Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why Miley Isn't the Problem

By now, most of you have probably heard about Miley's flesh-tone, latex display of twerking at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. If you have no idea what the heck I am talking about, congratulations, you have successfully hidden under the only rock in the US not abuzz with the raunchy, dancing furries and foam finger molestation, or you have been focused on more important things like Syria and Egypt. In either case, you can find a clip here. For those of you new to the term twerking (Yes, it is a word that makes you want to scrape your own ears out with a popsicle stick and rinse with peroxide.), Urban Dictionary offers these colorful definitions.
God Gives Do Overs.

I don't know about you, but my facebook feed (and I'm sure twitter feed, if I remembered to check that thing) has been hoppin' with helpful blog pieces about the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things that Miley is teaching our young people, and how to talk to you daughters about essentially not turning into Hannah Montana gone bad. And I think this stuff is important; we should be in dialogue with our kids and teens about what is happening in the world - Syria and celebrities.

But I think this backlash is missing the mark, or the marks, as it were. And here's why:

(1) Most all of it focuses on what a bad seed the former Disney star has become. Words like nasty, disgusting, and obscene  are being thrown out without any accompanying language regarding her behavior or the person herself being redeemable. I have taken part in enough sexuality discussions with young people to know that once they have done the deed, been labeled a tramp or a lady's man, they think there is no going back.

      Somehow, we have given our youth the impression that sexuality is bad and that sex is a one way road to Trashy Town, and if you go out on a limb farther than maybe you'd like, you can never start over. Our complete and utter disparaging of this 20 year-old kid's unfortunate display of over-the-top stereotypical self-sexualization does not help the young people who are wondering if they can ever turn back from the days of trying to create self worth by skin exposure and openness to touching and being touched. If Miley is just plain bad and gross, what's the hope for a young person who deems him or herself bad or gross.

      I'm not saying that we cannot condemn this performance. It was in poor taste. She was not acting like the role model that she has the potential to be for the millions of young people who grew up watching her wrestle with how to talk to boys and dealing with bullies. But that cannot be the only conversation. We must talk about how at 20, she has time to reorient her life, how she is redeemable, how this child who has done something that is less than beautiful is still created beautifully. And she can be different. God gives do-overs. The Bible is filled with characters who get fresh starts. She can have one, and if she wants one (and I'm not saying she does, at least not yet), we need to be as gracious as our creator and provide her the space and the grace to live into who she is created to be.

(2) When we make this conversation all about Miley, we are missing the mark. We buy this crap. "Blurred Lines" has become my go to running song. We tune in (well, I didn't as I don't have cable and am frankly not hip enough to even know it was happening) to see if Lady Gaga will wear the meat dress, if there will be any girl-on-girl action on stage, if there is anything we can condemn or emulate. We buy the myth that you can either be a sweetie pie, goodie-goodie, little girl or a grown up sex pot and then rejoice in their self-destruction. We are part of the media machine that we so hate, and we can opt out if we choose.

      But mostly, we miss the mark because we forget that Miley wasn't the only one up on that stage. Girls' sexuality is so much the focus of our ire. Women who have sex are dirty. Men who have sex are men. Girls who dress to be ogled are hoes. Men who ogle are just doing what comes naturally. This is the kind of reinforced behavior that makes it perfectly acceptable to legislate a woman's access to birth control and reproductive health care without engaging in balanced conversations about covering Viagra and vasectomies. Our girls cannot win in this environment, not when they are tots in tiaras, not in their teens or when they are coming into adulthood.

      There were two people on that stage (more than that really, but let's focus on the main two). Apparently Robin Thicke invited Miley to accompany him on "Blurred Lines." He is a 36 year old man. She is a 20 year old not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman. He knew what he was asking was naughty. But for the man, getting a younger girl, a barely legal girl, is "hot". She may have twerked her booty off, licked that foam finger like an ice cream cone and all but begged him to have sex with her on that stage (and, no, that is not okay, and, yes, that is in incredibly poor taste), and a grownup, who respects women, who understands that 20 is still pretty much a kid would say, "Maybe this isn't in your best interest. Maybe you should cover up. I respect you too much to respond when you depend upon sex to promote your value. I'm old enough to be your father, and I wouldn't want a man to look at my daughter the way that I see men looking at you."

      We cannot have responsible conversations with our daughters about their sexuality if we do not apply standards of behavior to men as well. I want to see the blog entry, "How to talk with your sons about Robin Thicke." (Update as of 4/29, that very blog entry.)

I want to close with a poem, slam poetry really. This piece was written and performed by my fellow pastor, The Right Reverend Casey Thompson, and myself at the Montreat Youth Conference in 2012. It couples together this expectation of life-giving behavior for both males and females and roots those expectations in the Gospel witness. The premise was that God's perfection and the word's perfection are not the same thing. The poetry is innately tied to Psalm 139's promise that we (and Miley too) are beautifully handcrafted by God. (Not even a latex bikini can take that away from us.) And we live into that beauty by living out Jesus' citation of greatest two commandments, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)

(As always, I am grateful to you for sharing this journey. Peace, my beautiful friends.)

