Pop star and actress Miley Cyrus -- who earned fame as beloved Disney character Hannah Montana -- is no stranger to shock. A few years back, when she was 17, she shared a well-publicized onstage kiss with a female dancer during a taping of a U.K. reality show; in 2010, she was filmed smoking salvia from a bong. Nor is MTV known for being shock-averse, having long called on hypersexuality as a reliable tool for generating buzz. Acts like Madonna's 1985 "Like a Virgin" performance, which had her writhing around onstage in a wedding gown, and Britney Spears's provocative onstage romp with a boa constrictor in 2001 -- were effective PR stunts, and indeed, last night Miley Cyrus proved sex is a stunt that never gets old.
What's different about Cyrus's performance, however, which seems to have generated an unprecedented level of outrage, is not its by-now old-hat hypersexuality but its particular seaminess. With a flesh-colored latex two-piece and a foam finger that found its way into a variety of personal crevices, Cyrus made Spears's decade-old performance look tame -- and, frankly, somewhat beautiful. Cyrus was sexual, de rigueur in pop performances, but also more than a little repelling. Though a photograph of Will Smith and his family looking bewildered was erroneously described in a number of outlets as being a reaction to Cyrus's performance, the misunderstanding was perhaps not so far out of line. "Haven't been in a strip club in a while, but good to see nothing has changed," tweeted comedian Bill Maher.
The antidote, of course, is not a return to prudishness -- that's unrealistic, and unnecessary. Sex sells, and pop culture particularly loves reimagining erstwhile Disney stars as porn stars. We are a culture that celebrates and rewards beauty, the more airbrushed the better, and part of the outrage may be that Cyrus's act was most definitely not that. The number, chock full of all sorts of car-wreck-quality eyesores including but not limited to flesh-colored latex, bleached-out hair, constant oral gestures, crotch grabs, and simulated anal sex with a man 16 years her senior made audiences cringe. But let's not forget that at least one MTV exec, and likely more, choreographers, dancers, her parents, etc. etc. gave that performance the green light.
But just as pop culture likes to sex up the unsexy, many former child actors, Cyrus included, seem to welcome the chance to shed their more innocent personas. Though Miley is 20, at times during the performance she appears much younger, especially when surrounded by dancing stuffed-looking bears. There's a subversive, childish theme that's both disturbing and confusing. What's not confusing: The clear difference between the role of men and women in the sexual act. Though singer Robin Thicke appears aloof and remains fully clothed during his part of the performance with Cyrus, the pop star gets as close to naked as possible.
But it's hard to deny that if all PR is good PR -- and in Hollywood, isn't it? -- there's nothing more effective than sex, in all its forms. Last night's show brought in more than 300,000 tweets per minute. (Last year's show had a peak of 98,300 tweets per minute.) Which means that Cyrus didn't make the rule that sex sells -- and she won't be the last to bow down to it.