Stop Hating on the Genius of Miley Cyrus

September 2, 2013  |  By
Filed under: Essay, Projects/Series

Miley77kMost people don’t realize just how much Miley Cyrus has been suffocating under the international brand built by the Disney Corporation. Remember—they portrayed her as an innocent, apple pie–loving American wonder child that could do no wrong.

They invested millions upon millions of dollars in that wholesome purity—in the middle class fantasy that you can go anywhere in this country if you just roll up your sleeves and work hard.

That’s a lot of pressure to be putting on a little girl. Yet under Disney’s big black boot she didn’t even have a real name, just the brand name Hannah Montana, which was chosen because it rhymes.

In 2008, her TV series had a global audience of two hundred million viewers. According to the Daily Dispatch: “By February 2008, the Hannah Montana franchise had become so important that Disney convened an ’80-person, all-platform international meeting to discuss Hannah Montana’s future.’ All Disney business segments were represented at the meeting.”

For years they had her touring around the country with a band, playing music she didn’t even write (Miley Cyrus is no Taylor Swift!). All along the way she was fawned over and guided by her horrible-in-every-way country music star father, Billy Ray Cyrus. Then, like other young women who have been forced to sacrifice their childhoods for early fame, she faced an identity crisis.

And let’s face it, Disney didn’t want to sexualize their child star too much, since advertisers wouldn’t go for it and it would contaminate the image they’d created. Besides, did anybody really want to see a burned-out, drug-addicted 35-year-old Hannah Montana? Okay, maybe some people might have. But my point is that her fans were growing up too, and her very future depended on retaining those fans and hopefully finding a way to get more.

To rebrand meant she could potentially become a genuine crossover act. Yet, frustratingly, everyone still was associating her with the old brand—the tween child star. So what could she do?

Obviously she had to erase that association in the minds of her fans, many of whom dared not think carnal thoughts about the young girl she portrayed as Hannah Montana. And it’s exactly for that reason she almost had to do what she did at the MTV Video Music Awards. Her dirty dancing and portrayal of sex acts on stage gave her fans permission to see her as a woman.

But while Miley gets humiliation and public shaming, Robin Thicke, her bump-and-grind dance partner, is a married man and hardly got any criticism at all. He can be a horn dog and dirty dance with 20-year-old Miley, but it’s she that should be ashamed of what God gave her? Can we say double standard?

Remember, no matter how desperate, coked-up, and slutty she appeared to be on stage, people should recall that she is an actress and it was just a performance. And really, if her goal was to change how people thought of her, it worked.

So even as the media freaked out at how she stuck her face in the rear end of an oversize teddy bear and seemed to like it, she was getting some extreme twitter love. Forbes said: “Cyrus’ performance spurred a massive wave of 306,100 tweets per minute.” Which totally crushed the VMAs from last year. By comparison the Presidential election night last year saw a peak of 327,452 tweets per minute.

So in marketing terms that dirty dance was a success.

Lest we forget, Miley Cyrus is also worth $150 million, so a lot of people’s jobs are riding on her being freak of the month.

Who knows, maybe that American myth is true after all: if you roll up your sleeves (or strip down to flesh-colored vinyl bra and camel-toe panties) and work hard (get sweaty with dancing bears under hot stage lights), then anything really is possible.

14 Comments

  1. Jon Says:

    Well said, Chris. She’s not a product; she’s a person. But if they want her to behave like a product, nothing wrong with her taking the reins and setting the message herself. The smart thing for Disney to do would be to spin her new character off to subsidiary, to continue to bring in big money as a sex symbol for the next 10-15 years. After that, she can retire and be whomever she wants to be. So far, I don’t see an out-of-control former teen star. I see a coming-of-age tale that will continue to produce revenues for everyone involved, and keep the masses permanently gratified, yet unsatiated.

