One of my favorite work-out songs (by work-out, I mean dance sessions in my room while procrastinating on AP homework) is the arguable classic "Still Dirrty" by Christina Aguilera. No matter your gender, it sends a great message: championing the expression of sexuality, Christina belts, "Why is a woman's sexuality always under so much scrutiny? Why can't she do exactly as she please without being called a million things?" And later, as the song builds up tempo: "If I want to wear lingerie outside of my clothes, if I want to be erotic in my own videos, if I want to be provocative, well, that ain't a sin, maybe you're not comfortable in your own skin!"
Critics began to challenge the evolution of her public image in the early 2000s (damned nose piercing). Remember that Jimmy Fallon bit on Weekend Update? "Christina Aguilera canceled two concerts in England, saying that she has acute bronchitis. Actually, it used to be acute. Now it's just kind of a-skanky," he said. But Christina saw no problem in throwing shade. Basically, she's fabulous.
I think all human beings experience a change in which they become much more comfortable with their bodies, a shift that occurs when they realize that all people (not just them in their lonely pubescent and occasionally young adult discomfort) are inherently sexual beings. The thing is, most young people aren't celebrities, musicians, or performers -- individuals who are consistently seen in the limelight. The transformations of those in the entertainment industry are always caught on the silver screen. Take a look at Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, or even Miley Cyrus (who's been the talk of the town ever since her VMA performance on August 25): after being cherished and idolized for years for their "good girl" image (I absolutely loathe that term and all it conveys), their decision to express open, fluid, "I-don't-care-this-is-my-body" sexuality (Britney and Madonna's lip lock a few years back or Miley's performance, for example) resulted in deafening reverberations. Those moments were (and still are) labeled as "pure shock-value" -- but if that initial view of the performer as a "good girl" (ugh) is so ingrained in the media and entertainment industry, doesn't the performer have to shock you? Orchestrate a moment with all the right instruments to make Fox News bemoan our entire generation? Miley might've once sung that "nobody was perfect" and "you get the best of both worlds," but that was, quite frankly, in the past. It's just like Christina Aguilera waving bye to the Mickey Mouse Club, dying her hair, and piercing her nose. Miley is embracing her sexuality (and not just that, but her selfhood, a concept so tragically foreign to many celebrities whose lives are blasted across tabloids) as both a woman and an adult.
Yes, there were some definite issues with Miley's performance (particularly her "commodification of black female sexuality," as expressed in this amazing article from Jezebel). Miley was obviously attempting to generate a strong reaction, and she received one. Don't get me wrong -- the dance was incredibly provocative. It was extremely erotic. Could Miley have expressed herself in a subtler manner, sans twerking teddy bears? Perhaps. But if she wants to use that extreme form of expression to shock people and create publicity, then shouldn't she be able to? It's her party and she can do what she wants. And while even I found the foam finger to be a bit much, I still don't see the reason behind such hateful backlash (if you're reading this and you're not agreeing with me so far, that sentence was probably the moment where you smashed you computer). It's upsetting that trying to carry out the evolution of your public image -- no matter how you go about it -- results in being called a slut, a word that no one should ever be called. It's upsetting for a person like MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski to call you "deeply disturbed" and insinuate that you're probably suffering from an eating disorder.
I've been mulling over this issue for a long time now, debating how to present this unpopular opinion and whether it's even worth arguing about. It seems that I've been afraid of not endowing a piece on this subject with the gravity that it requires. But that apprehensive nature developed from a desire to stick close to the contours of the beliefs I had grown up around -- quite simply, I was scared to rock the boat. But I know myself better now, and I know that I believe in progress. I place my faith in steps forward, in examination, in the power of conversation.
Moreover, I'm sure some people are probably tired of the vocabulary familiar to those interested in intersectional feminism. Slut-shaming. Objectification. Rape culture. Heteronormative. Patriarchal. Believe me, sometimes I wish there were new terms to add to the lexicon. Because if there were, that'd mean progress. That'd mean dialogue and discussion had -- and were -- occurring. Those naysayers who consistently rebuke and discredit conversation do so because it's an issue that they're afraid to address. It's similar to those who are annoyed by the constancy of think-pieces that are published after any major social event.
A privileged "Why do we have to analyze everything that happens?" seems to be the underlying pretense of every criticism directed toward an article addressing an issue like this. But the way our culture (one so invested in media that we can't see the forest through the trees) swallows information influences how we view and respond to social events. We need to create dialogue because we need to be ceaselessly questioning the world around us, even if that world features a former Disney child star twerking on stage at the VMAs. It's a world that we alone have wholly shaped.
While writing this I had a song stuck in my head, a melody I couldn't immediately recognize but seemed oddly familiar -- and then I realized. It was "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke. "Just let me liberate you [...], that man is not your maker," he sings. And later: "I know you want it [...], But you're a good girl, the way you grab me, must wanna get nasty." He sounds like a predator stalking prey. He's the guy who said on a morning show that "Blurred Lines" is a "feminist movement in itself" (as long as you listen closely to the lyrics, of course), and he's also the guy who Miley Cyrus twerked on at the VMAs. In "Blurred Lines," some have said, "he's just expressing his sexuality." OK, I'll take that. He is, in a sense. But isn't Miley expressing her sexuality, too? Who's to say twerking with teddy bears isn't as extreme as parading around and grinding against topless woman, spilling lyrics with undertones of sexual assault? If her performance is gaudy, offensive, and "just plain tacky," why isn't his? Now, I've heard people admit that "Blurred Lines" is a pretty awful song -- but why is his song enjoying enormous success and airplay, and Miley's being called a slut? Why is she a good girl gone bad, but he's just a boy enjoying himself?
He's a part of the problem.
But here's something even scarier, the part that many are tempted to ignore instead of address -- we all are. We are members of the same society. We are the problem, too.
And we'll continue to be, unless we acknowledge it.
Follow Nathan Blansett on Twitter: www.twitter.com/flammableskirts