High Priestess of the VMAs
What Miley Cyrus Revealed About Us
So, come up to the lair & see what’s on the slab. I see you shiver with antici—pation. But maybe the rain isn’t really to blame. So I’ll remove the cause, but not the symptom. ∞ Tim Curry, Sweet Transvestite, Rocky Horror Picture Show
I sat down to write this article because every commentary I read about the VMAs seemed to be talking at Miley Cyrus or about what is wrong with her, her performance, her talent, her choices. But in the aftermath of the VMAs, no one seemed to really be interested in hearing her communication or relating to the cultural mirror she held up for those who were willing to see. We simply treated Miley as an object. We ignored the broader context as though her actions and our reactions said something only about her. What is really true is that she said volumes about us and our reactions said even more.
So, I sat down. I consciously pulled back my projections and I asked to see and hear Miley and to understand the context that gave rise to the spectacle. I sat all day with her song, her video, and her VMA performance. To some extent, I am sure I have faltered in my interaction with this material as much as anyone. But at least I sat with Miley’s work with an open heart and I offered my presence. I invited her work to communicate with me. Here is where I wound up:
First, Robin Thicke is telling the truth. The lines are blurred.
Second, Hannah Montana is a lie.
Sit with that for a spell.
While you let it sink in, I am going to back up and start with a little fairy tale courtesy of the Grimm Brothers…
The story begins with two sisters, Snow White and Rose Red. They live alone with their widowed mother in a tranquil country cottage.
Ugh oh! You know we are in trouble now.
This is a story about three independent females living alone in a tranquil country setting. So by trouble, I mean we have left the familiar fairy tale narrative behind: dead mother, wicked stepmother. We are in for an unusual experience. I guarantee it.
But I won’t spoil the ending for you now!
A POOR widow once lived in a little cottage with a garden in front of it, in which grew two rose trees, one bearing white roses and the other red. She had two children, who were just like the two rose trees; one was called Snow White and the other Rose Red and they were the sweetest and best children in the world, always diligent and always cheerful; but Snow-white was quieter and more gentle than Rose-red. Rose-red loved to run about the fields and meadows, and to pick flowers and catch butterflies; but Snow-white sat at home with her mother and helped her in the household, or read aloud to her when there was no work to do.
The two children loved each other so dearly that they always walked about hand in hand whenever they went out together, and when Snow- white said, "We will never desert each other," Rose-red answered: "No, not as long as we live"; and the mother added: "Whatever one gets she shall share with the other."
At first blush it may seem like this fairy tale has nothing at all to do with Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke. I assure you it has everything to do with the saga that unfolded at the VMAs the other night and with the vivid and varied response it provoked!
This little story is rich with symbolism. The rose is traditionally associated with the Goddess and this association spans many cultures. In its red form, it is associated with passion and the more active, sometimes even destructive, side of the Divine Feminine. The white rose is a symbol of purity and of the lighter, sweeter, side of the feminine Divine. Most people relate to the lighter side as more loving.
So, at the outset of the story, we have here a woman who lives alone with the two sides of the feminine nature. The light and the dark goddess are holding hands. They have vowed to share everything together.
We have just caught a glimpse of the integrated feminine as symbolized by the two hands holding.
This is the virgin and the whore, passion and purity, in harmony with one another. Although the story appears to impose a kind of sweet, obedient, cheeriness on the feminine, this could also interpreted as a symbol of the natural tranquility that unfolds when darkness and light are integrated and embraced. This strikes me as a picture of feminine integration, not some externally imposed order.
This is the archetypal feminine at peace with itself.
Externally imposed order, by contrast, is what I would say is contained in the character of Hannah Montana.
When Miley Cyrus’ public saga began she was cast in the role of the pure, innocent teenage girl. She was not sexual and sexuality never intruded on her world (at least not in the gazillion or so episodes I watched with my daughter). Publicly, Miley was required to maintain her childhood innocence right up until she came of age.
Hannah Montana was a fantasy, one that went beyond the screen presence of an actress. Through her association with Hannah Montana, who became Miley’s entire public persona, Miley Cyrus became a reservoir for what we would like to think a girl’s coming of age story looks like.
Hannah Montana, and by extension, Miley Cyrus, has, until recently, carried the heavy weight of our communal projection of purity.