  2. elka Says:

    I’d like to note that Billy Ray wishes he had a foam finger: http://movies.ndtv.com/music/miley-cyrus-tweets-message-from-father-supporting-her-raunchy-act-411870

    Also, the fact that Alan Thicke was involved raised Growing Pains within me. Reminded me of casting & promotion of Spring Breakers: http://hyperallergic.com/68287/spring-breakers-more-skittles-than-chess/

  3. Laura Says:

    Rally guys? Way to not mention the utter racism of the entire act.

  4. Chris Cobb Says:

    Well, feel free to say what you feel was racist here in the comments section.
    Because if I begin to deconstruct Miley Cyrus as racist, we would first need to examine the brand image built by Disney. Then we would need to examine the entire music industry, which is racist – in too many ways to count. Instead, I chose to examine another topic: Sexism. Sexism is often expressed through caricature, just like racism is, and I believe I addressed that. In case you are interested in the African origins of Twerking, this is a good article: http://www.xojane.com/issues/the-origins-of-twerking

  5. Kate Says:

    I’m afraid Laura is pointing to something that not ignorable in this context, Chris. The racism is exactly a part of the “dirtiness” of the dance. There is a great commentary here that is totally worth reading, before you argue otherwise: http://tressiemc.com/2013/08/27/when-your-brown-body-is-a-white-wonderland/

  6. Chris Cobb Says:

    Hi Kate, I wasn’t going to, but I went ahead and read the article you linked to. It wasn’t really about Miley Cyrus. It was about the author and her personal experiences.

    Nonetheless, in her wandering through a confused landscape of conflicting emotions about race, gender, and relationships, she does actually come to the very point (well, sort of) I made in my column:

    “Being desirable is a commodity. Capital and capitalism are gendered systems. The very form that money takes — paper and not goods — is rooted in a historical enterprise of controlling the development of an economic sphere where women might amass wealth. As wealth is a means of power in a capitalistic society, controlling this means of acceptable monies was a way of controlling the accumulation, distribution and ownership of capital.”

    So like I said, it is a testament to Miley Cyrus’s genius that she managed to offend feminists who usually decry “slut shaming”, Conservatives, who believe women should not act sexual in public at all, and some African Americans, who see racism in her every dance move. It is exactly in this way that she has gotten more attention and heated discussion than money can buy. This is how she is creating her own identity, apart from the wholly owned Hannah Montana identity.

    Isn’t it a good thing that a young woman is asserting who she is and coming into her own?

  7. Anu Says:

    I am saddened that you would dismiss an account of racism in culture corroborated by personal experience as not relevant to this discussion when the author clearly articulates the problem is with Miley’s use of black “othered” bodies to highlight her desirability as a white woman. Yes, the music industry is racist. Unfortunately, our whole culture is racist – so much so that even a well-intentioned person like yourself appears to be unaware of how the fight against sexism has been waged by white women too often by throwing women of color under the bus. It’s not her right to appropriate other women’s bodies for her own benefit. It’s even worse because those women participate on account of being economically exploitable due to their reduced value in society. As for Robin Thicke, his summer hit is all about sexual coercion. These are not people who deserve your praise.

  8. Chris Cobb Says:

    Hi Anu, And I am truly saddened that people didn’t appear to read what I wrote, but rather saw both sexist and racist things in what I wrote, and more interestingly, in what I didn’t write.

    But to your point – I could just as easily say that American feminism, racist as it is (as you put it), has had the side effect of de-legitimizing a whole generation of male opinion in regards to race, gender, class and culture – even of “well-intentioned” ones like myself, which I feel a little bit of right now. The thing is, I do see that American feminism is racist, and you are right about that, and I am indeed aware of it.

    But here is my choice as a well-intentioned white male: do I dare defend a white female who has clearly been used all her life – by her family, her friends and her employers, and lay bare the intricate power relationships that she has to navigate in order to be accepted? Do I dare call out the obvious gender bias and sexist stereotypes she acts out daily in order to fulfill her lucrative contracts?

    Or do I attack her, which is currently the popular thing to do, for bringing shame to women, for being racist, for being too sexually out of control, for being too independent? My impulse is to see things from the underdog’s perspective, even if it is unpopular.

