“Bangerz” came out last week and is currently number one on iTunes in seventy countries. I realize I’m far from the kind of fan Miley Cyrus is courting, but I admit I started following her on Instagram after the VMA train wreck. I think it’s because she’s making choices that so perfectly reflect not just her youth, but the dominant values of our country. And on top of that she happens to be both brave and talented. I’m intrigued.
But it’s tiring, the response famous young female artists receive from the public. We scold them for shoving their bodies and manufactured sexuality in our faces, like that’s not sexist of us, or like we haven’t seen it before. Others of us rise to the artist’s defense: Leave her alone! She should be free to act and dress however she wants. Women should support one another, not tear each other down! We need more freedom, not less!
Well, of course we need more freedom. Of course we shouldn’t attack a twenty-year-old for taking her clothes off. We’ve had this conversation many times—it’s a relatively safe conversation that goes nowhere. It’s why Matt Lauer is asking Miley Cyrus about her sexuality instead of talking about race and what if anything she learned from the experience of using black women asobjectified props in her VMA performance.
We’re certainly not hurting for the freedom to ignore racism and pretend like the white-centered dialogue coming out of the larger culture is really meant for everyone. Nor is the freedom we need the freedom to entertain men by embodying the fantasies the porn industry has sold them. We’re good there, thanks. With the stories and products currently being marketed to our kids, our little girls should have the look down before they hit puberty. This dovetails nicely with the average age boys start seeing explicit, degrading images of women—around age eleven.
The freedom to use our bodies and sex to make ourselves heard, to sell records—to sell anything, really—is not high on my list of things we need to be defending right now. It doesn’t mean human beings shouldn’t have that right, but in the current structure of our society, that limited expression of freedom often comes at the expense of a far broader and more inclusive liberation.
This liberation—in essence a radical return to our humanity—is not just an abstract ideal or collection of ideals that activists from various groups insist on beating us over the heads with year after year to make us feel like a bunch of selfish losers. No, it turns out that our ecological survivalactually depends on these changes. It depends on our ability to imagine a different world and take that picture with us into our days, holding it up like a gauge, even if it seems as silly and impossible as a five-year-old’s drawing—a dolphin flying with birds through a sky full of moons. Maybe in your picture we aren’t divorced from the natural world or from each other. Maybe being a pop star doesn’t mean you pay a ransom with your body or look a certain way. Maybe in your drawing you aren’t invisible.
“You are perfection Miley. You inspire me soo much. You teach me to be myself and not give a fuck about what anyone thinks. Your [sic] beautiful. I love you Miley Cyrus. <3” This comment appeared last week from one of Miley’s 4.5 million Instagram followers. I’ve been trying to fit it into my own make-believe picture. It definitely does fit into one of the many windy paths around the picture’s periphery that all lead to the center. The question is whether enough of us manage to tear through the cultural labyrinth toward a more just and sustainable future. If we do, that force of change won’t have emerged from an amassing of wealth or technology or guns. It will have been because something inspired whole groups of us to wake up to the possibility and value our lives hold.
Heather McLeod is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, two small children, and ridiculous dog.