The subject is reminding the viewer of the author’s presence, because they’re staring straight back at you…it creates an ethical problem in the viewer’s mind so then they’re confused and angry and disoriented. This is great because you’ve actually got them to think about the act of perception and how this imagery is produced and consumed.
— Richard Mosse, on The Enclave
Fashionable as a certain style of cultural illiteracy may be, I like to know about the cultural matrix the people who sit next to me on the bus might live in. I admit to being aware of the attention Miley Cyrus’ new image has received. Her performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards bears the distinction of being the most tweeted-about event in history at 360,000 tweets per minute. Concerned mothers everywhere are mourning the seemingly inevitable corruption of Hannah Montana. Sinead O’Conner has evidently appointed herself their leader, admonishing Cyrus, whom she calls a “precious young lady” with motherly wisdom like this:
Yes, I’m suggesting you don’t care for yourself. That has to change. You ought be protected…This is a dangerous world. We don’t encourage our daughters to walk around naked in it because it makes them prey for animals and less than animals…
Maybe my feminism is a bit off, but to me that reads as one of the more insidious types of rape apologetics.
A former child star somehow transformed into a 20 year old woman. This is presented to us as if it should confuse and anger us.
The full Cyrus experience — from Hannah Montana to what I believe has been dubbed correctly as a sort of poor-man’s Lady Gaga — does not surprise me. The phallic metaphors with a sledgehammer, the full nudity, the suggestive dancing, does not surprise me. It should not surprise anyone. When it comes to female sexuality, especially when it is youthful, America suffers from a prudish puritan tension between disdain and titillation. This is the reason why you even can make millions of dollars by showing a young woman in a sexual light in America in the first place.
Much has been said about the racial aspects of the VMA performance, much has been said about how Robin Thicke, the much older man onstage with Cyrus, escaped much attention, but there is something more to be considered. Am I alone in noting a not insignificant note of a different kind of disappointment in the popular discourse around Miley’s new image? Wasn’t part of the excitement and commentary on Miley at the VMAs a sort of embarrassment that, somehow, she wasn’t doing it right? She wasn’t being NuBritney enough? She’s cropping her hair short and sticking her tongue out, and though we know we are supposed to say we’re offended by the sexuality of her performance, we feel robbed that the sexiness is missing.
Not all the concern has been about the danger to Miley Cyrus and women everywhere when we allow them to be depicted as sexual beings. (Remember, they become “prey.”) Miley Cyrus isn’t just refusing to cover up and quit with the dirty dancing, she’s also spreading reefer madness amongst America’s youth. The very profitable buzz around the New Miley plays off two separate problems with American culture that work in a similar way. There is a reason for the classic combination of drugs, sex and rock n’ roll. Just as the collective kitchen table of America still hasn’t figured out that by making the female form something illicit (something that must be hidden and protected from spoilage) we therefore make it seem that much more exciting, we see a similar stubborn myopia when it comes to drugs. Rather than dealing with abuse and addiction as physio-psycho-social problems, inebriation is criminalized and thus is created the black market for drugs. Rather than talking openly and honestly with our children and our society about sexuality, we make sex a taboo to be exploited by pornographers and their ilk.
I felt a strange existential dizziness as, looking into Miley Cyrus’ eyes, I reflected on what I had been reading about the situation in the Congo after watching a trailer for Richard Mosse’s film The Enclave. Embroiled in a decades–long series of conflicts that have left much of what is one of the most resource–rich regions in the world in what Mosse calls a “Hobbesian state,” the eastern region of the country in particular is known as the rape capital of the world and “the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.”
Please watch the trailer.