Books

Can Literature’s Women Help to Answer ‘The Miley Question’?

Recently, Sinead O’Connor wrote an open letter to Miley Cyrus, urging the young pop star to stop allowing the music industry to prostitute her. (You might have heard about it.) Then Welsh singer Charlotte Church weighed in, saying that Cyrus' sexualized behavior is a product of coercion and exploitation. This commentary comes in the wake of Miley’s latex-laden twerk at the VMAs in August, which many have used the word "pornographic" to describe. But that Miley’s face was recently emblazoned on the cover of Rolling Stone and that her album Bangerz is at the top of iTunes in 70 countries suggests that ‘The Miley Question’ — that is, is she empowered or exploited? — is not as one-sided or as straightforward as her commentators might think. In fact, many Miley supporters are arguing that the star’s bad behavior should be celebrated for what it really is: An expression of female empowerment and self-possession — perhaps not one done in particularly good taste, but one done boldly and very much out loud. Miley is not backing down. And because it seems clear that the sledgehammers she licks in her "Wrecking Ball" video will not be her last, ‘The Miley Question’ is one that we must continue to think about. This conundrum is not a new one, and is certainly not one that applies only to Miley. Rather, this pop star joins a menagerie of oversexed female literary characters that have propelled similar polarizing stirs. These women are vilified and celebrated in the same paradoxical and dynamic ways in which we are currently vilifying and celebrating Miley. Can their twerks down the rabbit hole teach us something about Miley’s?

Recently, Sinead O’Connor wrote an open letter to Miley Cyrus, urging the young pop star to stop allowing the music industry to prostitute her. (You might have heard about it.) Then Welsh singer Charlotte Church weighed in, saying that Cyrus' sexualized behavior is a product of coercion and exploitation. This commentary comes in the wake of Miley’s latex-laden twerk at the VMAs in August, which many have used the word "pornographic" to describe. But that Miley’s face was recently emblazoned on the cover of Rolling Stone and that her album Bangerz is at the top of iTunes in 70 countries suggests that ‘The Miley Question’ — that is, is she empowered or exploited? — is not as one-sided or as straightforward as her commentators might think. In fact, many Miley supporters are arguing that the star’s bad behavior should be celebrated for what it really is: An expression of female empowerment and self-possession — perhaps not one done in particularly good taste, but one done boldly and very much out loud. Miley is not backing down. And because it seems clear that the sledgehammers she licks in her "Wrecking Ball" video will not be her last, ‘The Miley Question’ is one that we must continue to think about. This conundrum is not a new one, and is certainly not one that applies only to Miley. Rather, this pop star joins a menagerie of oversexed female literary characters that have propelled similar polarizing stirs. These women are vilified and celebrated in the same paradoxical and dynamic ways in which we are currently vilifying and celebrating Miley. Can their twerks down the rabbit hole teach us something about Miley’s?

Mike Lawrie/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Eve, 'The Book of Genesis'

Everything’s sunshine and rainbows in the Garden of Eden until tawdry Eve comes along and ruins everything. But while, sure, Eve systemically shuts down Paradise and inaugurates a vast, interminable, mankind-wide romp through suffering and injustice, she also eats from the tree of knowledge, something that simple old Adam is too afraid to do himself. Who likes sunshine all the time anyways? Life is good, but, thanks to Eve, life isn’t paradisiacal. It’s messy and emotional and full of things that are difficult to understand — and Miley’s art seeks to reflect that.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Anna Karenina, 'Anna Karenina'

Anna is one of the archetypal adulteresses of literature and, given her unfortunate final scene with the train, one could say that her punishment from Tolstoy is a dogmatic and a moralizing one. But Anna is not all bad. Sure, we wouldn’t exactly suggest that she Google herself, but we sort of like her, and we sort of admire her too. Anna is more committed to love than she is to duty, and although that disgraces her and alienates her from mainstream society, she is passionate and pioneering, a bit like Miley — and we can’t fault her for that.

Image: Hank Conner/Flickr.

Edna Pontellier, 'The Awakening'

Like Anna, Edna also fares not so well. But also like Anna, Edna’s awakening is not just a sexual one. Through her abandonment of social norms, she plots a path to her own happiness, undertaking independence, autonomy, and the pursuit of her own interests along the way. Refusing to be a mere extension of her husband and family, she twerks her way to a new and self-possessed identity, and her community is shocked. But a drastic change is not always indicative of a life in ruins, and can sometimes instead be a sign that the individual is, for the first time ever, very much in control. This is true for Edna, and perhaps also for Miley.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Ruth, 'The Homecoming'

Ruth, the hypersexualized prostitute/Madonna in Harold Pinter’s 1965 play, twerks hard. She is a housewife whose identity has been systematically etherized by her confinement to the home. So Ruth trades in her placidity and her implied powerlessness for her own raucous version of dominant virility and, along the way, claims agency and control. Just like Miley's twerks, Ruth’s hypersexualized antics lack grace and class, but they are entertaining, and they certainly make a statement.

Image: x-ray delta/Flickr

Dolores “Lolita” Haze, 'Lolita'

Lolita is sexually precocious, but she is also a very young girl. As such, we view her as a victim of exploitation — much as we do Miley, who cannot seem to completely separate herself from her Hannah Montana past. The story of Lolita and her much older rapist/lover/stepfather is problematized by the fact that she initiates the sexual relationship herself and that (according to the narrator at least) she mostly seems to enjoy it. Like Miley, we wonder about the true extent to which Lolita is being taken advantage of, and how much she is herself facilitating.

Image: ClaireDPhotography/Flickr

Jenny Diver, 'The Beggar’s Opera'

In John Gay's 1728 play, the most interesting social commentary is provided by the characters that are worst behaved and most manipulative — the prostitutes. The ladies of the town (aka the "perfidious wenches") are led by Jenny Diver, and are infected with an overwhelming sense of experience and, consequently, street smarts. Those street smarts are keenly contrasted with the sophomoric conceptions of love and marriage that grossly mislead the play’s heroine, Poly Peachum. Ultimately, the bad girls triumph because they understand the body's implication of power — and they own it.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Wife of Bath, 'The Canterbury Tales'

The Wife of Bath is a life-long twerker, and she has a gallery of ex-husbands to show for it. We quickly come to see her as a brazen women with a voracious sexual appetite and a penchant for being catered to. She understands the politics of sex, and she uses those politics to her advantage. Even so, when she tells the story of her husband Jankyn, the Wife of Bath displays a softer, more sensitive side, proving that boldness and tenderness are not mutually exclusive.

Image: ro_buk/Flickr

Hester Prynne, 'The Scarlet Letter'

Although Hester’s punishment for her adulterous affair is to forever wear a scarlet 'A' stitched to her clothing, the letter itself bears less and less significance over time. Her experiences as a former twerker better inform her current situation as one of mother and social outcast, and they transform her into the dignified, philosophizing protofeminist that we love and respect. Though her adultery is scorned by her super-conservative Puritan community, they too come to discover her as a source of insight and integrity. Even if we don’t approve of or endorse some of her behaviors, maybe there is something we can also stand to learn from Miley, and maybe it’s just a matter of time before we realize that.

Image: _arktoi/Flickr

19