This morning, when I got onto my computer at what was about 4 AM EST, literally every social media network I’m connected to was filled — flooded — with derisive posts about Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance. From Tumblr’s endless GIF-making of all of the particularly misguided hip-thrusts, to Twitters worldwide trending topic of “#mileyasssmallerthan,” to Facebook statuses decrying how much of a “slutty mess” her performance was, it was the internet with its claws fully bared. In a year that has not seen its shortage of digs at Miley’s persona — from the legitimate critiques, to the all-out hateful low-blows, last night’s performance stood out as an especially salient opportunity to let Hannah Montana have it.
It should be noted, of course, that there are many things that one could take issue with in her self-proclaimed love for all things “ratchet,” and her donning of hip-hop culture with flippancy of a teenage girl trying on her seventh pair of jeans at the mall. Her childhood and adolescence in the bubble of nepotism, stardom, and adults flitting about her with more dollar signs in their eyes than visions of a kid living normally are — as is almost always the case — bound to yield strange results as the child star enters young adulthood. Very few people of her stature and life trajectory were able to escape unscathed, and one needs only to glance over at Lindsay Lohan or Amanda Bynes to see that her fate could have been, at least in a physically damaging sense, much worse.
But the artificiality of her upbringing doesn’t excuse her almost cartoonish portrayal of the complex musical and cultural histories that she seeks to imitate. Just because you were Hannah Montana, and your dad was the guy with that terrible line-dance song, doesn’t mean that you are free from criticism when you engage in the kind of behavior that tap-dances along the line between misguided emulation and outright racist stereotyping. We can agree that a lot of her artistic choices have been, at best, in bad taste and, at worst, actively degrading to the people she takes her cues from. And that criticism should and does happen, by people much more qualified to make it than I, and that is a good thing.
It would be foolish to pretend, though, that the majority of the people making jokes about the size of her ass or bemoaning how “slutty” she has become are well-versed in the more nuanced reasons as to why her persona might be worthy of criticism. Most people are just looking for an easy way to trash a child star, an activity that has reached the level of near-national sport in America. When we are fed such a filtered, managed image of a human being for so many years — an image so thoroughly scrubbed for family-friendliness that we begin to doubt their humanity at all — it’s a particularly cathartic experience to see them fall. Hannah Montana was so pure, in such a manufactured way. Miley Cyrus gets to be dragged through the mud as a “gross slut,” and that is fun. That is the downfall her story arc was always looking for.
The voraciousness with which people have gone after Cyrus, though, the joy we take in watching other stars look upon her performance disdainfully, seems nearly unmatched in pop culture. People trip over themselves to come up with the most cruel joke about the size of Miley’s ass, or the lewdness of her dance moves, or the vulgarity of her rubbing against married father Robin Thicke (who was very much a participant in her grinding, it should be noted). People cannot wait to express how much they hate her, how flailing her attempts are at participating in hip-hop culture, how embarrassed her father should be. (Speaking personally, I highly doubt that the father who encouraged her to participate in such delirious levels of stardom at such a young age would have much to say about nearly anything that makes her a lot of money and garners attention, but that is just speculation.)
I saw Major Lazer perform last night, and the vast majority of the girls in the crowd could have been Miley Cyrus. Mostly between 18 and 24, mostly white, mostly dressed — despite the unfortunate weather — in the best approximation of club clothes they could muster. When “Bubble Butt” came on, every one of them started dancing just as Miley did in her video, including the girls who went on the stage to dance with Diplo and company. Is it a bit silly to bounce around incoherently and shake your ass? Yeah, probably. But so are most things that we do for fun. Did most of us have an ass that was a bit too small to be make grade for the kind of dancing that Miley wants to be doing? Sure. But was it just an example of the kind of music that is popular right now, the kind of thing that young women like to have fun and dance to with their friends? Yes.
The point is that Miley is any of these girls, having fun with her friends and dancing to songs that are playing in clubs right now, only she is doing it on the world stage. The problem arises in the way she attempts to sanitize, package, and sell these kinds of images with some kind of hip-hop authenticity that she seems to be vaguely mocking. But when we talk about her flat butt, or her ill-advised moves, or what she wears, or how many men she sleeps with, that is just being cruel to a girl who — like the thousands of others watching Major Lazer last night — is just having fun, and being young and silly. Those of us who only go through our unfortunate fashion phases or try out our bad dance moves in the obscurity of our social circles get to laugh at someone who is doing it in front of the entire world.
And boy, we do not miss a single opportunity to hate her for it. There is a distinct point at which the valid criticisms of what the machine behind Miley, and Miley herself, is attempting to sell becomes something much more sinister. There is a point at which it goes from discussing the reasons you might not like an artist or disagree with her message, to taking a chance to swipe at every girl who has ever enjoyed herself or gone through a period of self-discovery by dressing and acting like Miley does. There is a moment when it goes from being fair, to being cruel. And though I’m not exactly sure where that moment is, I’m pretty sure it’s somewhere around the hashtag #mileyasssmallerthan.