[Occasionally, friends, there comes a momentous time in our nation's history, which demands solemn observance. An occasion such as Miley Cyrus releasing a music video! Of the bird-centric museum-based dance-off variety! Now: I cannot be the only one who thought that, as sexy avian lady music videos go, this cannot compare to the time Claire Danes discovered her Wings of Transcending Prom Disappointment and/or Outdoor Plumbing in that one Soul Asylum video. (Runaway wings, never coming back! Wrong wings on a one-wing track!) But, you know, wings are a metaphor. For ladies. And how they want to do stuff. And that's, like, feminist or whatever. Right? Well, HA. You will never believe who we got to explain this one for us! Ladies, gentlemen: Ms. Chloe Angyal.]
Miley Cyrus is not Betty Friedan. This is fairly obvious to an intelligent observer, which I can only assume you are, because you read Tiger Beatdown. It’s fairly obvious, but I feel that it’s important to point out that Miley Cyrus has not written a groundbreaking, world-changing book about oppressed housewives. Nor has she founded a national organization of some kind to represent the political needs of women. She has certainly never served as the figurehead and spokesperson for the feminist movement in America (Disney forbids that in their contracts). Miley Cyrus is not Betty Friedan. Neither is Lady GaGa, or Gwen Stefani, or Tina Fey, or Christina Aguilera. Why do I feel the need to point out these rather obvious facts? Because every time any of these celebrities produces a piece of pop culture that is even vaguely feminist, we prick up our ears in hope and wonder if maybe, just maybe, this pop star, this time, might be the feminist icon we’ve all been waiting for.
Miley Cyrus’ new song “I Can’t Be Tamed” has just been released, and with it the video that Sady and Amanda so thoroughly dissected in last week’s Sexist Beatdown. The video’s got it all: Feathers, cages, uncomfortable-looking corsets and even more uncomfortable-looking dancing. The song and the accompanying video have been discussed a fair bit around the feminist blogosphere, as we’ve come to expect whenever Cyrus releases a new song or movie or TV show or puff of carbon dioxide. The debate touches, as it always does, on whether the song and video are too racy for the 17-year-old popstar, but also, inevitably, on whether or not the lyrics, images and ideas are feminist or not.
The Frisky’s Jessica Wakeman hailed the song as “the new girl power anthem.” Miley’s ‘don’t change me’ message is one that “a lot of girls could apply to their parents, boys, school, religion, and their friends,” Wakeman writes. “Where else will a girl get that message on MTV?” And Wakeman is absolutely right: With the exception of a few “I’m so hot and guys love me” lines, the lyrics to Miley’s new track are pretty empowering-sounding. She can’t be tamed, and she doesn’t want to be, and she wants to run and fly and go and all that good stuff.
Unfortunately, those empowering-sounding lyrics are somewhat contradicted by the super-sexy-with-extra-added-writhing video. And while it would be great to be able to take the lyrics and the video separately, that’s not the way pop music works: Songs and videos are a package deal. And the rest of this package doesn’t look all that empowered to me. It looks like the same old sexy crap we’ve been seeing in music videos for quite some time.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing inherently wrong with sexy music videos. But there’s something galling about pairing a cookie-cutter sexy video, complete with requisite lying-on-the-ground-possibly-touching-herself side shots and a co-ed crowd of scantily clad dancers, with girl power anthem lyrics. It suggests a less than total commitment to your “I am an individual, dammit!” message when you make a music video that looks like every other sexy popstar music video ever. I understand that acting sexy and telling the world to fuck off and let her be might feel like an act of feminist rebellion for Miley, but to me her rebellion looks suspiciously like conformity to the rules of adult or late-teen popstardom.
But whether or not Miley’s new song and video are feminist or not isn’t really the issue here. The issue is why, every time a pop star comes out with a song that’s even vaguely feminist, we try desperately to position that person as a potential feminist flag bearer in popular culture. We did it when Christina Aguilera released “Can’t Hold Us Down.” We did it when Pink released “Stupid Girls.” Hell, I did it myself just a few months ago, when I first heard Lady Gaga’s “Dance in the Dark.” It’s tempting, when there are so few openly feminist celebrities out there, to latch on to any glimmer of girl power hope that comes our way. It’s tempting, but ultimately misguided, to try to make feminist mountains out of girl power molehills.
I understand the need for feminist role models for young people, and the need for feminism to be appealing and accessible to people who haven’t or don’t want to read Audre Lorde. I understand the value of “stealth” feminism, of using popular culture to get a foot in the door with people who don’t think feminism is cool or important. I also understand the desperate desire to see your values reflected in popular culture, and to look for proof that the culture is finally coming around. But if it’s feminist icons we’re after, pop culture simply isn’t the place to find them.
What about Buffy? I hear you say. What about No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” and India Arie’s “Video”? I don’t deny that they, and many other pieces of popular culture, have elements of feminism in them. But – and maybe this makes me a curmudgeon – I just don’t trust popular culture with feminism. Given its track record of appropriating the movement’s messages in ways that are often seriously problematic, from the Spice Girls to Sex and the City, I’m wary. It seems more than likely to me that a message like the one in Miley’s new song isn’t really about breaking free and being your own person, but about the fact that messages about breaking free and being your own person sell records.
But if quasi-feminist messages sell records, isn’t that proof that feminism has seeped into popular culture? Not really. It’s proof that quasi-feminist messages sell records when paired with same-old-crap videos. And that’s fine, I suppose. The slow infiltration of popular culture by a watered-down version of feminism is better than no infiltration at all. But it’s hardly reason for celebration, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves by trying to argue that it makes Miley a feminist role model. Girl power plus same old sexist crap does not a feminist icon make. In searching for feminist icons, we should be looking to people who are feminist if not all the time, then at least not just when it sells records. We shouldn’t be looking to women who call other women “stupid,” (even they do long for a woman POTUS) or who taunt men about having small penises (even if it is part of a treatise on sexual double standards).
If it’s feminist role models we’re after, we need to look elsewhere, at self-proclaimed public feminists who are out there every day doing feminist work. If it’s feminist icons we need, let’s look for women who devote their lives to helping other women, who live feminist lives every day rather than just singing pseudo-feminist lyrics once in a while. Pop culture is fun, and it’s important: It reflects and shapes who we are as a society. But it’s also driven by profit, and for that reason alone, it shouldn’t be trusted with something as important as feminism.
Gloria Steinem once famously said that feminism is not a public relations movement. What she meant was that feminism is too important to water down or cushion with sexism in an attempt to make it more appealing. In the same way, the need for feminist role models and icons is great, but those positions are too important to be filled by people who co-opt feminism to turn a profit. We need feminist role models, but when we look to pop culture, we’re looking in the wrong place. Miley Cyrus is many things; a singer, an actress, a cultural phenomenon and idol for young girls all over America. But she is not, and she never will be, Betty Friedan.
[Chloe Angyal is a Contributor at Feministing. "Party in the USA" is secretly one of her favorite songs.]