When I was fourteen, a much older man sat next to me while I was waiting for my friend in front of a bookstore. She was buying one of those teen magazines that talked a little too much about LOVING YOURSELF on the same page with weight loss tips, and I hated standing in lines because I was a little awkward, so I sat on the bench outside. The man who seated himself next to me reached over, grabbed my hair, and started telling me how pretty it was. This classic story of harassment would be one that would be repeated over and over again throughout my life, with me feeling varying levels of fear and discomfort, but that will always be the time I point to when I realized that even though I was young and wasn’t ready, I was already being sexualized.
I think of this when I hear or read about the sexual coming of age of young pop stars, women who grew to fame in their teens and eventually get countless stories written about how they are “shedding their Disney image” by revealing a different sexuality at 20 than they did when they were 16. When Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez hit the magic number of 18 (The number that the men of the Internet have decided that it is acceptable to objectify) a local alt-weekly ran the story Now That They’re Both 18, Let’s Finally Discuss It: Who’s Hotter, Demi Lovato or Selena Gomez?
The fascination with the maturation of young pop stars is the most honest way I’ve seen media outlets deal with the sexuality of young women. For minors, the leering is creepy and a faux pas, but is still largely present, but the explosion of Look Who’s All Grown Up media smirking (Which happens with other celebrities too. Christina Applegate and Alyssa Milano immediately come to mind.) suggests that the result is inevitable.
The most recent case is Miley Cyrus, whose video for “We Can’t Stop” gave a lot of writers pause. Gone is the sixteen year-old sweetheart, and in her place is a raunchy, culturally appropriating, overtly sexual human being. Miley, who seems to have recently discovered that black people exist (please read On Miley Cyrus, Ratchet Culture, and Accessorizing With Black People for context), takes a page out of GQ’s definition of sexy by finding new ways to roll around on top of a bed. NPR’s When Pop Stars Flirt With Bad Taste proclaims that “self-objectification is part of today’s ritual of romance,” but the importance of appearing sexually available if you’re a young women with records to sell is not something new.
What’s irksome about Miley’s video is that it’s not a sexual coming-of-age, but a creeped-out male-gazey fantasy that tries to substitute itself for one. The path for young, white singers from accessibly cute (but still sexualized) to the narrow mold of sexy (with a depressing lack of agency) has been clearly drawn, so it shouldn’t be surprising when they follow it. Choices don’t exist in a vacuum.
Women of color don’t have this same option, which makes Miley’s appropriation in her video that much worse. Good Girl Gone Bad is typically the story of white women, who have the benefit of being viewed as starting off with innocence, which, in turn, can morph into creeped-out infantilization.
Part of why I like Die Antwoord’s video for “Cookie Thumper” (which, to be clear, I mostly don’t like), is that it takes the objectification of a young white girl and makes it uncomfortable. Yolandi Visser dressed as an orphaned school-girl is subjected to creep-shots of her underwear, but later when she becomes overtly sexualized in the most gross, destructive way, the video seems to taunt “Isn’t this what you really wanted to see?”
If the video was going for subversion, which I sort of hope it was, it fails for a number of reasons. In the end it still reinforces the idea that it seemed to be hitting back against– that young girls and innocence are sexy– through the numerous underwear shots and school-girl spanking. If you leave with anything, it’s mostly confusion over the muddled message, the unclear line of what is actual agency and what is being set-up to meet expectations.
For Miley Cyrus and countless other ingenues-turned-dynamos, that confusion is also present, and largely reflected in the lives other non-famous women. It’s easy to grow up and discover your sexuality, but it is much harder to prevent that from being commodified.