Miley Cyrus’s performance at last night’s VMAs, which I think was intended to be cutting-edge but came off more like a risible burlesque, is all anyone is talking about on the Internet today. The commissars of culture, always on the lookout for intolerance or puritanism, from the New York Times to Salon.com, have reached deep within themselves and extracted a shred of moral disapproval of something other than racism or Ted Cruz. Justin Timberlake ripping off Janet Jackson’s top and exposing her breast at the Super Bowl Halftime Show was no big deal. But Cyrus dancing explicitly against Alan Thicke’s son demands high dudgeon.
You could get lost trying to navigate through all the hypocrisies and absurdities of what our culture deems acceptable and unacceptable. For example, MTV bleeped the word “molly” in Cyrus’s song, which is slang for ecstasy. Simulated anal sex with an older man makes the cut, but MTV’s censors will not abide a passing drug reference.
Thank goodness they’re looking out for us.
The primary reason everyone is furious at Cyrus is because we were first introduced to her as a child star on the wholesome Disney Channel show Hannah Montana. Since then she’s done everything from struggle with drug use to star on a risque episode of Two and a Half Men. But last night’s lurid performance, a parade of Cyrus’s devalued sexuality through our living rooms, made her loss of innocence official. The entertainment industry has done with Cyrus what it does with most young child stars, and especially female ones: Tear them away from their parents, chew up all their moneymaking potential, then spit them out damaged and morally adrift. As the New York Times put it (and rightly so), Cyrus is someone “to whom no one has apparently said ‘no’ for the last six months or so.” Our expectation of Cyrus was that she was an innocent role model, and now that she’s betrayed that expectation, we feel morally outraged.
Moral outrage over sex is usually considered tacky, practiced only by hidebound social conservatives who want to send us back to the days of Hester Prynne or something. So to see it being leveled against Cyrus with such intensity might seem encouraging. But consider Cyrus’s fellow VMA performer Lady Gaga, who spent most of last night wearing what can only be described as a G-string minus most of the string, flaunting her bare derriere (anyone who thinks being a writer is glamorous should try typing those words into a blog post window) for all to see. Yet there’s been almost no moral outrage over Gaga’s exhibitionism. The Times article doesn’t mention Gaga’s wardrobe choice. BuzzFeed is gushing with praise. She’s in such good shape! Gaga, after all, was never sold to us as an innocent tween role model, and so we expect her to behave like this: to push the envelope, to use one of the more euphemistic expressions available. Moral outrage over a little nudity? What is this, Salem circa 1692?
The funniest reaction to to the VMAs comes from our former blogger Teresa Mull, who suggests that we deport Cyrus along with Bob Filner. But there’s also a sad dimension to this story. As Rod Dreher points out, Miley’s father, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, was estranged from his daughter for a long time and gave an interview to GQ charging that the Hannah Montana show destroyed his family. Cyrus tweeted support for his daughter last night, but watching her prurient prancing couldn’t have been easy for him.
If it makes him feel any better, Cyrus isn’t the first child star to go off the rails. And given the selectiveness and reluctance of our moral outrage, and the indecency of Hollywood, she won’t be the last.