John Whitehead's Commentary
Miley Cyrus and the Pornification of America
“In a market that sells high heels for babies and thongs for tweens, it doesn’t take a genius to see that sex, if not porn, has invaded our lives. Whether we welcome it or not, television brings it into our living rooms and the Web brings it into our bedrooms.”—Jessica Bennett, “The Pornification of a Generation”
There’s a strange irony to the fact that on the same week of the 93rd anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a milestone achievement for the women’s suffrage movement which resulted in women finally being able to vote, the headlines are dominated by the antics of pop star Miley Cyrus, who used this year’s MTV Video Music Awards (VMA) as a forum for twerking, gyrating, stripping and other sexually defiant acts. Curiously enough, apart from concerns about Cyrus’ questionable taste in dance moves, no one else seems to find this convergence the least bit jarring or incongruent.
Welcome to the pornification of American culture, served up MTV-style.
“Did Miley Cyrus ‘Flirt With Bad Taste’ Or Dive Right In?” asks NPR. “Miley Cyrus’ VMAs Performance: Offensive or Awesome?” posits Billboard. “Gaga Who? Miley Cyrus Snatches Crown for Queen of Obscene at VMAs” declares Yahoo Music. One reporter noted that 20-year-old Cyrus’ performance at the Video Music Awards, which started with the former Disney teen idol doing a burlesque routine with oversized teddy bears and ended with her using a foam finger to imitate having sex with herself and the audience, “left Gaga in the dust with her gratuitous show of both skin and gesturing this year.”
It’s a sorry coming-of-age declaration from a girl who, for most of her life, has been America’s little darling, the star of Disney’s Hannah Montana and a self-avowed Christian who reportedly wore a purity ring as a testament to her virginity. Yet Cyrus’ VMA performance of her hit single “We Can’t Stop” was no less shocking than its companion music video which features the 20-year-old making out with a doll in a swimming pool, twerking, faking orgasm, and rough-housing with other women while men look on. Thirty-seven days after being released, “We Can’t Stop” became the fastest clip to reach 100 million views on a major music video website. One blogger actually praised the music video “as a high-spirited celebration of the freedom that young women are blessed with today to fully explore and celebrate their sexuality.”
Frankly, in an age in which we routinely witness the pornification of American youth through popular music, film and culture, the outraged response by critics and fans alike to Cyrus’ performance seems like just so much hypocrisy. After all, these are many of the same people who made Lady Gaga a musical force to be reckoned with. Gaga was just 23 when her chart-topping “Bad Romance” single came out. The companion video packs a lot of messages—none of them wholesome—into a five-minute musical in which the singer is kidnapped, drugged, and forced to sell herself as a prostitute to the highest bidder. The video ends with a scantily clad Gaga lying on a bed in a post-coital pose beside the smoldering skeleton of her “customer” while her pyrotechnic bra emits fire.
Thus, for those wondering if Cyrus will be the next Lady Gaga, a better question to ask is what are the consequences of a whole generation of pornified Gagas coming of age, given that so many of our young women have been raised to think that Gaga and Cyrus and the many other gyrating, minimally clad celebrities and models who pass for “sex symbols” today are the pinnacle of womanhood.
As commentator Dixie Laite writes for Bust magazine:
I can’t punish a young ambitious woman for noticing that sex sells. Madonna knew it when she crawled the VMA stage very much not “Like a Virgin”. Rihanna, Beyonce, Britney and countless others have climbed that ladder to fame… Last time I looked, we as a nation absolutely adored this so-called slutty behavior. I see people voting with their dollars and their attention to Playboy’s Bunnies, Victoria’s Secrets, strippers, people who dress like strippers, and girls who’ve gone wild. Miley’s crime seems to be that she “went too far”… she took all the things we accept and take for granted as ok every day and threw them all together into one jiggling jambalaya… [H]ad lots of barely-clad models come out gyrating around Robin Thicke, I doubt anyone would have thrown a hissy. I believe the word people would have used is “hot”… Yes, Miley Cyrus is now, more than ever, America’s Sweetheart. Only this time, it’s no fantasy Disney America, it’s the real America.
Real America, indeed. “Pop culture and porn culture have become part of the same seamless continuum,” explains theatre historian and University of Illinois professor Mardia Bishop. “As these images become pervasive in popular culture, they become normalized... and... accepted.”
