The good girl, the good mother or the whore. Are these the only roles that society holds for women?
This is the question I woke up with this morning. In the wake of the Miley Cyrus music awards spectacle (or debacle fits too) last week, and, as I think about my PhD research in gender studies, this is what is on my mind.
If you missed it, count yourself lucky. Miley Cyrus was a Disney Channel phenomenon who played the super-wholesome Hannah Montana in a television series of the same name. Last week at the VMA music awards, the former child-actor who is now 20, appeared half-naked and performed a raunchy and overtly sexual piece with male musician Robin Thicke.
Type in 'Miley Cyrus 2013 VMA performance' into Google and it will churn out about 260,000,000 results. You only have to look at a few of them to see the lynching she got and the nature of the dialogue. No mention of Robin Thicke, her co-performer who is 16 years her senior, or the commercials or videos with his music that have half naked gyrating young women in them. Plenty of mention of Cyrus's fiance Liam Hemsworth and how humiliated he is and lots of reaction from anyone – and everyone -- who cared to chime in.
So why are we so shocked and surprised by this? Every year at the VMA's there is something sexually gratifying to watch; usually it is the next big thing or a young breakout star wanting to make a name for herself -- think of the Britney Spears and Madonna kiss when Spears was 21. It is titillating to so many and this is why they put it on. We watch it. We comment about it. We are horrified and mortified. We take the high moral ground and say how disgusted we are and wonder how a young girl could behave in such a way.
This is from a society that seems to be sexualising young girls at an ever younger age. You only have to open a magazine or turn on the tv, not to mention flick on a music video, to witness this. Or listen to the lyrics of any song on the radio ("I know you want it....you're a good girl.....I know you want it....... to reference the song in question). And yet we are shocked when a former Disney star wanting to make a new name and brand image for herself, gyrates around the stage half naked, as she clearly thinks this is the only way to do it: to turn herself into a sexual object.
Isn't this what, as a society, we have told her she must do? We have many roles for women and girls in our society but the primary ones remain the same. You are either the good girl, the good mother, or the whore. I cringe as I type that, as much as my values and optimistic nature don't want to believe it to be true. But this is largely what a patriarchal society still thinks of the female gender. It is what the evidence shows us to be true. And we wonder why we struggle so desperately to get more women into leadership positions and why so many men are happy to keep women at home - in these roles they are so traditionally comfortable with.
Last night I was reflecting with my worn down copy of A Woman's Worth by Marianne Williamson. It is a landmark bestselling book by the globally renowned spiritual teacher and women's advocate. This passage resonated with me as I thought about events of the past week;
"The world as it is has very little use for your womanhood. You are considered a weaker sex and are treated as a sexual object. You are thoroughly dispensable except for your bearing children. Your youth is the measure of your worth, and your age is the measure of your worthlessness. Do not look to the world for your sustenance or for your identity as a woman because you will not find them there".
This was written in 1993. We may be saddened by Cyrus's performance but we shouldn't be shocked. We should be shocked that Williamson's words still resonate today as profoundly as they did 20 years ago. That is the real issue. And the corresponding challenge is how do we teach our daughters, and just as importantly our sons, that their value is not defined by their sexuality but by their character?