Unlike the character in the show who was able to keep her private and her public lives separate, the real Miley Cyrus lost all definition beyond the role she was playing as Hannah Montana. Miley Cyrus became Hannah Montana. As a matter or personal development and as a matter of branding, this, in the end, has presented her with a tremendous challenge.
In any case, I can say Hannah Montana was a lie and I don’t even need to know about Miley’s relationship with her father or her behind the scenes encounters with the other men and/or boys who might have populated her life during those years. I know it in my heart. The experience of coming of age that is presented in that TV show is what many mothers would like to believe their daughters are experiencing or will experience. But it is not real.
I was 11 years old when my father’s drunk friend made a pass at me.
Like it or not, when a young girl stands on the brink of womanhood, sexuality does intrude on her life. The moment her body starts to blossom, the eyes find her; they look her up and down as though they have the right of inspection.
All of this happens at the moment when a girl is just beginning to feel the stirrings of her own sexual urges. She learns about her sexuality both privately as she explores the new contours of her body and publicly as men (not all, but enough!) also visually, and sometimes physically, explore those contours as though it were their natural prerogative as men to do so.
This time in a girls life is confusing.
None of that confusion was reflected in the Hannah Montana show.
Young girls quickly learn that there are two obvious roads they can take. They can put on the good girl facade and spend a lifetime living with the blurred lines Robin Thicke has been singing about or they can externalize the projections of male sexuality that they have been receiving and take on the overt role of the whore. By societal standards, because the whore and the virgin are forever divided in our cultural narrative, to take on the role of the whore is to wear the scarlet A. To take on the role of the virgin is to remain inert.
Regardless of our desire to sanitize one version of female sexuality and demonize the other, there is something that lies beneath the veneer of the good girl’s shiny white dress and her “pure” image. The truth is that women and adolescent girls are sexual. They have sexual feelings. But for the good girl, there is a strong cultural imperative that says those feelings can never be expressed. Good girls don’t act on their sexual urges. That is simply not allowed.
So, you have men like Robin Thicke who come along and sense the presence of unexpressed sexual energy.
They imagine it has something to do with them because they have bought the lie that good girls aren’t sexual in and of themselves, separate and apart from the male gaze and/or the stimulus of a man’s presence. Just like the song says, the Robin Thickes of the world want to liberate that desire and to experience it for themselves.
And here is the big kicker: Sometimes a woman who is trapped in the good girl role wants to have her sexual energy liberated by a man so she can maintain plausible deniability; so she can express her desire without challenging her public or self image too much. It is an uncomfortable truth. But it is a truth. It is also a truth I can say out loud without negating another equally valid, perhaps more important truth:
Consent is required!
The woman has to actually want a man to “liberate her desire.”
This is the blurred line Robin Thicke is talking about. He is asking (and it is a valid question): what the fuck does consent actually mean inside a cultural paradigm that teaches women that giving it is tantamount to crossing the line between good and evil. The validity of the question does not negate a man’s responsibility to find out what the woman truly wants anymore than it negates a woman’s right and responsibility to articulate the answer.
This reality of the blurred lines may not seem like it has anything to do with Miley’s wild, tongue wagging performance at the VMAs. But it has a lot to do with it. One of the key things that people have been shrieking into the airwaves is that Miley is leveraging her sexuality in order to sell records. From this perspective, we, the audience, are her Robin Thicke. Miley, little, good girl Hannah Montana, can’t simply want to express another side of her for the sake of expressing it. It must be our prurient interest in seeing her barely adult body that inspired her performance.
We could stop this conversation right here if we wanted to. We could talk about how the world has denied Miley Cyrus the agency of her decisions, and we would be right. But I sense that there is actually more to the story. I believe there is more to the underlying cultural narrative than this notion that Miley Cyrus has been cast as a victim and thereby diminished in her personhood.
What I see is a young woman who grew tired.
Carrying other people’s projections is exhausting.
To carry the projection and illusion of purity for millions of women and girls feels like a death sentence to me. It is an unfair thing to ask. It denies the reality of millions of women. But it is especially detrimental to the person who feels compelled by the weight of the projections to simply forgo her own natural expression.
So Miley Cyrus did something bold as hell. She pulled the unconscious reality of modern female adolescence into full view.
Miley told us the truth!
Like the High Priestess of the Tarot, she got on national TV and she has bridged the gap between the conscious and the unconscious, between the shadow and the light.
