Modesty, shame & sexual propriety

The furor over Miley Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs the other night truly surprised me. I expect a fair amount of screaming and wailing from the idiots in the cheap seats. But even some people I love and respect couldn’t stop themselves from joining in, leveling not just artistic criticism at Ms. Cyrus, but also personal insults and accusations of immorality.

Why? Because Cyrus used sex to shock, to get attention, and to make a point.

Everyone has the right to dislike a performance. No harm there. And on that count, I actually agree with the critics who panned the performance. It was was not particularly entertaining1.

I draw the line though at the point where critics resort to sexual epithets to express their dislike, and extend their criticism beyond the performance and onto the performer. It’s one thing to say you find a performance distasteful. It’s quite another to chastise the artist for her lack of self-respect or morality. What I see is a lot of people trying to pass off their indignant yet self-satisfied slut-shaming as though it were artistic criticism. You cannot do that. ‘Bad performance’ is not equivalent to ‘bad behavior.’

Let me start with those who level the epithet ‘slut’ (or its variants) on artists whose performances they find too risqué. In addition to perpetuating an outdated and uncivilized binary view of womanhood, this slur also perpetuates the idea that those who employ sexuality for personal gain are not wholly human. Every woman deserves respect. This includes the ballerina, actress, fashion model, pop star, porn star, and sex worker. You may find distasteful the choices some people make; but besmirching a woman’s basic humanity and dignity is beneath contempt. If you fall short of this basic standard of respect, you contribute to an atmosphere in which, for example, attacks on women are justified on the basis of what they were wearing.

I’m all for publicly shaming people who do actual harm to others — murderers, rapists, abusers, thieves, liars, vandals, fraudsters, corrupt officials, embezzlers, and polluters. I do not see that is is my right though to tell another person how to express her sexuality.

I hear the cries of conservative parents, lamenting the loss of Miley’s previous childish image. “She’s setting a bad example for young girls!”, they shout. Well sorry to break it to you, but Ms. Cyrus is a grown woman, and has a right to grow up. She owes nothing to to your your daughters, and certainly not an obligation to remain asexual and prim. If you don’t feel that Miley’s new image is appropriate for your children, then don’t let them watch.

Still others say they just don’t want their daughters following Cyrus’s example. My friend Jason offers an apt rebuttal to these parents:
     “Just so I understand it, we’re supposed to slut-shame Miley so that little girls don’t see her and grow up to get slut-shamed? OK then.” 
You see, most of the ‘harm’ these conservatives imagine arises from public expressions of sexuality is in truth harm those very same self-righteous moralizers inflict — both on those bold enough to transgress against the old social mores, and on those who come to their defense. This view of the world — that we must shame our children so that they don’t do things that others might shame them for — is also a very bleak and hopeless one, in which people blindly and unquestioningly perpetuate their parents’s customs, without so much as a thought to whether doing so is right. Shaming people just for the sake of upholding an outdated notion of sexual propriety is morally wrong and destructive.

People like to fool themselves into believing that they can judge a person’s moral character by observing just a few superficial markers. More specifically, people like to imagine that they can judge the morality of a woman by how she dresses, how she expresses herself towards men, how flirtatious she is, and so on. This old-fashioned view of morality, that groups women into either the Madonna category, or the whore category, based exclusively on how steadfastly they uphold a chaste and Puritan version of the monogamist tradition, is not just unfair — it’s immoral. It fosters an atmosphere where girls feel ashamed just for being sexual creatures. It lends the aegis of adult approval to schoolyard bullies who hurl sexual insults at teenaged girls. It perpetuates an egregiously broken one-size-fits-all approach to sexuality and relationships. And perhaps most importantly, it encourages a slavish obsession with superficial gestures, and not the true determinants of whether a woman is good. (In a better world, we would judge a woman’s morality in the same way that we judge a man’s: by whether she were trustworthy, caring, thoughtful, and fair-minded.)

And to those who actually intend to pass moral judgement, let me offer a word of caution: before you smugly reassure yourself that you are standing up for standards of sexual morality, remember that in 1797, the newly-invented ‘waltz’ spurred similar moral outrage. People could not believe that such deviance was being practiced in public. In every generation, there will be those who are disgusted and shocked by the openness and temerity of their younger cohorts. Disabuse yourself of the conceit that your particular notions of modesty or sexual morality hold special significance.

Critique the performance all you want. Keep the bitter, hateful, sexist moralizing to yourself.

1. Cyrus’s performance was unabashed, brash, and raw. It was also energetic, wild, and playful. I found it a bit entertaining just because it was obvious that she was having such a good time. To be honest, I actually found the sexually suggestive repartee between Cyrus and Thicke the most enjoyable part of the performance, precisely because it was so clear that while she was having a blast, he was just going through the motions. I think she caught him a bit by surprise with her enthusiasm. It was hilarious!