It never ceases to amaze me how much – or how very little – it takes to actually shock people.
In this summer of chemical-weapons attacks, whistle-blower manhunts, and rape threats on Twitter, the entire Internet exploded this week with horror – horror! – that a 20-year-old pop star did a sexy dance in a skimpy outfit at the MTV Video Music Awards.
Waking up Monday morning to find that every social-media and news outlet on the planet had suddenly discovered the term "twerking" and was determined to use it to maximum effect, I felt my last ounce of hope for our species draining from my body.
I'd been away on holiday – two weeks of marshmallows, cocktails and naked toddlers on a lake in the woods – and this is what I returned home to: a world transfixed by a girl in PVC short shorts vibrating her booty for the camera. I fought the urge to gather my family and hightail it back to the wilderness for good.
But, whether I like it or not, it's part of my job to contemplate the strange machinations of the entertainment industry, even those that I essentially wish everyone would shut up about. And while we all need to get over Miley's coming-of-age performance, the fact that we haven't – that, judging by my Twitter feed, we simply can't – says so much more about us than about the artist formerly known as Hannah Montana.
Working on this column, I paused to read several articles posted about the Cyrus debacle, as it is now quite ludicrously being called. Time Magazine published its Four Reasons You're Still Hearing About Miley Cyrus's VMAs Performance (her tongue; the crowd's reponse; nudity and sex; race) along with a rant from Camille Paglia entitled Miley: Go Back to School. There was a Buzzfeed making the rounds that broke down why Cyrus's performance was a failure – comparing it, move by move, with Britney Spears's famous VMA striptease in 2000. And, of course, let's not forget VanityFair.com's snarky compilation, entitled What Does Miley Cyrus Want To Say to Us So Badly That She Knocks it Off Already? (Among the answers: "You are not a child any more." "That dancing is very sexual." "You have a vagina. There it is.")
Paglia's declaration that the Cyrus performance marks a new low in the world of pop, an industry she says is "suffering from the same malady as the art world, which is stuck on the tired old rubric that shock automatically confers value," is correct. But it also misses the point.
That Cyrus's performance was a foot-stomping, arse-wagging, tongue-lolling aesthetic abomination shouldn't come as a surprise. Such displays are, after all, exactly what the VMAs were created for in the first place. What's remarkable about the Miley Show, as opposed to, say, the Katy Perry Show or the Britney Show before her, is that Miley came to us a chaste little country hayseed, all pigtails and overalls and 50-watt grin. Now that America's first poppet seems determined to take control of her well-earned sexuality, we are all just a teeny weeny bit uncomfortable at the spectacle. Scratch that, we are absolutely appalled!
But we realize it's terribly uncool to be so prudish. The girl is 20 for heaven's sake, two years older than Britney Spears when she first flashed her panties from underneath the schoolgirl kilt in the outrageously porny video for (Hit Me) Baby, One More Time. So we cloak our discomfort over Miley in jaded detachment, and make eye-rolling observations about how pop stars shouldn't "try so hard" to get our attention. When all we're really doing, of course, is giving her more attention.
The supreme irony of it all is that I think we're right – or at least perfectly entitled – to be made uncomfortable by the sight of a former child star shaking her thang in Robin Thicke's face. While Katy and Britney arrived on the public stage fully formed, their pouts and pelvic thrusts part of the package, Miley was an innocent. Seeing her transition so aggressively, and with such abject desperation, feels a bit like watching a Japanese porn version of Dora the Explorer.
The notion that female porn stars and pop tarts are wide-eyed nymphomaniacs freely sharing their sexuality with the world is one of the central delusions of our culture. As Lovelace, the new biopic of Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace, details, the public sex object is often privately misused. Lovelace was bullied, beaten and robbed by her husband, while the world feasted upon her body. Sex, for many young women in show business, is not a matter of private enjoyment but a public currency upon which their entire careers depend.
Miley might be clawing at herself like a cat in heat because she wants it. Or it might be because her management team wants her to look as if she wants it. It's a crucial distinction that we may never be able to sort out.
Until we do, the answer is not to keep mocking Miley for our own discomfort. The most powerful thing we can do is simply look away.