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The Real Problem With Miley Cyrus and Marissa Mayer: Twerking, Lounging and Mixed Messages

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"Why are Feminists Judging Miley Cyrus?" is the title of a recent Rush Limbaugh show. Although I find Limbaugh horrendous, this question was also in my head as I wondered what message the media uproar over Miley's VMA appearance is sending. This, right after the controversy over Marissa Mayer's reclining pose in a recent Vogue photo shoot. Why, after all these years of fighting to be able to wear and do what we please, are we still spending so much energy debating these things?

And by "we," I mean everyone. It actually isn't just us feminists. More people tweeted about Cyrus' ass shaking than on this year's Super Bowl, which held the tweets per minute record before Sunday night.

So, why all the umbrage? It's not like outrageous behavior is uncommon at the VMAs. This year, Lady Gaga wore a seashell thong! Remember in 2003, when a then-45 year-old Madonna made out with 22 year-old Disney alum, Britney Spears? In the long history of the VMAs, Miley's performance was pretty tame.

Tame, too, is Mayer's much-debated reclining Vogue pose. With a Michael Kors dress primly covering her knees, the shot is kind of boring, even for Vogue (though I did love her YSL shoes). Yet, it sparked hyperbolic headlines like ""Yahoo CEO's Vogue Photo Strikes Blow Against Decades-Old Stereotype." If she had been wearing Miley's latex outfit, then maybe I could understand that headline.

The scope of reproach for both women is vast. A MSNBC anchor called Cyrus' twerking attempts pornography. Social critic Camille Paglia believes that the problem with Cyrus' performance was that she did sexy wrong, thus making it unsexy. Mayer's Vogue spread, which is fine for all the other amazing women that grace the pages of Vogue, was seen as "self-validating" and "sexed up."  So, lounging upside down fully-dressed is too sexed up and gyrating in latex is just sexed up done wrong?

At the same time, the men in the blast radius come away unscathed. At the VMAs, when Cyrus and Robin Thicke recreated moves from his oft-parodied "Blurred Lines" video, only Cyrus is up for criticism. Thicke's proud mom even jumped on the Cyrus-trashing bus: "I was not expecting her to be putting her butt that close to my son... The problem is now I can never unsee it. Him? Loved it. I love that suit, the black and white suit," Loring said, praising her son's outfit. "I don't understand what Miley Cyrus is trying to do. I just don't understand."

Washington Post blogger Alexandra Petri had a funny take on the Miley tsunami:

If you're a male performing artist and you want to appear edgy and sexy, all you have to do is, I think, stand there in a suit. If you are a woman who wants to appear sexy, you can stand there in a suit, but it has to be your birthday suit. Otherwise, you can wear basically nothing (within rounding error) and gyrate (in heels, usually) and then afterwards smile and say that you feel empowered. (To date, only Beyonce has really managed to pull this off.)




In order to insist that you are not trying to be sexy you have to go to seriously bizarre, Lady Gaga lengths, and even then there can be some confusion. But sexy is the default. When men become pop stars, we don't say, "Wonderful. Now, remove your pants!" But with women -- well.

So, the messages seem to be, if you are a woman:
  • It is ok to be sexy (sometimes), but not too sexy.
  • If you are trying to be sexy, make sure to do it in a sexy way.
  • But definitely do not try to be smart and sexy. 
  • Vogue is fine for fashion icons, but not for CEOs, unless of course you are a pop or fashion business maven, then go ahead and lie back on a couch in whatever you want.

Maybe I am being dense, but I find this confusing as hell.

Despite what some cultural critics might argue, these women are savvy. Mayer (the second highest-paid employee at Yahoo) broke many glass ceilings with her salary package. She's known as one of the mostly highly-paid CEOs and one of only 21 women in the Fortune 500, as well  as a "bright spot" in the tech gender gap. Yahoo's stock (and thus her pay package) has been steadily rising. 

Joining Mayer in crying about mean tweets all the way to the bank, Cyrus was the highest earning teen in America before her 18th birthday.

Perhaps both were hoping for this kind of microscopic national focus? Neither woman got to this point in their careers by shying away from the spotlight. Maybe we shouldn't be so quick to assume that these women didn't know what they were doing as they twerked and posed.