In so doing, Miley Cyrus has also taken on the role of the scapegoat. Just as she was asked to carry our projections of purity, she is now being saddled with our shame and our discomfort over the inappropriate sexualization of ever younger girls and for anything else about her performance that actually made us feel uncomfortable. If we get away with that little maneuver, we can walk away from this whole thing without ever facing the uncomfortable truths she has so boldly brought to light.
I admit it. I was uncomfortable too.
Miley’s performance intruded on my memoriesof the years when my daughter was a Hannah Montana fanatic in a most unwelcome way. I think it made my daughter uncomfortable too. She sent me the photo at the bottom of this blog yesterday.
But we have to move beyond our discomfort if we truly want to see Miley as a person and if we want to do the hard work of actually seeing ourselves reflected in her performance. I invite you to take this journey with me now.
Tap into the imagery. A giant bear opens up revealing something we didn’t want to see. There was no seduction, no sensuality. Miley stuck out her leg, she wrapped it around the bear, she stuck out her tongue, and she came down onto the stage doing a dance that was more sinister than it was sensual.
What we saw was not Miley Cyrus being sexual.
It was Miley Cyrus, intentionally or otherwise, mocking the other end of the spectrum and the lie of adolescent purity. The teddy bear is the public facade of her innocence and ours. Her dance was a public spectacle of the exaggerated sexuality foisted on young girls by a culture that simply refuses to honor them with the space and time they need to develop their own sense of their sexuality. Many times, women carry this exaggerated version of their sexuality well past adolescence.
In order to fully understand what happened at the VMAs, you have to go back and look at the video Miley released for We Can’t Stop. The song and the video are all about a kind of consumptive and artificial high that doesn’t satisfy. It is sexual and it is intense. But it isn’t passionate. It is missing the element of life. Miley’s voice is almost monotone in many parts of the song.
In fact, one of the most sexual moments in the video is when Miley is in a swimming pool with a doll. She is licking the doll’s face. The doll is small like a child, but it has the body of a woman. There is something womanly in the doll that is also not alive. When Miley licks the doll, she brings the latent sexuality to the forefront. But it remains stunted, dead, trapped in the image of a child.
The doll is also a child in size despite its physical attributes. It is overly sexualized, trapped in a kind of sexual desire that seems oddly out of place. The child is forced to be sexual before it is time.
This moment with the doll encapsulated the bizarre frozen in time effect of forever being cast as Hannah Montana; of forever being cast in the role of the good girl. But it captured the other end of the spectrum too. In this image of Miley licking the doll, you can’t help but wonder if Miley has internalized a predatory kind of sexuality and is now projecting it towards the doll.
This one moment captured the conundrum.
The good girl buries a huge part of herself in the facade of purity. The whore externalizes what she feels. She acts out her own budding sexuality by channeling the masculine sexual energy and attention she is receiving. She buries her essential purity in the whore’s mask.
Miley’s dance at the VMAs amounted to a display. It did not come from the heart nor did it come from the groin even though she pretended to touch her crotch over and over again. It struck me as an attempt to cast off the projections of the good girl and once again claim for herself some kind of ambiguity in our eyes.
It was also a moment of exposure. Our culture was exposed. The truth of adolescent female sexuality was revealed. Trapped within the teddy bear, the ultimate symbol of childhood innocence and purity, was a woman trapped in the image of a child. From within the confines of this false image, Miley was unable to progress naturally into her own sexual expression.
But also trapped in the bear was the truth of female adolescence that had been formerly obscured in the image of Hannah Montana: a kind of forced sexuality that leaves girls trapped in adult male sexual projections, and thereby, unable to progress at their own pace.
When Miley Cyrus walked out of the teddy bear and commenced her exaggerated, bizarre, aggressive dance, she laid to rest, once and for all, the false purity of Hannah Montana.
In that moment, the collective shadow was revealed in the unmistakable juxtaposition of childhood innocence and overt sexuality.
Many people have said that Miley simply pulled a page out of the Madonna playbook. So, I went back and looked at Madonna’s VMA performance from the 1980s. What a radically different story of female sexual awakening.
If Miley pulled a page out of the Madonna playbook, she didn’t read it or else she didn’t understand it or couldn’t bring it—Yet!
