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On Miley Cyrus, the MTV VMAs, and Maturing Sexuality

“Oh, what the fuck.”

When Miley Cyrus’s MTV Video Music Awards performance started, that was my first reaction. I wasn’t sure what scared me more: the large dancing bears behind her or the too-tight messy buns on her head. And what was she wearing? And why was she acting like a baby who had just discovered her tongue for the first time? I was uncomfortable watching her twerk, queasy watching her do strange sexual things with a giant foam finger, and, quite honestly, overall, sad to see one of my favourite songs of the summer played to such an unfortunate backdrop.

But as media outlets, Twitter users, and basically everyone else with a computer criticized the young singer, it got me thinking: Does she deserve this aggressive stream of condemnation?

Everyone seems to be united behind the idea that this performance was Cyrus’s coming-of-age moment—her declaration that she’s an adult now, a sexual being, a woman. CBC said she “grinds and bumps into celebrity adulthood.” The National Post said she “makes Lady Gaga look tame.” The Guardian called her performance “raunchy.”

Perhaps best-put, Gawker says: “Everything about Cyrus’ performance was as try-hard as a 14-year-old in the mall with tissues in her bra, rouge on her cheeks, and lipstick on her teeth.” Author Jesus Diaz goes on to say: “The carelessly tossed limbs and awkward fumbling stances reminded me of youthful experimentations with sex. Cyrus’ performance was a pop rendering of clanking teeth, an elbow to the face, bodies that never quite find the right rhythm.”

And that, for me, was where it all clicked.

Okay, so Miley Cyrus tried to be sexy and ended up coming off incredibly strange and raunchy. But can we blame the girl for trying?

Just as the Gawker article stated, Cyrus’s performance was the musical equivalent to someone’s first time in bed. Or maybe the first time they try to strip for their boyfriend. Or heck, maybe even just a first sloppy and super uncomfortable kiss.

The thing is, no matter who we are, we all go through a sexual phase equivalent to Cyrus’s VMA appearance. None of us get it “right” on our first try, regardless of what it is we’re trying. We all have those fumbly moments where we attempt something and it just doesn’t work quite right; it’s just not how we wanted it to come off. But we gave it our best shot! And isn’t that worth something?

Unfortunately for Miley Cyrus, every experiment she conducts is blasted on TV and the internet, in newspapers and magazines. But what she did is really no different than what any of us did at the age of 20, trying to navigate the sexual world that was blooming before us without looking like total idiots.

Don’t get me wrong: I think she looked fucking stupid up there. And her performance definitely made me uncomfortable. But does that mean I can blame her for trying? If you could go back in time and watch yourself during your first make-out session or your first time trying to seduce a crush with a “sexy” dance, would you not get the same sort of queasy reaction? You’d cringe at your former self, but then you’d pat her on the back and say, “Don’t worry, babe, it gets better.”

What we like to—or at the very least easily—forget is that Cyrus is still just a 20-year-old “not a girl not yet a woman” trying to wade her way through the excruciating period of growing up. She’s sexually maturing, and she wants to explore that. Heck, any of us would—and did. The difference is that she did it on a larger scale, obviously, out to prove to everyone who knows her—or feels the right to form an opinion on what she does—that she’s here, she’s trying, she’s learning, and she’s not afraid to fuck it up.

So maybe this performance wasn’t her best, and she’ll probably look back on those alarmingly large bears and hang her head in embarrassment, but who cares? She went for it. And you can be sure that, as with all sexual experiences, it’ll be better next time.

4 comments
BeccaLemire
BeccaLemire

You didn't touch on the racism of her performance....

PrimaFeminista
PrimaFeminista

@BeccaLemire i think this is important too! miley's commodification of twerking has some deep colonial roots that need addressing. 

also, im a bit taken a back that 'she looked stupid up there' but Robin Thicke is in the clear - even though the lyrics to his song are about blurring lines of consent and he was the thing that Miley was gyrating up against. but no no, let's criticize the girl who is 'coming into her sexuality'. how infantilizing - commenting on someone's sexuality as infantile or in it's 'developing stages' is so counter intuitive to an empowering conversation on gender, sexuality and pop culture. it basically removes her agency from her own sexuality; what if this is what her sexuality looks like as a full grown woman? because, like, isn't she a whole person? perhaps we can address her as such without belittling her or her sexuality or her expression of such. that said, in defending her performance i am not defending her white-settlerization of twerking. performing and commodifying blackness through such means is deeply problematic - i hope to comment on this with further education. i also acknowledge my privilege in this as a white woman. i feel i am unable to comment further than recognizing these problems at this time.

 the fact that miley's performance is getting so much attention rather than her male counterparts' is deeply troubling and indicative of our societys terrible double standards.