On Monday, the New York Observer published a column on Miley Cyrus by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Orthodox Judaism’s answer to Dr. Phil, asking “Is Miley Cyrus Harming Women?”. Boteach pontificates frequently on sex, love and morality, but this time he reached way, way up on his tippy-toes and attempted to solve the riddle known as the existence of Miley; namely, is the young lady hurting other ladies, with her relentless display of her vagina and breasts and such? Does a woman’s brain, as the sub-hed to his article asks “stand a chance against her genitals?” (And does that mean there’s going to be some sort of awful, squishy cage-match between those two parts of my body later? Because I am not ready.)
Boteach probably didn’t write the terrible headline or sub-hed on that story, but he’s certainly responsible for the rest of the mess that follows. The basic premise of the piece is a pretty old song. Perhaps you’ve heard it: when young women like Miley run around in their undergarments or–gasp!–their altogether, they’re harming all women. Or rather, they’re hurting the image that men have of all women, making it harder for men to respect us.
See also: Miley Cyrus Redeems Herself on SNL
[M]y problem with Miley is simple and fundamental. Her essential message is that whatever talents a woman may have, her greatest asset is her vagina. She may be able to sing, but her breasts rather than her vocal cords are her vital organ. She may be a nuclear physicist, but her butt rather than her brain is what makes her really attractive. She may be able to dance, but it’s her legs rather than her agility that really wows. And she may a religious scholar. But her genitals rather than her piety is what begs the world’s interest.
I have no problem with women being sex objects. The book I’m about to publish, Kosher Lust, is all about the need for wives to remain sex objects to their husbands. But only so long as that’s not all they are.
It’s fine for ladies to “remain sex objects,” in other words, as long as they only present that way to their partners. Otherwise, Boteach requires that they display themselves in such a way that “the world” (read: men) doesn’t focus unduly on their breasts or vaginas. Because the message being received by those men is shaped by women, not the dudes doing the looking.
Boteach also makes a weird assumption that a lot of pearl-clutching culture critics do with pop performers: that Miley’s “message” about her vagina applies to the rest of us women. He argues, “What the Miley Cyruses of this world are doing is stripping women of an intrinsic identity and making them a means to the libidinous man’s ends.”
That’s right–what Miley Cyrus does with her vagina apparently reverberates into mine, and yours, and all the rest of the vaginas. When she wears something small that reminds you she has female genitalia, she hurts the standing of all women, including me, my grandmother, and the ladies from Golden Girls.
But Miley’s vagina has nothing to do with me or mine; the way she presents herself has nothing to do with me. What a very young, addled pop star with an impressively Gene Simmons-esque tongue wears onstage has nothing to do with how the rest of us see ourselves, or how the world sees us. Even if Miley’s deliberately trying to send a message that her “talents” lie in her tits, that doesn’t mean the same message applies to Janet Reno or Amy Poehler or Phyllis Schlalfly, or the lady who delivers my mail. (Although I’m sure they all have wonderful, talented breasts.)
This is all so obvious, isn’t it? Maybe I should’ve skipped this whole piece and just made a long, resounding fart noise. But we’re here now, and I’ll reach way back to preschool to sum it up, since the rabbi might have skipped over some basic lessons about “me” versus “you” and my parts versus yours. We all have different things to say about our vaginas, or nothing to say about them whatsoever. We all get to speak for our own vaginas (or they speak for themselves, if we’re in a horrible Vagina Monologue nightmare I have thrice-weekly.) If the dudes in One Direction can appear in public looking like smoldering, rumpled, pubescent starfish and not harm masculinity, then Miley should be able to rock that teddy bear teddy without doing irreparable harm to the Standing of All Women Everywhere.
That’s not to say that Miley and her handlers don’t occasionally do real harm; her twerking performance at this year’s VMAs was pretty bad, and is, by now, well-covered territory: it objectified the bodies of the black dancers around her and appropriated a culture she doesn’t belong to and uses only for tired shock value. She’s also trying uncomfortably hard to negate her own privilege as a young, wealthy white woman from a big-deal country music family. She’s glommed onto what she sees as visible symbols of black culture, or rather the imagery of Dirty South hip-hop, though it’s not clear if she quite sees the difference–gold grills and nail art and plentiful, oblivious use of the word “ratchet.”
The point is, whatever else she’s doing wrong, Miley’s not dealing womanly purity any death blows with what she does onstage. And Boteach and everybody else knows what she’s really attempting, with the help of her manager, Larry Rudolph, the same guy who once ran Britney Spears Inc.: to make an awkward transition from Disney star to a sexaaaaaay adult pop sensation.
Boteach recognizes the difficulty of that move, writing, “Her twerking raises our eyebrows … until it doesn’t. Britney Spears tried it all before. She jerked, twerked, bumped, grinded, and bared nearly all. But her career has been reduced to playing a two-year gig at the Planet Hollywood in Vegas, and even that’s a last-ditch effort to rescue her from terminal oblivion.”
But that career oblivion isn’t Britney’s fault, and it won’t be Miley’s, when it comes for her too. They’re the product of a patriarchal culture that grinds up young women and spits them out when they’re (ever so slightly) older or less thin. Britney has babies and mental health issues and she’s older than 19, and now the Music Industrial Complex has moved on. But Brit didn’t grind away all her dignity or self-worth, and Miley can’t twerk away hers. She’ll be churned out by the fame meat grinder when she’s no longer quite as aesthetically pleasing in that teddy, but the blame doesn’t lie with her. That doesn’t mean Miley’s a helpless pawn in the game–it just means that no matter how skilfully she plays it, she’s always going to lose. The real answer is to upend the chess board and set it on fire, not chastise the pieces.
And that gets us to our real problem here: Rabbi Shmuley has no idea what feminism means. He writes, “The message of feminism, as I understand and embrace it, is simply this: of all the qualities a woman has–from her beautiful body to her sensual nature–nothing is as important as her brain. Her mind dare never be subordinated to any other feature.”
But that’s not anybody’s definition of feminism, except, I guess, Shmuley’s. In fact, feminism doesn’t mean brains trump vag. It means insisting everyone in society should be afforded basic dignity and worth, regardless of vagina or what you do with it. Feminism also insists on social equality for everybody regardless of a lot of other things: skin color, disability, income, gender presentation, or gender identity.
An insistence on cavorting around in unfortunate flesh-colored underthings doesn’t devalue you as a human being, because all human beings have inherent dignity and worth. All that squawking we feminists do about equal pay and not being objectified against our will is, fundamentally, a request for social dignity, even though we’re burdened down with these big, heavy, attention-getting vaginas.
But genitals and sexy music videos and a pre-Women’s Studies 101 understanding of feminism aren’t what Boteach is really writing about. He’s merely trying to plug that book of his, Kosher Lust, which he manages with a thunking lack of subtlety round about the fifth graf. But there too he fails; the joy of hetero, married sex–the only kind Orthodox Judaism condones, even if Boteach has taken a more accepting view towards LGBT folks in the past–has nothing to do with Miley. It has precious little to do with feminism. And Boteach’s floundering attempts to write about subject matter that’s way, way out of his depth are embarrassing and sad, but they don’t devalue him as a person either.
Rabbi, you can don a teddy any time you like and show off all your parts, and we’ll still be obligated to look upon you as a social equal. Feminism is for everybody, even when we have to grit our teeth.