she made about the 2013 VMAs.
We live in a sexist society; a society that blatantly objectifies women; a society where even ordinary working women may have to flaunt their sexuality to get ahead professionally. Even if she was given 100 percent free reign over her performance, Cyrus did not plan her outfit or approve her choreography in a vacuum. With that in mind, do you think it was even possible for her to make an informed, healthy decision about what she wore or how she danced?
I don’t and that’s what makes me sad. It has been said that Cyrus’s behavior at the VMAs was an affront to feminism, but I disagree. I think it is undeniable proof that the women’s equality movement still has a long way to go.
Kate Kerns is a victim advocate specializing in LGBT services, as well as a fashion and lifestyle blogger.
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