It’s been a complicated couple of months for pop culture and feminist discussion. Whether it’s Miley Cyrus’s lightning-rod performance and deliberately ugly sexuality at the Video Music Awards, which ignited conversations about racial appropriation and the necessity of feminism that’s sensitive to racial issues, or Lily Allen’s release of the video for “Hard Out Here,” a clip that’s meant to satirize both Cyrus and her VMA twerkee Robin Thicke, but that employed some of the same troubling imagery, there’s been an uptick in culture that’s trying to engage with sexual expectations for women. And in response to it, there’s been a ferocious and wide-ranging conversation. But what’s notable about both these cultural products and the response to them by female artists is the extent to which women are attempting to position themselves less in relation to artificial norms, and more to establish hierarchies of good and bad, feminist and sexist, behavior by each other. In the immortal words of Ms. Norbury, “There’s been some girl-on-girl crime here”:
Let’s consider the available evidence. First, Sinead O’Connor wrote an open letter to Miley Cyrus, warning her that she was at risk of becoming complicit in her own pimping. “They will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think its what YOU wanted,” O’Connor warned, using concern to skate over Cyrus’ agency. “And when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, ‘they’ will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body and you will find yourself very alone.”
Later in October, Rashida Jones, who’s most famous for playing nice girl Anne Perkins on Parks and Recreation, made waves when she tweeted: “This week’s celeb news takeaway: she who comes closest to showing the actual inside of her vagina is most popular. #stopactinglikewhores.” It was a strikingly sharp judgement of Jones’ fellow actresses and entertainers, and one that didn’t acknowledge, as at least O’Connor did, that there are powerful economic forces that encourage women to pursue this course. It’s not as if there’s some insidious force that’s suddenly and magically turning Hollywood’s ladies into shock troopers in the war on sexual decency.
More recently, in promoting the next installment in her Hunger Games franchise Catching Fire, Jennifer Lawrence contrasted Katniss Everdeen with Cyrus’ performance, saying “”It’s just kind of a part of this world. It’s a part of the entertainment industry that sells. Sex sells and for some disgusting reason, young sex sells even more…Twerking with a dwarf … I’m not by any means … I’m just saying, to each their own.” There’s a whole complicated sideline here in the idea Lawrence is expressing that performing sexually with someone with dwarfism is inherently freakish, and the actual experiences of Jane Hollis, who performed with Cyrus, and later said she felt she was hired precisely because she was a little person, that’s worth it’s own detangling–Lawrence could have called out Cyrus in a way that actually would have been effective, but she’s off the mark. But the point is that once again, Cyrus is less a figure whose performance is worth engaging with than someone who is convenient because she’s easier to be better than.
That dichotomy continues in Allen’s lyrics for “Hard Out Here,” which is ostensibly a song about the commercial pressures placed on women, but begins by immediately suggesting that there’s a right and a wrong way to engage with the entertainment industry as a woman. “You’ll find me in the studio and not in the kitchen / I won’t be bragging ’bout my cars or talking ’bout my chains / Don’t need to shake my ass for you ’cause I’ve got a brain,” Allen insists, in keeping with a tradition in which Pink declares “I don’t want to be a stupid girl,” and Jewel castigates other people for daring to “Sell your sin. Just cash in.”
None of this is to say that female artists are in some way exempt from criticism, or that feminism is some weak tea idea about supporting all other women, no matter what they do, or how much their actions might harm other women. That’s deflectionary nonsense that takes us further away from an honest conversation. But reducing conversation about what is and isn’t bad for women in the entertainment industry to a virgin-whore dynamic is tiresome and reactionary. And rather than expanding the aperture of acceptable and useful female performance, it narrows it. Is what we really want to argue that actresses should keep their clothes on, even if it means we don’t get Blue Is The Warmest Color, or the emotional nakedness of Julie Delphy’s toplessness in her argument with Ethan Hawke during Before Midnight? Is there no circumstance in which women can turn their sexuality into powerful art, or in which we can grant women agency in deciding to commodify their sexuality because they believe the payoff is worthwhile? Suggesting that there’s only one appropriate way to be a woman in entertainment, or to be a feminist in entertainment, is a way of narrowing opportunities for women and increasing competition between them that isn’t about quality and ideas, but that’s based in condemnation and shaming instead.
So many of these attacks by young women on other young women fall into easy narratives and fail to engage with the complexities of the ideas in their work and to navigate the complex interactions of artists’ agency and the commercial pressures they face. It’s true that Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs and subsequently involved costumes that covered very little of her body, and deliberately odd hair styles and facial expressions. But it’s useful to engage with the idea that Cyrus knew she was projecting a deliberately ugly sexuality–“I look like a little creature,” she told Rolling Stone–and where her intentions don’t match with her execution, including her employment of black dancers as backups and her treatment of their bodies as props.
Similarly, it’s worth asking why Lily Allen thinks a song that draws a distinction between her drive and performances of black culture, and a video that both parodies and emulates Cyrus’ use of black women’s bodies isn’t about race. But we should also consider the experiences of the black dancers in the “Hard Out Here” clip. Much of Seliza Sebastian’s Twitter feed, since the video’s release, has been a defense of both “Hard Out Here” and the idea that African-American and black artists have to take the opportunities available to them, even when the roles are imperfect. “Was Chris Tucker wrong 2 play a jobless, weed smoker in the film Friday? Was Samuel L Jackson wrong for his role in Pulp fiction,” she tweeted at one critic. “As an artist returning afta many years it makes sense 2 do a current vid. Artist/performers do wat makes sense,” she told another.
Teasing out these complex convictions and imperatives doesn’t just produce a more accurate portrait of what’s at work in any given performance or piece of culture. It makes us more smarter and more perceptive about the choices individual artists face, and helps us understand the larger cultural forces at work when they misstep. Cyrus’s racial issues, O’Connor, Jones, and Lawrence’s reactionary vision of sexuality, and Allen’s understanding of a feminism that intersects with feminism but not anti-racism aren’t the result of individual malice, but of longer-lasting and more powerful narratives.
It would be delightful if we’d solved all of the problems of how to be a woman in Hollywood, if there were female equivalents of George Clooney self-absorbed playboyism, Brad Pitt’s shaggy, family-man do-gooderism, or Alec Baldwin’s grand, middle-aged ragey intellectualism. But figuring out how should a woman be, particularly in Hollywood, is still an ongoing project. And it’s not one we can crack simply by talking about how many clothes we wear, the relative ambitions of who stays home and who goes to work, or who dances in rap videos or for herself. We need to talk about all of these factors at once, and about the opportunities available to women when we judge the choices that they make. It’s an old move to offer up a definition of virtue that you happen to fit and that your rivals don’t. But for women in the entertainment industry, that’s a strategy that limits their opportunities to evolve, and to open up new paths to meaningful work.