I was reciting the lyrics to “Blurred Lines” to my husband, enjoying the look of horror that increased with every passing second. His eyes widened at the chorus, “You know you want it. But you’re a gooood girl…” When I got to “Baby, can you breathe? I got this from Jamaica,” the father in him stopped me from continuing. The father of our little girl.
And the mother in me, the woman who married him, who waited for just long enough before she slept with him, shared that look on his face.
“Why do people listen to that?” he asked me.
“It’s rapey,” I said. “But it’s catchy,” as if that were that.
“Because it’s true,” is what I didn’t say, because that was a can of worms that the feminist in me didn’t feel like getting into. Until Miley.
I watched the performance-fail heard ‘round the world from my computer at 2 o’clock in the morning, when insomnia woke me from a troubled sleep. My Facebook feed was overrun with comments about the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) and my friends were Facebook-aghast at the cheap sexuality of Miley’s performance of “Don’t Stop.” She’d already stirred up some controversy with her lyrical mention of the drug Molly unhidden in the chorus. One thing kids today are lacking is subtlety. But I digress.
I intuited the overtness of Miley’s performance before I saw it, and it was confirmed when I watched her tongue enter stage left before the rest of her did. And it went downhill from there. But I can’t say I was surprised: This was the same stage that saw Madonna pass Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera the baton of pop-stardom with a lascivious and un-sexy make-out session.
We’ve watched child stars prove their adulthood via stripper poles for years now. It’s become a rite of passage—a way for them to declare the end of their childhoods.
Miley did it with a drug reference and a Styrofoam finger. But at some point, didn’t we all have to do it? We’ve had to reconcile the part in us that grew into adulthood with her sexuality intact and active. The rites of passage from girl to adult is intertwined with her sexuality, but coupled with that are the judgments of society. Miley didn’t betray us by growing up and having sex. She didn’t owe her audience a perpetual Disney-fied childhood.
But no one told her that. And so she rebels. She puts it in our faces. And we pretend shock.
It is universally understood that as a boy changes into a man, he will succumb to sexual needs. With a wink and a nod, we accept that a boy will be interested in sex. Whether or not he “wants” it is never questioned. And it has little effect on how we view him in terms of good or bad. He isn’t bad for wanting it. Robin Thicke’s lyric, “I know you want it, but you’re a good girl,” conflates the already accepted idea that the word “but” is needed. It suggests that there’s a conflict when it comes to women that doesn’t exist when we talk about boys growing up.
Justin Timberlake’s performance at the VMAs was hailed by critics as an entertaining bit by a talented singer/dancer. As a veteran of a Disney childhood and someone who also grew up onstage and in the public eye, it’s worth discussing how his performance stacked up against Miley’s. His song lyrics are also often suggestive (and downright blatantly sexually explicit—consider “D–k in the Box”), but they are received as mainstream. It doesn’t impact the way we see his character. As it shouldn’t. His sexual coming of age was taken as a matter of course, and no one batted an eye.
Of course, Justin Timberlake’s songs and performances never crossed the line from sexy to trashy. Yet, I think something we need to consider is just how narrow a line that is for a girl to traverse. And more importantly, why a girl might feel compelled to cross it in order to make a statement about herself. Why does sexuality equal rebellion for a girl, while it is taken as a natural progression of maturity for a boy?
Here’s where Robin Thicke, in his disturbing song lyrics, got it right. A girl has the pressure to remain “good,” and by good we mean to keep her sexuality locked up tight in a secret room. It’s best to be demure, to play the age-old game of being sweet-talked into bed, of holding a man off until the time feels right, of not being an easy conquest. If I could write a sequel to his smash hit, I’d write into the chorus, “It’s okay to want it.”
And if that got absorbed into the cultural psyche, there would be no conflict. No need for “Molly” or that little something from Jamaica that lets a girl pretend she’s high or drunk, so she can lose her inhibitions. Maybe the whole idea of conquest could go right out the window and take with it the subtle nods at rape culture that this song informs.
And maybe our girls wouldn’t have to wear their sexuality in ridiculous costumes and gyrating crotches. It would be expected that they, too, will grow up. And have sex. Like the bajillions of foremothers before us.
And we could get on with the show.