Take a listen:

For those of you, who do better with text, here goes:

"You Have Heard it Said . . . But I say to You"
by, Shelli Latham and Casey Thompson (extremely part-time poets, marginally extraordinaire)


Hey girls, the world, it says these things . . .
It's not who you are;
it's about how you're seen.
So polish up your outsides
cause girls must live between . . .
Eyes like bambi's
soft and innocent,
with a sway in your hips
let's the boys know they're getting it.
Gloss on your lips,
begging to be kissed,
by one boy not ten;
there's a limit you all.
Cross it and watch your reputation fall
like thermometer's mercury on a blizzard cold day.

You have heard it said
"There is a fine line between leaving them wanting
and letting them have you."
One tiny breath between trash and tease and
girls, you gotta walk that line like a
gymnast on the balance beam.

You have heard it said.
But I say to you . . .
I say to you,
"You are beautifully
and wonderfully made."
With enough starlight on the inside
to glitter on the outside.
And you don't have to dress it up
with cleavage and sparkle and giggles and strut.
Because, Girl, God made you . . .
God made you enough.
Being a woman's not how you get touched
but how you reach into the world of ache and show love.


Men, you know what they say,
You got to make your own way.
So, don’t be a sissy. And don’t be gay.
Man up.
If I could change a two word phrase from the English language, it would be Man Up.
Man Down, that doesn’t work. That’s for our brothers in battle.
Man Sideways, that’s the jerk in a bottle.
Man Left, no man is left behind,
Man Right? Shelli tells me no man is ever right.

But I say to you, Man up should mean something else:
Cultivating enough strength to acknowledge you are weak.
and when others are wronged that you will always speak.
that you love who God has made you.
and you did not change when someone else surveyed you.
it means you know where your true allegiance lies.
man up should mean your man up is the man up in the skies.


You have heard it said
"You can have it all"
the beemer AND the mini van
the career
the carpool
the hot smokin' man
girls nights in Vegas
vacays in Paris
bikini cookouts with family and friends.

But "sweetie pie", dreams don't make themselves.
To have all things,
you've got to be all things.
It's just not enough
to be pretty OR smart
you've got to be an athlete and be good at art.
President of at least four clubs
play the tuba, volunteer
make daddy proud, make mama cheer.

You have heard it said,
"You can have it all."
And if you don't . . . you will fall
in the eyes of your peers
your parents, yourself.
You'll fall to the back of the useless kid shelf
with other middle of the roaders
who never stood out.
So do not sleep and do not rest;
there's only nothing . . . and the best.

You have heard it said.
But I say, but I say . . .
"You, dear child, won't know you're "enough"
if you measure your worth
in check marks and stuff.
The world's math is bogus for adding up you.
You're not trophies, plus sashes, times the size of your posse
or report cards to the power of your number of shoes.
You don't have to be everything just to be something.
Just be God's perfectly created you.
A child knit together before dreams were dreamed of,
made with an extra spoonful of heart.
Made in the image of a masterful potter,
you, precious child, are one fine work of art.

Your price tag's no tally
of your job application,
your extra-curriculars,
the brand of your purse.
The sum of ridiculous acts of compassion
that is God's formula for figuring worth.
So, for the sweet baby Jesus in heaven above,
stop trying to be perfect and just perfectly love.


Men, you have heard it said...
either succeed or be dead;
win the family’s bread;
you know the drill,
don’t be shrill,
never whine,
get left behind,
never suffer to be maligned.
Never admit defeat, never be weak.
It’s all about swagger
(and by the way, Do you have moves like Jagger?).
Don’t be a braggart,
be strong and silent,
be logical like spock,
and never ever talk about your biological clock.

But I say to you...
we hold these treasures in clay jars,
clay jars broken apart,
full of shards flung near and far,
that’s what we are, broken jars,
more a la carte than a work of art,
imperfect from the very start.
so take heart,
that’s what we are.
Failure doesn’t define you. You can leave all that behind you.
Swagger doesn’t make you great--nor your physiological state.

Jesus said the greatest is the weakest,
and that might seem the bleakest
way you might think,
but the strongest who ever lived said turn the other cheek--it’s
what we do.
All that other stuff just doesn’t stand.
Jesus says it’s love that makes the man.


MikeThePastor said...

Yes, there is much at play here - and I have been surprised that a lot of comments I have heard understand this - though maybe not have expressed this as well as you have expressed it. The saddest part in all this for me is the vast numbers of people who took part in using her to further their interests and pockets - both men and women. Nevertheless, while she is not THE problem, she has now become part of the problem. I hope Miley has some good people around her to help her identify and work though her responses and choices to all that is going on around her.

makaimama said...

Beautifully-written and nuanced discussion of our conflicted views of sexuality. Thank you for pointing out the many contradictions in the public's attitudes towards Miley Cyrus' (cringe-worthy) performance.

Shelli Latham said...

Thanks Mike. I totally agree about the machine behind her choices that is getting richer as well as the part about her being a part of the problem. In fact, I almost titled this piece, "Why Miley Isn't THE Problem" or "Why Miley Isn't the Whole Problem."

