Female Freedom, Yeah! (Nah…)

“She’s been taking advantage of herself, of her youth, her fame and her sexuality…and she knows it.”

– from Amanda Palmer’s open letter to Sinéad O’Connor (about Miley Cyrus).

If you follow celebrity “news” (LOL) you will no doubt have heard that Sinéad O’Connor wrote THIS open letter to Miley Cyrus, who retaliated with THIS tweet seemingly mocking Sinéad’s mental health issues (#classy). Amanda Palmer then propelled herself between them with THIS open letter to Sinéad, whom she cites as a musical influence, and inspiration, to a younger version of herself. Do have a read of all of them. [Sinéad has written two additional letters, but I will only refer to the original here – her pure expression of misdirected maternal concern].

Admittedly, I have no ‘fan’ relationship with Miley’s expression, products or brand (although I recently enjoyed reading a profanity-laced interview conducted with her as she got tattooed. Great procrastination material). I have, however, been moved by the creations of both Sinéad and Amanda. I love them both, for different yet oddly related reasons. Thus, all these open letters – and the public conversation they have added fuel to – provoked my interest this past week. In this post, I want to focus on some suggestions made in Amanda’s open letter.

Firstly, there is much in what Amanda wrote that I agree with. Sinéad assumed that Miley’s “new” image and performances were masterminded by others – that her rebranding was entirely pushed and enforced by some anonymous music company (male) execs making mega bucks from “pimping” Miley’s new sexed-up image. A surprising number (surprising to me) of ‘feminists’ I know have attempted to make this argument – an argument that I think is quite off the mark.

As Amanda points out in her open letter (albeit with a different emphasis), such arguments overlook the fact that Miley Cyrus, talented as she is, and given her history and career trajectory, is not some naive girl from the ‘burbs who has suddenly scored a recording contract, and is now being coerced to sex up her image in order to keep said contract.

Amanda did not point this out specifically, but I will: since 2006 (her early teens) Miley has been a MASSIVELY successful, ambitious and constantly working professional entertainer: an actor (starting with ‘Hannah Montana’, the Disney show that shot her to super-stardom and earned her $15,000 per episode), and recording artist (with four albums and three tours under her belt). She has co-written a memoir, launched a line of clothing, starred in movies, and, as an adult, taken control of her image and hired Larry Rudolph as her manager (Britney’s 1999–2004, and current, manager).

In 2007, Miley earned $18 million, followed by $25 million in 2008. In 2010, Miley was ranked 13th on Forbes’ Celebrity 100, earning $48 million between June 2009 and June 2010.  Between June 2010 and June 2011, Miley earned $54 million. In 2011, she was named number 1 on the Top 10 Richest Teens in Hollywood list, with $120 million. From 2006 to the present, her image has not been static – as she has grown, she has made conscious choices to “evolve” her image and infuse more of her adult sexuality into it. Miley has made the effort to shed the Disney association and be viewed as a serious actor, and artist, whilst concurrently establishing her own sense of self – as we all do.

Now. I happen to think that serious actors and artists, and adults in general – particular if they are extraordinarily wealthy and influential – should ALWAYS be up for critique. I think the choices of such people can and should be scrutinised, considering what effect their choices in expression and commercial enterprise are likely to have not merely on those close to them, but on their fans and, in turn, mass culture.

And this is where I disagree with Amanda…

Anything goes in the marketplace of everything.

The unspoken, silent words that follow the phrase “sex sells” are “…so it’s okay.”

Sex sells, so it’s okay. Selling sexuality and titillation – especially the sexuality of young/young looking able-bodied women (who adhere to certain culturally defined standards of attractiveness)  – is incredibly effective at moving product, so it’s all good to use it, evidently. Because it is effective. Amanda reiterates the common knowledge of the potency of the sex incentive, as she attempts to explain to Sinéad (who already knows this and made a conscious decision NOT to sell hers by cultivating a very different image, as a “fuck you” to her record company) why her assumption that Miley is only being used by others is incorrect:

Sex sells. We all know it. Miley knows it better than anyone: swinging naked on a big metal ball simply gets you more hits than swinging on a big metal ball wearing clothes.”

Point made. And I agree that assuming Miley is some kind of unknowing pawn being moved by some faceless men is at once terribly patronising, and terribly naïve (my words, not Amanda’s). However. Though Amanda makes the point that selling sex/sexiness/et cetera is commercially lucrative, and that Miley is very much steering her own vehicle in this regard (or co-piloting, I would suggest), Amanda fails to articulate a clear reason why criticising this is in any way bad. And I do have a problem with this.

Because whether or not “selling” sexuality is “ethical” or “unethical”, “oppressive” or “liberating”, is, in fact, highly debatable. Even whilst admitting she is not greatly comforted by the idea of a whole generation of teens being influenced by Ms Cyrus, Amanda seems to be trying to argue that Miley’s choices should not be judged, as Miley desperately tries, she says, “to write her own script; truly trying to be taken seriously (even if its in a nakedly playful way) by the standards of her own peers.”

Respectfully, this “no judgment of choices” idea is horseshit. While I personally couldn’t care less about twerking, have zero qualms with nudity, fellating construction tools in video clips, or sexualised content for adult consumers (including the consumer typing these words), I know many people (including women) who do – people who are neither prudes nor censorship crusaders, but who hold genuine concerns about cultural impacts of popular figures (and the trends they generate) in mass culture.

