Last week I wrote about Miley Cyrus “The Sexual Agency of Miley Cyrus”] and we got a lot of responses to that article. Some people are pissed off she is getting so much attention and hated that I bothered to write about it. Some appreciated another perspective on what she’s doing or what our perspective could be about young people and sexuality. Some jumped in and claimed her right to self-expression.
So this week, I want to follow up about a couple of things regarding authentic sexual empowerment, the media, sexual expression, feminism and critical analysis.
Critical Analysis is Essential
We cannot change the world without being critical about what it looks like now. Without being critical of what is flawed in our current (dis)orientation, how else do we create a vision of what needs to happen, what needs changing or where we want to go? We have to create a clear understanding about what is happening now.
How will your daughters and sons learn how to be authentic sexual people if you don’t talk to them about the ubiquitous messages about sexuality they take in day in and day out? Even the most conscious person is impacted by these messages. The media is not going away and we absolutely cannot afford to be passive recipients of our media. Ever. We must always engage critically with our media and the myriad messages we take in about how to be sexual people, how to be a woman, a man, gay, heterosexual, feminist—the list goes on.
Let me ask you this: When you go to a movie, do you enjoy going for tea/drinks afterwards to talk about the film with your friends? Or do you just say, “Wow, that was good/bad/cheesy/whatever,” call it a day and move on to the next thing?
Art and media are meant to be digested, discussed, and analyzed, whether they are inspiring, disturbing, or insipid. I don’t want you to read my book or see my film and not actually think about it. I want it to evoke something in you. We are meant to engage with our world, our art, and our media. It helps us form our ideas about our world.
Critical analysis is essential. You cannot raise your children in such a sexualized world and not discuss it with them. They need to develop media literacy and understand what’s real, what’s not and engage their own questions about who they really want to be, rather than just accept and digest a canned idea of it from the media they consume. Not only will you be closer to your children in a real way, but that dialogue helps them to sort our who their real role models are. If there is no cultural dialogue and analysis—if we don’t use these events as teaching moments, we do a disservice to young people and to ourselves.
Talk about sex in the media. Talk with your children about what they think about Miley or the latest sex scandal or the relationship between their favorite characters on their favorite TV show. Ask them what they would like to see Miley/other characters do. Ask them what their friends are doing and thinking and who they really want to be as sexual people. When was the last time you had this dialogue with yourself, or with your kids? Don’t be naïve to think you aren’t impacted too. You are.
You Can’t Shame People Into Being What YOU Want
The irony about Sinead O’Connor’s letters to Miley Cyrus is that she used shame to try to control Miley, telling her it harmed herself and all of us. She called her a prostitute and took away Miley’s own choice and agency in her patronizing tone. Isn’t it ironic that she was using the same tool—shame—that the Catholic church has used to control people for centuries—the same Catholic church that Sinead has railed against for so much of her life (and for good reason)?
“The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Audre Lorde famously wrote. In using the Master’s tool (shame), Sinead just reinforced the status quo, rather than challenging it. And what happened? Miley fought back by shaming Sinead right back about her mental health. So rather than being the role model she thought herself to be for Miley, Sinead just taught Miley to use shame as a weapon. The same weapon that has been used to control women’s sexuality for centuries across the world. So now we’ve got two powerful women bashing each other. Where does that get us?
And many feminists have engaged in this sort of thing over the years: using the tools of the master to control other women who do not behave the way they want them to. Some of those tools have been shame, censorship, prudence, judgment and narrow views/rules about who women can be as sexual people.
I am not that kind of feminist. We need to have more dialogue about that too. Because while the (“radical”) feminists who see women as victims and who do not uphold sexuality as positive and support censorship are certainly a problem, the “sex-positive” feminists who think that having a lot of sex and talking a lot about it equals sexual empowerment are just as problematic for different reasons.
Sexual Expression Is Your Birthright
No one gets to tell you how to express your sexuality. Yet, people do it all the time. The “sexual expression police” work overtime to make sure you do not go out of bounds and that you contain your sexuality to whatever their standard is.
Women get to express who they are and explore their sexuality in whatever ways they deem right for themselves no matter what. No exceptions. We get to control our own bodies, choices and decisions and NO ONE gets to tell us how to do that. Why do you think everyone thinks they have a right to tell Miley how to do that?
I hope you will do it with some criticality and take care of yourself as you explore. Because not everyone will support you or be your cheerleader. As your self-expression challenges theirs, or brings up their shame, they will work to shame you back down…just as Sinead did. It’s important to name it when it happens, to not internalize it and to continue to make choices rooted in your own self-agency. Who wouldn’t want that for their daughters and sons? The world will indeed be a changed place when we all can do that. And those of us who choose to do it no matter what the status quo says will be criticized for it. Just be prepared for that and keep on moving forward.
Training My Eye for Authentic Sexual Empowerment
After last week’s article where I raised the question of the difference between authentic sexual empowerment and just creating an image of sexual empowerment, people wanted to know more about how to tell the difference. So start with yourself.
Ask yourself, “Am I dressing and expressing my sexuality in a way that feels good to me and is authentic to who I want to be in the world? Or am I doing what I think I’m supposed to do according to ______’s [insert hegemonic voice here] standards?”
To whose standard are you abiding? Did your church tell you how to be? Your parents? Your friends? Your favorite stars? Or your kids, even? I’ve heard women talk about how their kids tell them how to dress or not dress and shame them for their own sexual self-expression. The whole, “Moms can’t be sexy thing.” Much like Miley to Sinead.
If you are doing what you truly want to do, being as sexual as you want to be, making choices that are full-on “Yes”s for YOU, then you are in your own authenticity. If you are trying to fill a void inside you, heal a wound or rewound yourself over and over by doing what you think your lover or mother or friend wants you to do, then there is a lack of authenticity, a dullness in your own vibrancy, and a limit to your self-actualization holding you back. Don’t hold back on us. Give us the full-on YOU.
Miley will grow into her own best self, we can hope, just like we hope it for ourselves. If her sexual expression bothers you, ask yourself what inside you doesn’t like it. That will tell you something important about your own self-acceptance and desire. And that makes the public discussion about Miley Cyrus useful.
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