    In regards to racism, people aren’t born naturally racist, they are taught to be that way. So I think it’s o.k. for me to deconstruct the power relationships in a pop star’s life in order to reveal the root of their behavior; which is ultimately all about business. In America racism is big business, so too is sexism. Please keep in mind this is a blog and in 600 or 700 words we’re not going to solve all of society’s problems, no matter how well-intentioned we are.

  9. Anu Says:

    I did read what you wrote. I also read what you didn’t write. I just don’t agree that the issues of sexism and racism can be separated, or that it’s possible to have an opinion on this that’s responsible without being characterized by contradiction. This New Inquiry piece came out today and I think it encapsulates the problems and contradictions here perfectly: “White people clamoring to up their cred by appropriating nonwhite culture do so hoping to be rewarded for choices that are falsely seen as inherent in people of color.” http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/can-the-white-girl-twerk/

    Why write about this at all? Why should the readers of a museum blog care about Miley Cyrus in the least? Why does a white man like yourself feel a need to weigh in on the subject at all, let alone leap to the defense of a young woman who has an army of publicists to defend her against a controversy she deliberately and knowingly courted? I actually refrained from paying attention to this at all for quite a while, until the chorus of voices arguing for Miley’s defense while openly rejecting any dissent from women of color became too strong to ignore. I am deeply disappointed to see that you’re one of those voices, because I know these concerns are not lost on you.

  10. Anu Says:

    Adding: with respect to reading what’s unwritten, we learn to do this when we are consistently written out of the official record. The form of contemporary racism is in sins of omission as much as, or more than, in sins of transgression.

  11. Chris Cobb Says:

    I am sorry I disappointed you by writing this column, but my goal has never been to make everybody happy. Just out of curiosity, when you read what I didn’t write, what did I say?

  12. Chris Cobb Says:

    And for the curious – I invite you to take a look at some of my other columns which are devoted to issues of race, with no mention of Miley Cyrus:

    On Carlos Villa’s passing:
    http://blog.sfmoma.org/2013/03/carlos-villa-1936-2013-3/
    Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed at Harlem Arts Salon
    http://blog.sfmoma.org/2013/02/living-room-dispatch2/
    On Obama as the Invisible Man
    http://blog.sfmoma.org/2012/09/diary-of-a-crazy-artist-obama-as-the-enigmaticinvisible-man/
    Observances of Gil Scott Heron
    http://blog.sfmoma.org/2011/06/a-very-long-post-about-the-extraordinary-artist-and-poet-and-storyteller-and-singer-and-philosopher-and-influential-activist-and-fighter-of-inner-demons-gilbert-scott-heron-2/
    On the Tlingit way of life and art in the Yukon
    http://blog.sfmoma.org/2011/01/23225/

  13. Anu Says:

    Chris, what I read that you did not say is that the experiences of people of color as foils for transgressive white sexuality are not germane to a discussion of white sexuality. This is the argument that says objectification of black men is not relevant to critique of Mapplethorpe’s Black Book (Glenn Ligon did a wonderful work on this subject).

    It is exactly because you have such an excellent track record on issues of race in other arenas, as you cite, that I am surprised and dismayed about your reactions in this case. Your comments also echo the larger discourse, and reinforce the consistent omission of PoC perspectives from discussions of white culture where they are sorely needed. Putting us in the “ethnic” bucket gives us an outlet but not a seat at the table. Do you see what I’m saying? It’s not about making everyone happy but about being true to the goal of ending marginalization even when the people doing the marginalizing are in agreement with you in other ways.

  14. Chris Cobb Says:

    In case anybody missed it, Sinéad O’Connor just wrote an “Open Letter” to Miley Cyrus:
    http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/oct/03/sinead-o-connor-open-letter-miley-cyrus

    Then on the same day Amanda Palmer wrote a rather cloying “Open Letter” to Sinead O’Connor:
    http://www.brooklynvegan.com/archives/2013/10/amanda_palmers_3.html

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