Let’s get this out of the way: there are many, many issues one could take with Miley Cyrus’ performance at Sunday night’s VMA Awards. Many.
But since the day immediately following the VMAs seemed to be Pile-on-Miley Day, this will not be a discussion of those issues.
Rather, I’d like to discuss that other headliner who graced the stage with Cyrus. Robin Thicke, though only a guest in the twerk-filled performance, was an equal player in those moments. Perhaps predictably, his name has only graced the scandalized blogs and news reports as a side note, rather than a full participant in the production.
Consider the context in which Thicke, who is 16 years Cyrus’ senior, took to the stage to perform ”Blurred Lines,” his insanely catchy song of the summer.
In the video (link NSFW), Thicke, along with fellow dudes T.I. and Pharrell Williams, sways back and forth in a tailored suit. Topless models clad only in beige thongs and platform shoes prance back and forth in front of the camera, coquettish smirks in place, occasionally pausing to rub themselves against one of their fully clothed male co-stars, or ride a giant stuffed dog. Meanwhile, the lyrics sing of a “good girl” whom the singer is convinced he “knows you want it.” The “blurred lines” he speaks of are a classic “no means yes” interpretation of female sexual desire, layered over a catchy beat. A good girl, with a boyfriend at home, but the singer just knows she’s hankering for some rough sex because…well, because he says so.
Unsurprisingly, the video has come under criticism from feminist circles for being misogynist, sexist, derogatory, objectifying, and simply gross, what with its treatment of women as naked playthings suitable only as background accessories, there merely to elevate the image of their clothed male stars.
It was with this context–one which, given his multiple interviews on the subject, Thicke is very aware–that he made the decision to appear on stage in his Beetlejuice suit and perform a song that includes the words “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two” (and a video that spells out this in silver balloons) while a 20-year-old girl in beige panties twerked her rear end against him. The images on that VMA stage were perfectly in sync with the “Blurred Lines” video imagery: the stuffed animals, the nearly-nude panty combo, even that white and red foam finger–although rather than using it to simulate masturbation, as Cyrus does, the model in Thicke’s video uses it to cover her naked breasts.
When Thicke uses those props, he gets nominated for Video of the Year. When Cyrus uses them, she gets an Internet exploding with rage over her choices. Though the video has certainly had its vocal detractors, the volume of criticism against the video since its release in March 2013 is a drop in the ocean compared to just 24 hours’ worth of outrage over Cyrus’ performance.
As many issues as one could take with the first half of Cyrus’ performance, it’s hard to deny the symbolism of this adult male subbing out a naked supermodel for a nearly naked pop star, swapping one objectified, naked accessory for another. It’s hard to deny that Thicke needs to take some responsibility, some culpability, to the rape culture-enforcing themes of his song and chosen imagery.
Except, far from acknowledge those ideas, they weren’t even mentioned in the rush to tweet, Facebook and blog our criticism for Miley and her wayward tongue. In the tradition previously demonstrated by Justin Timberlake-Janet Jackson-nipplegate of 2004, it seems we reserve our outrage over hyper-sexualized performances for our female pop stars only, a perversion of the antiquated notion that women are to act as the brakes in all sexual situations.
No matter what implied sexual violence or power imbalance appears in front of us, it’s the demonstration of female sexuality that shocks us–not the context in which that sexuality is performed.
And so, all the outrage, all the scandal, all the shock, all the criticism is directed at Cyrus, not at the grown man who was equally a part of the performance, and who used that performance to revisit the themes of his misogynistic video.
I’m not going to hold up Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance as a prime example of good decision making. But to leave Robin Thicke and the context of “Blurred Lines” out of the critique is to miss a large piece of what was happening on that stage. And that’s hardly shocking. It’s downright status quo.
Image: Screen shot from “Blurred Lines” video via Anchorshop.