Shelli Latham said...

Thank you.

Barnold said...

I enjoyed your article, however, I think you need to broaden your focus from "the main two", to really understand beyond the mainstream white privilaged viewpoint. It seems most of the noise created by this performance has been directed at a good girl gone bad. However, what about this girl exploiting black culture to make her money, and then the media reaction that follows. Here is a link to an excellent blog about this subject that I hope you will read. http://groupthink.jezebel.com/solidarity-is-for-miley-cyrus-1203666732

Whitney Dempsey said...

Thanks for your words. I accept your challenge to talk with my son. I have to say I am sad for Miley and find Thick to be disturbing.

Shelli Latham said...

Thank you for posting this. I read the Jezebel response yesterday and also think it to be quite thoughtful and indicting. And I would agree with you that I focused on a narrow swath about what has been wrong with the criticism. I have a descent amount of experience talking about and learning about white privilege, but I am embarrassed to say that I would not have picked up on the multiple layers of issues in Cyrus's performance or the VMAs as a whole without having read this piece. (I also did not watch the entire awards show) to be able to pick up on the lack of recognition of people of color. Thankfully there are people, perceptive to the varied layers of cultural critique, who together can tell this and other stories more completely. Thanks for the link. It's a really thoughtful one.

Shelli Latham said...

Thanks Whitney. My friend Casey, who crafted the spoken word piece with me which appears at the end, is writing the "How to Talk with Your Sons About Robin Thicke" post I was on the lookout for. I'm aiming to post it tomorrow.

Shelli Latham said...

I switched comment platforms, and everything went a little kookie. Lost a couple of negative comments because they were anonymous, and it knocked the timing out of order, so none of the replies appear as replies. And the Avatars are now all the same. Hopefully, I can get it figured out tomorrow. Anyway, just letting you know I didn't delete the negatives. I didn't quite agree, but their critiques were valid.

Dalia Batsheva Eli-Asher said...

There were 2 people on the stage. Thats the ONLY thing you
got right.
- One was wearing a (tasteless) zebra suit, and he was
singing and dancing.
- And the other one was wearing a skimpy meat colored bra
and underwear, twerking, pushing her bum against his groin, wiggling her ass and making funny grimaces, sticking her tongue out and behaving like a complete idiot, believing that would make her look sexy.
1. There is no evidence Robin Thicke invited her to do this.
There is no evidence that he was asking her to do “naughty”. Evidence (his reaction to the entire spectacle) suggests that he didnt even know that Miss Cyrus would be going waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay over the top.
2. You expect grownups to respect women? Then start by
encouraging women to acknowledge they are grownups. Insinuating that Miley Cyrus at “20 is still pretty much a kid” is even more insulting that treating a 20 year old like a 14 year old gir, and I didnt fight for Feminism to start expecting men to tell a grown woman whats “in her best interest”!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
3. If I walk down the street butt naked, its my decision and its my
problem. Its not the problem of men ogling at me.
4. Miley Cyrus knew what she was doing and she wanted the attention.
5. We cannot have responsible conversations with your 20 year old daughters about maturity and sexuality if we do not start acknowledging that a) she is no more 14 and b) if she spreads her legs on stage or on bed no one but herself should be held responsible and no one but herself will save her

Shelli Latham said...

Hi. Thank you for posting. First off, there are many things I absolutely agree about in your post. I think some of the disagreement is semantics and some is different interpretation in how we can value one another as whole people. My reference to Robin Thick knowing what he was asking is naughty is in that she is significantly younger than him (and whether it's right or not, a person identified with youth because of her connection with Disney) and the song is about the blurred lines about a woman who "doesn't need papers" and should be "liberated" whether she is asking for it or not. It seems (but you are right, that is my perception) like he knew what he was asking toed the line of inappropriate.

The rest, I mostly agree with, which is most likely not evident in my title, as Miley is definitely part of the problem if not the whole problem. I didn't talk about personal responsibility, but I think that has been hit on in numerous other places. And yes, I think we should teach personal responsibility far younger than age 20.

But I do think that we should hold ourselves accountable for helping one another live into their best selves - not by forcing a certain code on them but by offering up different models of self expression. I don't think that men offering other suggestions for behavior takes feminism back, the same way it doesn't seem to detract from a man's sense of self if a woman offers advice. Would it be wrong woman to woman or man to man? Plus, feminism is also about men respecting women, and sometimes respect means feeling you can have an honest conversation about where value comes from. It's a slippery slope for sure, but I think we can navigate it together with a combo of grace and backbone.

Maura Barclay said...

Hi Shelli! As a female empowerment specialist and soon-to-be mom through foster-adopt, I deeply appreciate this blog! It captures so succinctly the conspicuous lack of focus on boys/male behavior standards and accountability. Three cheers for you!
~maura barclay
Author of Unbreakable Woman: Compassionate Self-Defense & Empowerment

Shelli Latham said...

Thanks Maura. Blessings on your adoption. After this one, I imagine I will foster-adopt. What a gracious gift of your life.