Miley Cyrus at the VMAs: a six-minute guide to the prejudices of the entertainment industry

From Miley grinding Robin Thicke to smacking her backing dancer's buttocks, the VMAs showed that, once again, white men run the show, black men play support, all the women get mostly naked, and black women get to hold up the bottom of the objectification

Not to get all philosophical about pop, but when Miley Cyrus starting singing "It's our party, we can do what we want" in her MTV VMAs appearance, the question that comes to mind is: oh yeah Miley, whose party? Because by the time the We Can't Stop/Blurred Lines medley is up, Cyrus has been stripped down to a supporting role in Robin Thicke's show.

Dressed in latex pants and bra the colour of her skin, like the models in Blurred Lines' Benny-Hill-goes-to-American-Apparel video, Cyrus ends up bent over in front of a suited Thicke, wiggling and hanging her tongue out the side of her mouth. Is what you want definitely such a close match with King Leer behind you, Miley?

Mind you, it's turn and turnabout in the objectification stakes. Cyrus's segment of the performance includes her bending over a black dancer and spanking her while singing the weirdly slow and mournful line: "To my homegirls here with the big butts/Shaking it like we at a strip club." Oh we're doing the Hottentot Venus thing now, are we? I haven't run the full sums on my Is-This-Racist calculator, but preliminary estimates suggests that yes, this is pretty stinkingly racist.

In fact, if you wanted a six-minute guide to the prejudices of the entertainment industry, this performance has it covered: white men run the show, black men play support, all the women get mostly naked, and black women get to hold up the bottom of the objectification pile. It is, simply, horrible, and made worse by the fact that Cyrus looks wildly awkward. She's at her best as a clowning comedian, a Disney Channel Lucille Ball, and can't play the affectless wanton. No wonder Rihanna seems to be shooting her evils: Rihanna knows sexy, and this isn't it.

But it is one of the only roles that's available to female pop stars – certainly for Cyrus, who's trying to get away from the country-pop sweetheart persona of Hannah Montana that Taylor Swift now occupies. "You're a good girl," croons Thicke ironically over Cyrus's jiggling heiny, and what do ironic good girls do? They get nasty in exactly the way boys want them to, while the boys stay neatly clothed. It makes it drearily obvious just who's in charge.

In this tedious atmosphere where everything tends to women ending up in their bras and pants, even Gaga's giddying performance-of-performance for Applause ends up feeling null when it climaxes with her dancing in bra and pants. Hey, everyone's naked today, Gaga. Next time try blowing my mind by wearing a three-piece suit or something. If the endgame is always a skinny white woman in her underwear, it doesn't seem to make much odds what the hooks are or what wit and gameplaying goes into getting there.

Yes, but pop music is about sex, right? No: pop music is sexy, but that twitching force doesn't always have to be driven into a dull pantomime of rutting, with available female bodies and smugly self-contained male ones. I cheered inside last year when Cyrus spoke up, saying "it’s ignorant not to talk to your kids about [sex] or [not] make it seem as magical or cool as it actually is." The kind of sex on show last night? Not magical. Not cool. Not my party.

Yes, Jaden Smith. We know.

Miley Cyrus grinds on Robin Thicke. Photo: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Jonathan Cape
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Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Fathers
Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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