This foray into porn culture—the increasing acceptability and pervasiveness of sexualized imagery in mainstream media—is where pop culture takes a dark turn. “Visual images and narratives of music videos clearly have more potential to form attitudes, values, or perceptions of social reality than does the music alone,” notes author Douglas A. Gentile in his book Media Violence and Children. In fact, music videos, which are found daily in 75-80% of the homes of 9- to 14-year-olds, are among the worst culprits constantly bombarding young people today with sexual images and references.
Children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend approximately 30-120 minutes a day watching music videos—75% of which contain sexually suggestive materials—and with the advent of portable technology, children’s television and music are often unmonitored by parents or guardians. Not only does this accelerate adolescent sexual behavior (girls between the ages of 12-14 are two times more likely to engage in sexual activity after being exposed to sexual imagery), but it increases the likelihood of more sexual partners.
Between the celebrity worship and the hyper-sexed imagery found in the pop stars’ videos, young people—especially young women—today are getting double-teamed. Indeed, Nancy Bauer, a Tufts University professor, argues that as "adoration of celebrities as idols or role models is a normal part of identity development in childhood and adolescence," young girls often look to celebrities as moral exemplars. This adoration can manifest itself from something as simple as putting up posters of the celebrity to more destructive behaviors. In this way, Miley Cyrus singing about “shaking it as if we’re at a strip club,” masturbating on stage with a foam finger, twerking her posterior rhythmically or giving a lap dance to a virtual stranger on stage becomes the embodiment of behavior to be studied and emulated.
Unfortunately, you don’t have to look far to find Cyrus’ behavior being mimicked by the younger set. Earlier this year, 28 teenaged girls and 3 teenaged boys at a San Diego high school were given two-day suspensions for shooting a twerking music video that was posted on YouTube in which the girls “gyrat[ed] against a wall while standing on their hands,” while the boys looked on. More recently, Alexis Murphy, a 17-year-old Virginia girl who went missing, reportedly as a result of a forced abduction, repeatedly tweeted videos of herself twerking, sticking her tongue out provocatively (a move Cyrus seemed especially proud of), not to mention talking frankly and with uncensored language about sex and drugs.
And then we wonder why our young women are being preyed on, trafficked and abused? As Jessica Bennett notes in “The Pornification of a Generation” for Newsweek:
All it takes is one look at MySpace photos of teens to see examples—if they aren’t imitating porn they’ve actually seen, they’re imitating the porn-inspired images and poses they’ve absorbed elsewhere. Latex, corsets and stripper heels, once the fashion of porn stars, have made their way into middle and high school… Celebrities, too, have become amateur porn stars. They show up in sex tapes (Colin Farrell, Kim Kardashian), hire porn producers to shoot their videos (Britney Spears) or produce porn outright (Snoop Dogg). Actual porn stars and call girls, meanwhile, have become celebs. Ron Jeremy regularly takes cameos in movies and on TV, while adult star Jenna Jameson is a best-selling author.
How we got to this place in time, where children are sexualized at an early age and trotted out as easy targets for all manner of predators is not really all that hard to decipher, but it requires a certain amount of candor.
First, there is nothing sexually liberating about young women—young girls—reducing themselves to little more than sex objects and prancing about like prostitutes. Second, this is a dangerous game that can only end in tragic consequences: there are sexual predators out there only too eager to take advantage of any innuendo-laced sexual “invitations” being put out there, intentional or not. Third, if it looks like porn, sounds like porn and imitates porn, it is porn, and it is devastating on every front, turning women into objects for male aggression. Fourth, no matter what its champions might say about the First Amendment and women’s liberation, pornography in all its forms—whether overtly packaged as skin flicks and mags or more subtly disguised by pop culture as trendy music videos and precocious clothing—is about one thing only: money. Fifth, parents: turn off your cell phones for a change and tune into what your kids are watching, reading, listening to, and whom they are emulating. Your child is no different and no less vulnerable than any other.
And finally, none of these things happen in a vacuum. Those concerned about the emerging police state in America which I detail in my book A Government of Wolves should be equally concerned about the pornification of America: they are two sides of the same coin. As Aldous Huxley notes in his introduction to Brave New World:
As political and economic freedom diminishes, sexual freedom tends compensatingly to increase. And the dictator (unless he needs cannon fodder and families with which to colonize empty or conquered territories) will do well to encourage that freedom. In conjunction with the freedom to daydream under the influence of dope and movies and the radio, it will help to reconcile his subjects to the servitude which is their fate.
Consider this: during a week in which news reports on NSA mass surveillance, militarized police forces, and a war brewing with Syria were vying for attention, CNN’s number one news story was Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance. Sounds like the death knell of an empire to me.