Madonna burst on the scene to reunite the virgin and the whore in a powerful moment of sensuality and self acceptance. She was Snow White and she was Rose Red. Her story in Like a Virgin was one of making it through this awful divided sexuality to have an encounter with someone (or perhaps with the Divine) that allowed her to reclaim for herself a whole new kind of intrinsic purity. She embodied the kind of purity that is real. It does not depend upon whether you are a “good girl” virgin or a “bad girl” whore. It comes from within. It is intrinsic.
In Madonna’s case, at the VMAs and later during the Blonde Ambition Tour, she expressed this acceptance as the awakening of a powerful, girl on top kind of sexuality. She was the embodiment of the virgin and the whore, intrinsically pure, sensual, and passionate.
Her performance during the Blonde Ambition Tour started out with Madonna seated on a bed performing snake arms in a way that could easily have been interpreted as an invocation of the Divine Feminine. What followed was a slow release of Madonna into a feverish kind of sexual display that leaves me feeling liberated every time I watch it.
Miley isn’t quite "Like a Virgin" yet, but she may be on her way.
There are some hints that this is true.
It would be easy to see something typical in Miley’s dance with Robin Thicke (which immediately followed the spectacle of the teddy bears). Robin’s role on stage wasn’t dynamic at all, and that is the most interesting part of it. He stood passively by singing about liberating the sexuality of a good girl who was clearly the one doing all the liberating. She was liberating herself from the good girl image and she was doing it of her own initiative. Robin did nothing to invite her behavior.
Moment by moment, Miley Cyrus was killing Hannah Montana for good. As a matter of psychological health, I say, “Good for her.” Hannah Montana had to go and now she is gone.
Nonetheless, many people have probably identified the performance as another version of the Lolita story where male predators are cast as passive victims of budding female sexuality. In this way, predators blame the victims as the active pursuers as if being female is, in and off itself, pursuit.
There was more to Miley’s final dance with Robin Thicke than this. It was the ultimate pole shift. She extinguished the blurred lines. Miley surrendered the virginal purity of Hannah Montana for the overt, and in this case, grotesque sexuality of the whore. This time the teddy bears were gone. She was clearly staking out a moment of her own, leaving behind symbols of her innocence for something different.
Interestingly, however, Miley made explicit an element of the pole shift that we seldom look at. When a girl chooses to express the male projections of sexuality, she often does so in a childish and yet overly masculine, overtly sexual way. The giant phallic hand Miley used as a prop made this explicit. This wasn’t girl on top sexuality being expressed. It was an explicit acknowledgment of hidden masculine sexual energy that has been a part of Miley’s world all along, just as it plays a part in the life of every girl who ever comes of age in the modern world.
Miley externalized this aggressive, hardcore version of intrusive masculine sexuality.
Perhaps she even liberated herself from it.
This is supported by her music video, in which she and others appear with teddy bears on their backs. At one point in the video, she cautions other women: “To my home girls here with the big butts, shaking it like we at a strip club, remember only god can judge us. Forget the haters. Somebody loves you.” I say she cautions other women because the next image in the video is a bunch of dead animals wearing sun glasses and staring in the mirror.
Miley picks up one of the animals and heads off to get in line for the bathroom, which is a possible symbolic nod to doing a line of drugs. The explicit message of the video is that this lifestyle of artificial highs is unsatisfying but compulsory. It’s something, “We can’t stop and we won’t stop.”
I believe that, in the video, Miley is explicitly acknowledging the dead nature of the high we are on when we choose the whore over the virgin and when we choose consumption over real fulfillment. It appears that she is acknowledging the road she has gone down and the trap that it is. But she is also wearing all white, which seems to also suggest there is no life in the purity either. Or perhaps it is her attempt to do what Madonna did: bridge the gap between purity and overt sexuality.
In the next frame, Miley is lying in the pool with a sign displaying the word, “Censored,” over her mouth. So, right in the big middle of saying how free she is and how she can use her mouth, and by extension, her sexuality any way she wants to, she acknowledges the censorship. She has yet to express who she really is.
The emergence of the “new” Miley appears to be nothing more than an attempt to finally kill off her old image. In the process, she has pulled something into the public eye that makes us all uncomfortable. There are those who would like her to carry the projection of purity forever. They would prefer she remain our iconic symbol for our cultural shenanigans. Many others would like for Miley Cyrus to carry the cultural shame of the reality she made visible: the sexualization of young girls at a time in their lives when they have yet to give up that most famous of all childhood emblems of innocence and comfort, the teddy bear.
