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The difference between Miley Cyrus and Leila Vaughn...

posted by Lucy V Morgan


...is mostly just that Leila stayed in the shadows, to be honest. But we'll get to that shortly.

Disclaimer: this will probably come across as "you're all a bunch of prudes." I don't like the term "prude," personally; I think it's overly simplistic and somewhat judgmental. If you don't want to be overtly sexual, that's okay with me.

I digress.

Irish singer Sinead O'Connor has today published an open letter to Miley Cyrus after learning that Wrecking Ball, Miley's new video, was inspired by Nothing Compares To You. Sinead is alarmed that Miley chooses to "prostitute" herself for the sake of her music career. As somebody who writes about characters who could be described as highly sexualised young women--one of whom, Leila of the Whored series, actually is a prostitute--I feel the need to pick apart this debacle a little.

One would argue, as Sinead does, that Miley's choice to be nude--and to lick a sledgehammer--in the above video is both unsubtle and distasteful; that it presents a bad example to young girls. That it represents her decision to "prostitute" herself to the media, and to men who will "make more money" than she will from said decision. Personally, I am uncomfortable with the idea that a woman should have to repress her sexuality because it makes others uncomfortable; while we are certainly bombarded with sexualised images of women in the media, one has to question whether we are threatened by either the exploitation it may represent or with female sexuality displayed in the first place. I'm not sure half of us can tell the difference anymore.

Women are meant to express their sexuality in a tasteful fashion, see, with Fifty Shades-style erotica book covers and Jo Malone candles and selfies of a half-bare shoulder with just a sliver of satin. Blatant nudity like Miley's is apparently for stereotypical porn--for men. Ladies and gentlemen: if we're going to start dictating how women should express themselves sexually, we're not feminists. Perhaps if we were honest with young women about sexuality in the first place, we wouldn't all be so hot and bothered (pun intended) by a former Disney star taking her clothes off and licking something symbolically violent and phallic (not that I'm suggesting preteens should be watching porn. I am the woman who complained about Rihanna's S&M being played at a child's play centre; kids have no context for such language. But Wrecking Ball is not porn, and if the adults would grow up and stop whinging about it then the preteens probably wouldn't be so fussed over it anyway).

An article on industry website Popjustice has some interesting points on the subject:

"...As a piece of ‘art’ – and this is a stunningly shot video – the nudity works so well because it illustrates the vulnerability we all feel when love smashes us to bits.

But the tongue. The licking. The phallic hammer head. It only accounts for about 3% of the video’s 3:41 running time but it changes the tone of the whole thing. This video could have been powerful and confident. It could have allowed Miley to say actually, do you know what, a kit-off scenario doesn’t always have to be crass and grotty. Instead, for the sake of seven seconds of nonsense, a potentially eloquent response to the VMAs furore just seems tacky and titillating."

Does the licking change the tone? Yes. It takes the whole thing to a place a lot of people probably don't expect or want it to go. One could argue it's a place that doesn't really have anything to do with the song. I'd be inclined to agree actually, but then it's just a music video and I'm honestly not sure it matters. It may well just be there to shock--some of us like to be shocked. Thank you, marketing.

From Sinead's letter:

"Real empowerment of yourself as a woman would be to in future refuse to exploit your body or your sexuality in order for men to make money from you."

Real empowerment, for me personally, is being able to do what I'd like without fear of being judged (assuming that I do not harm others). Nudity harms no-one; sexual imagery has a time and a place for those who haven't yet reached adulthood, but whether these videos should be made at all or whether they should simply be shown past the watershed is another question altogether (and one too big for this little article). Again, one questions whether we're still able to tell the difference between a display of sexuality and exploitation. One person's exploitation is another's orgasm. We could be here all day pulling this sharp truth apart.

"Your body is for you and your boyfriend. It isn’t for every spunk-spewing dirtbag on the net, or every greedy record company executive to buy his mistresses diamonds with."

I write about characters who aren't always monogamous, so you can probably guess that I'd take issue with the assertion that a woman's body is only for herself and her partner. It's for whomever she chooses, singular or plural. Is there risk inherent in sharing so much of yourself? Yes. Absolutely. When I wrote Leila, I think I was pretty candid about the fact that prostitution--both real and metaphorical--is dangerous. You'd be perfectly entitled to question anyone's decision to go into such danger--hell, I wrote two books about it. We all have different things which make us tick, whether we're prostitutes or "normal" young women watching a music video or spunk-spewing dirtbags on the net (don't masturbate over naked ladies, boys. You'll go blind). Men are making money from Miley's nudity, yes. I imagine Miley's making a pretty impressive chunk too, as are other women in the industry.

Leila's prostitution, for the most part, is private; Miley's is very public. But then Miley doesn't have a "respectable" job like Leila--she's a singer, not a lawyer--and thus isn't told by society and her colleagues to keep her sexuality under wraps.

Oh...wait. Yes, she is. Why, exactly?

Sinead says:

"Whether we like it or not, us females in the industry are role models and as such we have to be extremely careful what messages we send to other women. The message you keep sending is that it’s somehow cool to be prostituted.. it’s so not cool Miley.. it’s dangerous. Women are to be valued for so much more than their sexuality. we aren’t merely objects of desire."

Women should be valued for more than their sexuality. I wholeheartedly agree. (And indeed, when Sinead comments that her lack of a sexual image has served her well, especially as she ages, I'd agree too. It's an interesting and intelligent observation). But I tire of this notion that this means any sexuality we do choose to display in a non-conformist fashion must somehow make us desperate or misguided. I'll express myself any (legal) way I please, thank you kindly, and the consequences will be mine alone. Miley is a role model and as such, should consider the message she sends to young women; if our media did not subscribe to such "prudish" or conservative values in the first place then I doubt this message would be one that says "prostitution's okay." It'd just be, "oh look, she's naked." How is it telling women they must be sexual in order to be valued? Because we're all bloody talking about it, that's why. Why is nudity news?

It's an intentionally provocative video, but it isn't prescribing a certain (apparently damaging) brand of sexuality simply by being uploaded to YouTube. It doesn't devalue women anymore than the idea that we are defined by how we do or don't express ourselves. (Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines is quite a different matter. But don't get me started on what is basically bad non-con in lyrical form).

Leila, my prostitute character, was younger than Miley when she began an affair with an older man in Chairman Of The Whored, and thus a journey of self discovery. She beat herself up for the things she wanted; one might say she was exploited, but she never once felt that way. That wasn't an illusion--she knew her body and knew herself. I can't say whether she might regret her decisions when she's fifty because she's currently twenty-eight; I imagine Miley might say similar.

I don't condone Miley's choices--and her choices, in this article, are my assumptions--but I defend her right to make them. I defend the right of a woman to be deliberately sexual if she so chooses. This choice should not be front page news. Actual news should be news, people.

Overt sexuality should not put a human being in a cage, as it did for a time to Leila, Matt and Joseph. If we hadn't put Miley in a cage, she wouldn't perhaps feel the need to break out of it in the first place.


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