In the sexually-charged 1960s, Hugh Hefner believed Playboy magazine and Playboy Clubs helped push the feminist movement forward by allowing women to exploit their own sexuality. Over the next two decades, several waves of feminism changed American culture -- with women gaining more control over their bodies, along with making advances toward mutual respect and equal pay. The divide between the sexes continues in one form or another, but the primary way women and working class people on the lower end of the economic spectrum are still kept down is through lower wages.
Men and women respond to sexual images differently, and this is one thing feminism didn't change, but society and technology did. In movies, male empowerment is usually shown by dominance and violence, and women use their sexuality as a means of control. In 2013, teenagers have access to sexual images on the Internet with less effort than it takes to find legal or illegal drugs. And the shocking rock stars of the 1960s seem quite tame compared to everything that can be seen online and on MTV.
The two performances that highlighted the 2013 MTV VMAs were Lady Gaga's "Applause" and that much talked performance by Miley Cyrus. In the age of post-feminism, these two pop performers might have been aiming for a message of empowerment, but they delivered something else entirely. MTV loves the buzz when performers deliver notorious and sexually boundary-pushing performances, most utilized by Madonna in the 1980s and 1990s. And when Madonna lost her allure, she figured she could always make out with Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera just to spice things up a bit. Controversial, kind of stupid, but still sexy enough for human consumption on TV. This past Sunday night, something appears to have shifter ever so slightly.
The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of human aesthetics which suggest that when human features look and move almost, but not exactly like natural human beings, it completely weirds us out. It gets under our skin, and makes us feel that an obviously diseased individual can be a threat to our health, and the health of our tribe. Zombies and humanoid robots all live in the "uncanny valley," a place where we experience a dramatic dip in our comfort levels. It's why people relate better to puppies and kittens, than lepers and other plague-ridden humans. We are hardwired to react against certain types of weirdness. It's built into our survival mechanism.
When Miley comes onstage, her tongue is hanging from the side of her mouth, and a teddy bear is making a similar expression on her shirt. This isn't really sexy; it's the face a dead animal makes. Her "hot mess" performance makes sense only in a world where the rules of sexiness have been flipped upside-down. Acting drugged-out, subhuman, fully inebriated, she just appears sickly and wrong, and has stumbled into the uncanny valley to attract a different type of human. A post-human male who's looking for prey instead of a date, perhaps. While Lady Gaga's performance was more along the lines of a hypothetical "second uncanny valley," the post-human or augmented human. Compelling, with a touch of sexy fun -- from a modern feminist perspective, Gaga is the winner in the contest of cool weirdness and individuality. Although she's flaunting her body, she makes it awesome to believe in oneself and have the courage to push boundaries in her art form. Even Katy Perry's pop-tastic playful approach shows any girl can keep pace with a boy without having to settle for onstage behavior that's more of a weird turn-off than any actual pop-sexy connection.
Pushing the limits of good taste has been going on in rock music since Elvis seductively swung his hips in the 1950s. The pantheon of rock performers worth remembering is lasting and incredible, and good taste was never one of the primary aims of this unique art form. Since sexual shock and awe is getting harder to pull off, maybe its time women in rock shifted back to taking more power away from the guys in other ways. Lady Gaga's post-human performances may be a move in the right direction. And no male performer along the lines of a Bowie or Marc Bolan has come along to try and take Gaga's arty-pop crown away from her. In the meantime, there's always next year, and we can hope MTV gets wise and puts the post-punk all female band "Savages" on the stage, and we'll get a blast of how powerful women really are.