Slut shame versus sex work as analogies, with adorable fat ladies dancing thrown in

Attention conservation notice: Sex work is different from slut shaming, and we should probably understand that.

Well, I know we are all well and truly sick of the Miley Cyrus commentary and counter-commentary, but I am Still Confused. So far, what I have read has gone along the lines of:

1. how shameful, she used to be so wholesome (she did? I always thought she was prodo out of a family of people who have bought and sold various parts of their images as cultural commodities, not unlike the Kardashians.)
2. you people waggling your fingers are anti-feminist prudes engaging in slut-shaming a young woman expressing artistic freedom around sexuality; note how you are not calling out Robin Thicke (who was never wholesome, I guess)
3. you white feminists who are defending Cyrus against slut-shaming are shameful bad white feminists for not calling out Cyrus on her racism and the appropriation of Black cultural innovations, like the word “ratchet” and the various dance moves that Cyrus appropriated from black artists.

I am going to be one of those irritating white feminists who doesn’t comment as much as I probably should on #3 because, people, I had to look up what twerking is. I can’t critique something I’m so ignorant about, so I will instead send you to a Storify link (I don’t know what Storify is, for the love of God) which compiles a succinct explanation from Arrakis of Sarcasm. I have no idea what the dance moves or lingo in question really are, but I’m willing to believe other people when they say those moves/conventions weren’t hers, and the process of appropriating ideas/innovations away from Black entertainers, redressing its practitioners in pretty white faces, and then selling them to big markets (for the benefit of white audiences and white producers, etc) is well-established in music and other creative fields. It’s a systematic way to remove the economic value of innovation away from Black creatives.

H/T to the brilliant Lisa Bates, whose job it is, apparently, to remind me that it is no longer the 1990s. (In my defense, I’ve read a lot of books, read five languages, can debate the theology of the Gospels of Mark versus John, and can do math through ODE. This on the internet gets you nothing.)

That said, it occurs to me that people love to rip on white feminists, particularly other white feminists, for being racist, but they don’t waste any ammo on the people who think both the cultural appropriation is just fine (in fact, if you think cultural appropriation is a problem, you’re a big dumb ninny race baiter/member of the perpetually aggrieved class) and the pornified TV is just fine, too. Look at those dumb white feminists! They’re so wrong. The end. And the cycle continues. Yes, white feminist fail all the time to do what we should, and we need to confront that, and yet sexism is still a thing, so how about we spread some of the responsibility for fighting oppression all around the white world, men too, and give some of it to men not doing jack for anybody besides themselves and enjoying watching them there annoying feminazis getting taken down some pegs for failing to dismantle white supremacy? I’m not saying give anybody a free pass: I am saying I’ve noticed a cycle of: feminists identify sexism, there is a backlash that notes that white women have privilege (the objection is labeled as narcissism, or self-centeredness or self-serving) and….then there’s a dull thud as a ball gets dropped and  no further conversation or action occurs, until the next time women point out sexism, and we see that white women have privilege, and…  Lather, rinse, repeat. The victims of this cycle, btw, are not white women (that’s not the point)  but people wrapped in a system that is stuck on repeat and where all claims of oppression are treated a priori as invalid.

But I want to return to a point: I have to admit to being a bit stodgy as a feminist. I have never bought into the idea that pornified entertainment in big-bucks venues amounts to a feminist statement. I didn’t go for it when people made these arguments around Madonna, and I’m not convinced by it here. While I do think slut-shaming is an important idea, I actually think its application here is terribly misguided. The idea of slut-shaming is important, and it’s too important to leave it to the notion that women’s bodies on display in an entertainment venue is a woman necessarily expressing her sexuality or ownership of her body. It’s industrial production: Cyrus was surrounding by other dancers who helped her construct the event. She has a promoter; she probably has a choreographer; she is a corporation, with a face, but a corporation, nonetheless. She is the face of a corporate entity who now wants to trade one image for another. She had Black entertainers with her in the performance; it makes me uncomfortable to conclude that they were mere props of Miley’s show. These are gifted men and women who have agency, too; they are her colleagues–not as well paid or famous, but nonetheless they have choice and reducing them to pawns strikes me as misguided.

Which, yes, that’s rather the nature of entertainment capitalism. It’s not that Cyrus isn’t entitled to remake her image, or that the back up dancer should be exempted or condemned because they like do things like…land jobs and get paid for those…but I hardly see how the rest of us rejecting that image as yet another image of a pornified young singer behaving in a more overtly sexual manner than her predecessors counts as shaming. It seems to me that the better feminist analogy for Cyrus’s production is sex work rather than slut shaming, and that sex work label applies across all the performers engaged in a performance whose entertainment pivots on sexual titilation. As sex work goes, performing at a major awards show seems pretty safe, well renumerated, and highly privileged.

There seems to me to be a universe of difference between Cyrus as a performer and a young woman who has engaged (or not) in sex in her life and has been made to feel wrong for using her body as she sees fit, or whose sexuality is used to justify violence against her. Think about Jodi Foster’s character in The Accused. The town slut who is viciously attacked and then degraded as having deserved it. In that instance, the woman is alone; she doesn’t have the power of industry or colleagues around her (in fact, those are turned against her.) I think about the lonely, battered young women who had somehow been affixed with the epithet in my high school; I see precious few parallels.

I guess I have always had to wonder if all this pornified entertainment is really sexually empowering, why do we only see heterosexually desirable women at the center of the stage?

Towards that end, here are women dancing just because they can. I love them!