Twerking for the Man: Fallout from the 2013 VMAs

During this year’s wild Video Music Awards on MTV, there was a brief interlude about a third of the way through the broadcast where comedian Kevin Hart talked about the show’s performances up to that point. His main contribution to the show was his surprise that Lady Gaga had such a big ass. He commented that he had been checking it out during Gaga’s show opening performance, which featured the performer going through multiple costume changes on stage, ultimately ending up in just a tiny thong and a seashell bra. As if that weren’t bad enough, Hart then went on to discuss the most controversial performance of the night: Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke’s rendition of Blurred Lines.

Though he was going for humorous effect, Hart stumbled onto a serious element of truth with his analysis of the duet. He said that Miley should probably get a pregnancy test after grinding on Thicke during the performance, and that other young girls should stay away from Thicke unless they want to end up on an Amber Alert. Given what had just transpired on stage, let alone the fact that women are still kidnapped, raped, and killed by men at a horrific rate, it definitely wasn’t funny.

But even though Hart’s critique of the performance was crude and inappropriate, at least he found the right target, Robin Thicke, unlike the mainstream media and social media universe. Following Cyrus’ performance, in which she brought “twerking” fully into the mainstream, Twitter exploded into a frenzy, setting a record for the most tweets per minute on a given subject at over 300,000, which is even more than the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, most of the Tweets and Facebook posts, as well as the reaction from the mainstream media focused almost exclusively on Cyrus. There was lots of “What was Miley thinking?” and “Should your daughter be watching Miley Cyrus?”, plus all sorts of extremely derogatory name-calling through social media.

Granted, while it is unfortunate that Miley Cyrus bought into this performance and allowed herself to be brought down to such a low level, the truly awful aspect of it was the way it illuminated the double standard women face under this system. Almost none of the negative reaction went toward Robin Thicke and the performance of his extremely misogynistic song “Blurred Lines,” a song that is all about pressuring women into sex. The chorus “you know you want it” (which is often the last thing a woman hears before she gets raped) repeats over and over. The song’s music video features topless women prancing around for men’s amusement, and during the VMAs Miley Cyrus essentially played that role. She stripped down into a skimpy two-piece outfit and twerked and grinded in front of Thicke.

It’s extremely telling that in our society a man can sing a song with lyrics that compare women to dogs and promotes a misinterpretation of “liberation” in order to pressure women into giving over their bodies for a man’s pleasure, and then when a woman actually does exactly what the man wants, strips down and dances and grinds for his pleasure, she’s instantly labeled a “bitch” or a “slut” or a “whore.” Meanwhile, the man who pressures women into a subservient, objectified role and benefits from the kind of behavior that Cyrus demonstrated doesn’t get criticized at all. It’s the male privilege under this system to exploit women sexually and skate away clean, while women must endure and defend themselves against the backlash that results from daring to be openly sexual. The Cyrus/Thicke performance has perfectly demonstrated the double-standard women face on a daily basis.

Again, it’s unfortunate that Cyrus participated in a performance that reduced her to nothing more than a sex object for a man’s pleasure, but to be clear, the villain here is the patriarchal system of male privilege that allows men to encourage the objectification and the exploitation of women, and then turns around and viciously attacks women who actually conform to those demands. “Don’t be such a prude,” followed by, “You’re such a filthy slut!” Under this system women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Miley Cyrus was damned because she did, taking all the backlash that should have been aimed at Robin Thicke.

However, while the 2013 VMAs will forever bare the black-eye of the Cyrus/Thicke performance which was controversial for all the wrong reasons, there were some positive moments from the broadcast.

Justin Timberlake cemented his status as the coolest human being alive with an epic greatest hits performance that featured a brief reunion with his boy-band N*Sync. Taylor Swift’s fantastic video for “I Knew You Were Trouble” won the award for Best Female Video, and Jason Collins, the first active athlete in a team sport to come out as gay, introduced a great performance of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s song “Same Love” which puts forward a powerful pro-gay message. And the show ended on a strong note with Katy Perry performing her hit “Roar” for the very first time.

It’s interesting to contrast Miley’s performance with Katy Perry’s. Cyrus is a huge star in her own right. She developed a massive following while performing as Disney’s Hannah Montana, and she successfully transitioned into a career under her own name. She is one of the wealthiest young people in the world with a media empire dwarfing that of her father’s, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus. And yet, all that wealth, power, and industry clout was meaningless on stage during the VMAs. Instead of taking her career to even new heights and solidifying herself as a powerful female mega-star, she took a back seat to the up and coming misogynist Robin Thicke. It was a degrading performance that in one stroke showed how good it is to be a man under this system, and how difficult and complicated it is to be a women.

Perry’s performance on the other hand was much closer to what Miley’s should have been. She was sexy without objectifying herself, dressed up as a boxer, and in an extremely well choreographed performance lit up the night under the Brooklyn Bridge with a display of raw female athleticism, power, and talent. She didn’t take a back seat to any man or play the part of the slut, she sang a good pop song on her own terms and ended a controversial award show on a generally positive note.