Post Script to ‘Selling Cyrus’: don’t forget Rihanna…

Rihanna’s latest video (Pour it Up) appears to be throwing down a gauntlet to Miley Cyrus. Who can be more ‘sexualised’? Whose video can show more flesh and be least appropriate for its tween market? Who can outrage the Daily Mail and the ‘twittersphere’ more? As predictable as it is, Rihanna’s twerking and pole-dancing is putting her back in the sites of media commentators (irony alert) and she is now, for the moment at least, the new focus of pornification-panic. (I can’t escape the image that this vying for the limelight will culminate in a grand Running Man style ‘battle of the twerkers’ where the winner gets all the media attention for a whole year…)

Having viewed the ‘offending’ video (and contributed to Rihanna’s ever increasingly deep pockets – irony alert #2) I would like to offer a different thing to be offended over. Pop starlets can hardly be blamed for maximising their careers whilst they can and so the titilation and stripper-vibe may be crass and tacky but is perhaps not quite as crass and tacky as the fact the vocal sounds like she phoned it in and she’s happy to offer such a second rate product to her loyal fanbase. More than this though, what is truly offensive and tasteless is the ‘message’ of the song itself. Youth unemployment has never been higher, the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow and the majority of her global audience will be struggling to get by. Rihanna in the meantime fetishises dollar bills and tells us she’s got ‘pockets deep, and they never end’. She repeats ad nauseum (literally) that she’s got money on her mind and, despite her excessive and hedonistic ways, (she’s paid for a valet and ‘closed a deal’) she’s ‘still got more money’.

Way to go to reinforce the values of the people whose political policies and economic decisions are creating poverty for the very people who buy into Rihanna’s work. Way to go to support the idea of prostitution as a valid economic choice and way to go to support a myth of aspiration despite the reality that for every person with Rihanna’s deep pockets, millions of other young people across the world are having their futures sold out from underneath them.


Catching Up 2: Selling Cyrus

Another current issue is the sexualisation of mainstream culture. Politicians are attempting to make on-line porn more difficult to access (especially for children) and the mass media is regularly criticised for the overt sexualisation of images – especially images related to products that appeal to ‘tweens’ and teens. There have been several interesting pop-media events over the summer that add to the sexualisation debate. And here’s just one….

Aug 2013Miley Cyrus.

If talent was measured by the amount of media attention a person gets then Miley must be brim-full of it… She’s currently ‘top of the charts’ in terms of self publicising and creating media interest. I don’t intend to add to the avalanche of comments and opinions expressed about her VMA performance or her most recent music video. I’m not even going to post links. All I am going to say is – we are a terrifyingly confused culture right now. Miley poses provocatively with teddy bear clad dancers and Operation Yewtree identifies more alleged abusers of the young and vulnerable. Miley (20) grinds against Robin Thicke (36) but we want to protect young women from male predators. The Mail Online’s sidebar of shame (more on The Mail in my next post) judges women on their physical appearance before anything else. Miley shows us that adopting the iconography of porn culture is how an adult female singer breaks away from her Disney past. The Mail Online and other tabloid media is simultaneously titilated and disgusted by Miley.

The videos for Wrecking Ball and Blurred Lines do make it clear that a woman’s role is to be sexually available and Mr Thicke may have denied his song was about the grey area between consensual and non consensual sex as some have claimed, but seems very proud of the way his video degrades women – although he seems to think he’s doing something clever with this representation:

He said:

‘People say, “Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?” I’m like, “Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before. I’ve always respected women.” So we just wanted to turn it over on its head…’

The Edinburgh University Student Association tried to ban Thicke’s song from its campus as it contravenes its ‘policy against “rape culture and lad banter”’. History tells us that banning pop culture products doesn’t do much other than give more publicity to the ‘problematic’ product. However, in a culture where rape threats are all too common online, where abuse victims are described by their own lawyers as ‘predatory’ and photos of sexual abuse make their way online for entertainment and comment (all too often ‘slut-shaming’ comment), it might be reasonable to wish that either Thicke had been less willing to, in his words, ‘degrade’ or audiences had been less willing to collaborate with that degradation.

So – is Miley expressing her sexuality in a modern and healthy way or is she reinforcing a culture that sees women as sexual objects? Is she, as SInead O’Connor thinks, being prostituted out by the music industry? Miley isn’t the only one of course – check out Katy Perry, Keisha and of course Nikki Minaj and Rhianna (I exclude Lady Gaga who may show a lot of skin but strikes me as strangely sexless). Look to films and the way Selina Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens etc. are shedding their squeaky-clean images. Look to any number of male R&B artists for images of male sexual dominance and female insignificance outside being an icon of male prowess and success. None of this is new of course – but that, perhaps, is the point. The Angel-Whore dichotomy is as present as ever and pop culture rewards the women who provide sexual titilation. Whether the culture values them though is another matter.


Catching Up 1: Babies and Trolls

As the term is now well and truly underway, it’s perhaps worth considering some of the issues and debates that have been on the news agenda recently. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll attempt to catch up on one or two of the main issues that have been talking points in the media over the summer so expect some thoughts on royal babies, threats to democracy, on-line misogyny and twerking (occasionally both at the same time) – and then… the new season awaits: the release of GTA5, the end of Breaking Bad and Dexter and the start of American Horror Story all to come… amongst other things I am sure.


July: Thanks of course then to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for producing a media event (a baby) at the start of the press silly season. Cornflower blue dresses, debates over names and post-birth bellies/’weight loss’ dominated the press and tabloid media for a couple of weeks and the BBC (and other broadcasters, to be fair) proved yet again that someone somewhere seems to think that the audience will be informed, educated and entertained by staring at some closed doors for an age as long as the reward of a royal family group walking to a car is provided sooner or later.


Reading the news media on a regular basis throws up some popular themes and preoccupations. The ‘internet‘  takes a bashing on a regular basis this summer saw trolling, misogyny and threats of both sexual and non-sexual violence making their way to the news agenda.

August: There were several cases of high profile females receiving abuse and threats leading to the disturbing conclusion that some people really don’t like women holding opinions, being successful or having political and/or cultural power. Some of the attacks  led to debates about service providers’ responsibilities in dealing with abusive and (at times) criminal acts. The gendered nature of the reported events is complex and raises some interesting questions:

  • is internet abuse against males treated as less of a problem?
  • does focusing on this abuse represent women as victims and add to the perception of them as weak, vulnerable and in need of protection?
  • has the misogyny seen online uncovered underlying issues within our culture than would not have as loud a voice without social media?
  • have the attitudes seen online been subject to ‘amplification’ through their replication and escalation via social media?

I don’t have the answers to these questions but I do know that:

  • the BBC have said that getting female experts to add their voices to news and media debates can be difficult with some citing the potential for on-line abuse as a reason not to join discussions
  • women who go public with opinions based on gender politics are likely to receive vitriolic and often crazily violent responses on-line
  • it is not uncommon for women in the public eye to be judged on their appearance regardless of the reason for their public presence
  • to protest Twitter abuse some people decided to boycott the service for 24 hours

One thing is clear then – internet abuse, bullying and trolling shuts down debate, discussion and communication. Trolling seeks to shut people (often, but not always, women) up. This is exactly what the abusers want as they fear debate and discussion and yet hide behind the concept of freedom of speech to defend their ‘right’ to behave this way. Hopefully the media’s focus on the issue and Twitter’s response will help tackle some of the excesses of this type of ignorant abuse.