This piece originally appeared on newstatesman.com.
What does empowerment look like for young women today? That’s the debate du jour and, as ever, it stars a pretty young pop star in her pants. It all started when Sinead O’Connor wrote an open letter to the perennially half-naked sexpot of the moment, Miley Cyrus, advising her not to let the male-dominated music industry “make a fool” of her.
Cyrus responded, as she usually does, by sticking out her tongue and taking off her clothes. Other female rock stars weighed in: Amanda Palmer wants O’Connor to respect Cyrus’s integrity as an artist. Annie Lennox is disturbed by porny music videos. Whose camp are you in? And who is being exploited—apart from the millions of readers who have flicked guiltily through endless snaps of Miley Cyrus in her scanties just to check how shocking they really are?
Nobody has covered themselves in glory in this insalubrious episode. Not O’Connor, whose “motherly” advice strayed into slut-shaming, as she warned the younger singer about the dangers of being a “prostitute” and advised her that “your body is for you and your boyfriend”; not Cyrus, whose response was a cruel jab at the older woman’s mental health history. Nor the rest of us, the clickbait hunters and tabloid outrage merchants rubbing our hands with glee.
This is a familiar discussion. On the one hand, the worried middle-aged woman lecturing the ingénue on the importance of wearing clothes in public; on the other, the girl who is sick of being cast as a pure and perfect princess, who wants to have fun and feel powerful and has limited options for doing so in a society that remains intolerant of women trying to claim space as anything at all except hot and half-dressed. Miley Cyrus grew up in public as the Disney Channel’s tame tween everygirl, Hannah Montana—a role every bit as artificial as the power-toolhumping sexpot pose. In a recent sketch for Saturday Night Live, Cyrus declared that Hannah Montana had been “murdered”—and her glee was obvious.
So, is Miley Cyrus empowered or is she exploited when she wriggles around naked on an enormous wrecking ball, smashing into a music culture already saturated with images of slender girls in tiny pants? Is Sinead O’Connor being selflessly brave, or is she a hectoring, prudish old hag? Are young girls better off stripping and twerking for money, or covering up for fear of being judged, exploited or attacked? Should they be allowed to make mistakes in public in a society whose horny hatred for young women’s real bodies is so treacherous to negotiate, or should we just lock them up for their own protection? On and on and on. The debate has been raging for years and it will continue for as long as we continue to treat young women as commodities, rather than human beings.
When you are a young girl in a world that hates women’s bodies, your developing sexuality is a loaded weapon and your parents, peers and teachers line up to make sure you never learn how to use it. Instead, you are meant to polish the thing to a shine, twirl it about; perform sexy but don’t actually have sex. You can play with power, as long as you never claim it; you can enact desire, as long as you don’t act on it. All the while, you’re told that being young, beautiful and vulnerable is still the best thing that a woman can possibly be – that you’d better grab what power you can right now, before time and gravity take that away, too.
How are young women meant to grow up free and brave in a world that covets our commercial potential and despises us when we demand control of our destinies? It would help if we stopped speaking of “empowerment” and “exploitation” as if those things were mutually exclusive. When a young woman puts on latex panties and grinds with a middle-aged creep on stage, because she knows that doing so will get her money and attention, is there power there? Hell, yes. Is that power bounded on all sides by patriarchy? Yes, again.
When I was 20, I did some very silly things in search of that brief, thrilling sexual power that is the privilege of the young, drunk and naked. I stripped and bounced and let myself be exploited by older, more powerful men who couldn’t care less about my inner beauty; I danced half-naked onstage with fabulous drag artists in purple suspenders and I looked ridiculous and had a lot of fun. I am lucky to have more scars than I have regrets. Now, when I see younger women I love and admire trying to negotiate that vanishing territory between slut-shaming and self-objectification, it makes me want to cram my whole fist in my mouth—but I will swallow it before I judge them.
Sinead O’Connor is right about one thing: The music industry does not care about young women. Society does not care about young women—not, that is, about female people who just happen to be young. Rather, it cares about Young WomenTM as concept and commodity, Young WomenTM as pose and performance, Young WomenTM and how much money you can squeeze out of them before they turn around and demand to be treated like human beings—which is still the most shocking thing an actual female person can do.
The problem is not that we cannot decide whether nearly-naked pop stars are empowered or exploited. The problem is that bland sexual performance is still the only power this society grants to young women, and it grants it grudgingly, rushing to judge and humiliate them whenever they claim it. Rather than condemn girls as they try to negotiate this strange, sexist society—a society that offers temporary, dazzling power to those who play the game—we should be supporting them as they grow up, make art and stick out their tongue at the whole stuck-up world—and that starts with a stand against slut-shaming.
This piece originally appeared on newstatesman.com.