Miley Cyrus performs onstage during the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Laurie Penny on the Miley Cyrus complex - an ontology of slut-shaming

Sexual performance is still the only power this society grants to young women, and it grants it grudgingly, rushing to judge and humiliate them whenever they claim it.

What does empowerment look like for young women today? That’s the debate du jour and, as ever, it stars a pretty young pop star in her pants. It all started when Sinead O’Connor wrote an open letter to the perennially halfnaked sexpot of the moment, Miley Cyrus, advising her not to let the male-dominated music industry “make a fool” of her.

Cyrus responded, as she usually does, by sticking out her tongue and taking off her clothes. Other female rock stars weighed in: Amanda Palmer wants O’Connor to respect Cyrus’s integrity as an artist. Annie Lennox is disturbed by porny music videos. Whose camp are you in? And who is being exploited – apart from the millions of readers who have flicked guiltily through endless snaps of Miley Cyrus in her scanties just to check how shocking they really are?

Nobody has covered themselves in glory in this insalubrious episode. Not O’Connor, whose “motherly” advice strayed into slutshaming, as she warned the younger singer about the dangers of being a “prostitute” and advised her that “your body is for you and your boyfriend”; not Cyrus, whose response was a cruel jab at the older woman’s mental health history. Nor the rest of us, the clickbait hunters and tabloid outrage merchants rubbing our hands with glee.

This is a familiar discussion. On the one hand, the worried middle-aged woman lecturing the ingénue on the importance of wearing clothes in public; on the other, the girl who is sick of being cast as a pure and perfect princess, who wants to have fun and feel powerful and has limited options for doing so in a society that remains intolerant of women trying to claim space as anything at all except hot and half-dressed. Miley Cyrus grew up in public as the Disney Channel’s tame tween everygirl, Hannah Montana – a role every bit as artificial as the power-toolhumping sexpot pose. In a recent sketch for Saturday Night Live, Cyrus declared that Hannah Montana had been “murdered” – and her glee was obvious.

So, is Miley Cyrus empowered or is she exploited when she wriggles around naked on an enormous wrecking ball, smashing into a music culture already saturated with images of slender girls in tiny pants? Is Sinead O’Connor being selflessly brave, or is she a hectoring, prudish old hag? Are young girls better off stripping and twerking for money, or covering up for fear of being judged, exploited or attacked? Should they be allowed to make mistakes in public in a society whose horny hatred for young women’s real bodies is so treacherous to negotiate, or should we just lock them up for their own protection? On and on and on. The debate has been raging for years and it will continue for as long as we continue to treat young women as commodities, rather than human beings.

When you are a young girl in a world that hates women’s bodies, your developing sexuality is a loaded weapon and your parents, peers and teachers line up to make sure you never learn how to use it. Instead, you are meant to polish the thing to a shine, twirl it about; perform sexy but don’t actually have sex. You can play with power, as long as you never claim it; you can enact desire, as long as you don’t act on it. All the while, you’re told that being young, beautiful and vulnerable is still the best thing that a woman can possibly be – that you’d better grab what power you can right now, before time and gravity take that away, too.

How are young women meant to grow up free and brave in a world that covets our commercial potential and despises us when we demand control of our destinies? It would help if we stopped speaking of “empowerment” and “exploitation” as if those things were mutually exclusive. When a young woman puts on latex panties and grinds with a middle-aged creep on stage, because she knows that doing so will get her money and attention, is there power there? Hell, yes. Is that power bounded on all sides by patriarchy? Yes, again.

When I was 20, I did some very silly things in search of that brief, thrilling sexual power that is the privilege of the young, drunk and naked. I stripped and bounced and let myself be exploited by older, more powerful men who couldn’t care less about my inner beauty; I danced half-naked onstage with fabulous drag artists in purple suspenders and I looked ridiculous and had a lot of fun. I am lucky to have more scars than I have regrets. Now, when I see younger women I love and admire trying to negotiate that vanishing territory between slut-shaming and self-objectification, it makes me want to cram my whole fist in my mouth – but I will swallow it before I judge them.

Sinead O’Connor is right about one thing: the music industry does not care about young women. Society does not care about young women – not, that is, about female people who just happen to be young. Rather, it cares about Young WomenTM as concept and commodity, Young WomenTM as pose and performance, Young WomenTM and how much money you can squeeze out of them before they turn around and demand to be treated like human beings – which is still the most shocking thing an actual female person can do.

The problem is not that we cannot decide whether nearly-naked pop stars are empowered or exploited. The problem is that bland sexual performance is still the only power this society grants to young women, and it grants it grudgingly, rushing to judge and humiliate them whenever they claim it. Rather than condemn girls as they try to negotiate this strange, sexist society – a society that offers temporary, dazzling power to those who play the game –we should be supporting them as they grow up, make art and stick out their tongue at the whole stuck-up world – and that starts with a stand against slut-shaming.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

0800 7318496