Feminism, Image and Miley Cyrus

Miley Cyrus (Illustration credit: Abby McBride)

Reported by Somya Mawrie ’14

Miley Cyrus’ attention-grabbing performance at the MTV Video Music Awards – featuring a teddy bear onesie and a risqué duet with Robin Thicke – sparked a lecture and student discussion of gender and sexuality in Hubbard Hall on December 4. 

Led by Associate Professor of German Jill Smith and Associate Professor of English and Film Studies Aviva Briefel, Feminism, Image and Miley Cyrus took place in the Shannon Room of Hubbard Hall with sponsorship from Baxter House and the Donald and Barbara Kurtz Fund.

Cyrus’ performance included “all of these indicators that signify sexuality or sexual perversion in some way, but not in a very legible or readable way,” Briefel said. “I think it confused a lot of people, which we can see from the audience shots.”

Jill Smith and Aviva Briefel lead a discussion on Miley Cyrus's performance at the MTV Video Music Award

Jill Smith and Aviva Briefel lead a discussion on Miley Cyrus’s performance

The students and facilitators discussed the gendered and sexualized aspects of the song, determining how Cyrus and Thicke challenged and reinforced normative societal expectations. The conversation also examined the performance through lenses of cultural appropriation and racial stereotypes.

“I actually find the racial politics of the performance more disturbing than the gender politics,” Smith said. Briefel pointed out that audience reactions from Rihanna and Will Smith’s family were highlighted by the media. “Interestingly, the song was intended for Rihanna, and I think that there is a lot that we can talk about related to race in this performance.”

Among the attendees was Coastal Studies Scholar Sarah Braunstein, a novelist who explores themes of gender and sexuality in her work. “It’s great that people are coming together and having conversations like this,” she said. Braunstein will be teaching a course on the literature of adolescent sexuality next spring and noted that “the dialogue here got me really excited about that.”

Students in the audience were similarly enthused about the opportunity to discuss pop culture in an academic setting. “I thought the professors did a great job leading the discussion and I was impressed by the number and depth of students’ questions,” said Thomas Keefe ’14.

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