Either way, what we saw was still a censored version of Miley’s sexuality and her creativity.
Will Miley’s bid for control of her own image pay off?
Will we allow it to?
Miley has, whether we know it or not, done us a tremendous service. She has explicitly shown us the mirror image of our cultural blurred lines and she has erased them, all in one felled swoop. What she has yet to reveal is the truth that takes shape in the aftermath when the blurred line between the virgin and the whore no longer stands.
That truth has already been revealed. It is contained within the story of Snow White and Rose Red and in Madonna’s passionate expression of her own transformation in Like a Virgin.
In the story of Snow White and Rose Red, a bear comes knocking at the cabin door. The girls and their mother are not afraid. This is the first clue that something unfamiliar is afoot in this story. The bear doesn’t eat them, rob them, or exploit them. He comes in and he becomes a part of the family for the duration of the winter. Winter is a time of hibernation that precedes the next cycle. In the spring time, in the time of fertility and awakening, the bear explains that he has to go to the forest to protect his treasure from the wicked dwarfs.
Later in the story, the girls stumble upon a dwarf with a very long beard. His beard is trapped under a fallen tree. Long story short, Snow White cuts off his beard. Rather than express his gratitude, the dwarf grows angry and accusatory. This goes on for several rounds with the dwarf responding angrily every time the girls cut off his beard. The girls remain steadfast friends to the dwarf regardless of his ugly outbursts. The story says they grew accustomed to his behavior and that it did not bother them.
One day, the girls stumble upon the dwarf laying out “his treasure” on a rock in the woods. Again he is unpleasant. Presumably, he is angry with them for witnessing him there with his stolen treasure. But this time the bear is there also and he kills the dwarf with one slap of his paw.
Shortly after this dramatic turn of events, the bear turns into a handsome prince and reveals that he was caught in an enchantment that could only be broken in the moment of the dwarf’s death. One sister marries him and the other marries his brother.
There is something inside Miley’s bear that is worth liberating from the enchanted spell of the angry dwarf. It will take the reunification of the whore and the virgin to reveal the true nature of the prince and to summon his brother.
If you look deeply at the story of Snow White and Rose Red, you realize that the unspoken parts of the story contain the most useful information. The girls slowly, without judgment or personal affront, liberate the dwarf from his predicaments. No matter what he throws at them in the way of projections, they hold their own core in tact. He can’t change who they are nor can he shield the truth from their eyes. The beard, a symbol of invulnerability and pride, had to be cut in order for the dwarf to get free.
This is also the message Madonna so vividly embodied in Like a Virgin. Whatever happened to her, it liberated her from the societal and religious strictures that confined her sexuality to the realm of shame. The seemingly invulnerable cultural narrative about divided female sexuality was revealed as a lie and shattered, at least for a moment.
In the final moments of the fairy tale, the dwarf dies, the prince is liberated, and the prince’s brother mysteriously appears for the nuptials. Could he be the dwarf freed of his own enchantment and reborn? Is he the shadow side of the prince?
I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that this interpretation speaks volumes to me. We have been like the dwarf, caught in our own enchantments and illusions. Miley Cyrus came along and cut a giant hole in the false dichotomy of the virgin and the whore. She also brought the shadowy truth of female adolescence and the intrusions of adult male sexuality to the forefront of our cultural narrative for all who were willing to see it. Finally, she turned the narrative on its head and harnessed it for her own purposes.
Will we pick up the mirror she handed us and finally pull back our projections, whatever they may be, from her body and her life, and take the bait of her revelations? Will we finally unite the whore and the virgin, accept the truth of our vulnerability, sacrifice our pride, and finally empower the prince to face and to break free of his shadowy enchantments?
I don’t know the answer to those questions either. But I do know what is possible if we are willing.
Pleasure! Passion! Aliveness!
As a parting gesture, I offer Miley Cyrus the kind of advice I would offer my own daughter in this same circumstance:
Give yourself over to absolute pleasure,
Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh,
Erotic nightmares beyond any measure,
And sensual daydreams to treasure forever,
Can't you just see it?
Don't dream it - be it.
Tim Curry, Rocky Horror Picture Show