I would never want or support Miley being forced to cover up or censor herself (and, really, she aint that shocking). Yet, saying she, an ADULT, should be allowed to wear and do whatever with total impunity – even when people’s critique is grounded in either concern for her as an individual or in the wider implications of her commercial choices – is ludicrous. It denies the fact that we all are – and should be – responsible for our actions, and the effects those actions have on the world around us.

But Palmer seems to be saying in her open letter that Sinéad (and all those people offering critique, especially other artists) should, instead, give Miley “space” to try on something called her “artist’s uniform”:

“[…] we gotta give Miley (and every female) space to try on her artist’s uniform. It’s like a game of cosmic dress-up, but the stakes are high. If we’re allowed to play it, we’re empowered. If we’re not, we’re still in a cage.

I am slightly sympathetic to the “but she’s an artist and she hasn’t had time to explore her art on her terms” argument. But I would be more so if Miley wasn’t making a metric tonne of money from her “new” (not really new, or original) artistic expression. And, seemingly, she is. I don’t want to sound like I am hating on her because of her financial position – she has worked damn hard and long for it all, and good on her for making the most of her considerable talent through professionalism and work ethic.

However, arguing that people should not critique what is an obviously lucrative mass PRODUCT (as well as self-expression) that will undoubtedly influence a lot of people, is wrong-headed. All signs point to Miley not giving a fuck anyway. She will no doubt continue to do what she wants, because she, unlike the majority of women on this planet, enjoys the freedom to do just that. Any argument that criticising Miley for her commercial choices is victimisation (not proffered by Amanda, but has been argued by many other women) is utter bollocks.

Miley is a grown woman, evidently wants to be regarded as such, and there is no good reason why she should be exempt from critical analysis.

Flipping the script for Women…ALL Women.

Amanda also uses one of my favourite concepts – the idea of “flipping the script” – to argue, um, something:

“While it may be true that the live-fast-die-young sex-pot female pop stars are washed up and thrown on the “rag heap”, like you say, wouldn’t it be better if we changed the entire plot instead of dealing with it as it’s been handed to us? Keith Richards and Jagger go out there night after night and shake their asses and everyone oohs and aahs that they’ve managed to age and maintain their spot at the sexy table.

Why shouldn’t this be true for women? Who says Miley can’t flip the script anytime she wants?”

Amanda seems to be suggesting that people should refrain from critiquing Miley’s choices now because she might “flip the script” later in her career.

Again, a flawed suggestion, as I think the point of many women who have criticised Miley about her current choices is that she hasn’t flipped the script, at all – she is a conventionally attractive young woman marketing in-yer-face sexuality with the aid of management professionals who have helped other young women craft variations of exactly the same product.

There is nothing “script-flipping” about that storyline in the broad scheme of things, certainly not for Womankind, or Humankind for that matter. Which is another reason why suggesting Miley – and public figures like her – should be beyond criticism is so silly.

That being said, one of the things that does impress me about Miley (and where I agree with Amanda) is that she has essentially “flipped the script” on an individual level. I think we can all acknowledge that in terms of her individual life, she has effectively changed its trajectory, and seems to have successfully broken from the “wholesome” image of Hannah Montana that she professionally played and profited from, at a chronological age when it was “appropriate” to do so.

Not an easy feat, and I give her props for that. But, not anything new either (nipple-ringed Janet Jackson did the same thing. And Christina Aguilera – “X-Tina” – seemed to negotiate that terrain without too much personal drama). The “virgin” to “sexpot” route is at this point a well-worn one is pop music. Hell, even Kylie Minogue did it. All it takes is one “risqué” song, album, video and/or dance routine…..

Funnily enough I think it was Sinéad’s patronising assumption about Miley’s individual circumstances and motivations that mucked up her argument. That emphasis detracted from what I think the larger part of Sinéad’s critique was/is: about how women essentially perpetuate “the script” of a (very narrow) articulation of women’s sexuality, sold not only to profit the individual women able and choosing to do so, but to profit corporations (who are driven by and serve men, Sinéad suggests with her language).

The sexual images and products sold by *these* kinds of corporations then affect mass consciousness and culture. This in turn affects choices, consumer choices, which affects the prevalence of certain types of products… what corporations make and sell to us, and whom they use to sell those products to us. If we can’t analyse and critically assess all that, as a means to progress society, then WTF can we critique?

Diverse expressions of womanhood AND the freedom to criticise.

Whilst I do appreciate what Amanda is saying about diversity of expression for Women, (many of my favourite female artists are ones who are criticised for being either “weird”, or too sexual in an unconventional way), I completely disagree with the notion that a millionaire, making serious money from a mode of expression that some people think is harmful for women and society, should be beyond criticism.

I’m not denying that some of the criticism of Miley thus far has been either ultra-conservative or base and sexist. Dumbshits insulting Miley’s body or calling her a “slut” who should cover up are ignorant, and such rhetoric should immediately invalidate anything the person offering such lazy assessments says. But, there may be serious, legitimate reasons to be critiquing Miley’s marketing strategy, her choice of expression, and cultural impact.

And those criticisms should be freely offered, with the same freedom that Miley exercised when she twerked on Beetlejuice-suit-clad Robin Thicke at the VMAs.


2 Comments on “Female Freedom, Yeah! (Nah…)”

  1. ceridwenspark says:

    Hi Pauline,

    I love that you are taking up this issue! Keep up the great work.

    Ceridwen ________________________________________

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