Is this what growing up is supposed to look like? (Miley Cyrus & Student Development)

As much as I don’t want to give more press and attention to Miley Cyrus, I have a lot of thoughts about her recent VMA performance. I don’t expect her to be a role model and I don’t necessarily expect anything better from the MTV network either – but I’m also not comfortable sitting back and letting my frustrations and discomfort go unspoken. Maybe I’m getting old, but the performance confused me and bothered me.

Miley is 20 years old, roughly the average age of the students I work with every day. These 18-24 year olds are going through similar transitions in their lives – though not so publicly or dramatically. I’ve seen parents posting on Facebook and quoted in news articles about the poor influence Miley is on their young girls, the same girls who had Hannah Montana birthday parties, pillows, and outfits. I think Miley has made it pretty clear that she has no interest in representing the squeaky clean Disney brand or being seen as a role model for tweens anymore – and I don’t think it’s fair to expect her to play that character forever. Like many other child stars, she is growing up in front of an audience – magnified more than ever by the voyeuristic lens of Social Media.

And people are watching. Lots of people.

Smilers! My VMA performance had 306,000 tweets per minute. That's more than the blackout or Superbowl. #fact

Smilers! My VMA performance had 306,000 tweets per minute. That’s more than the blackout or Superbowl. #fact

Maybe some tweens and teens are watching, but a hefty portion of the Twitter population is college-aged students. I’m scared for our future if this is what it means to transition into adulthood. I’m going to read more into Miley’s performance more than I’m sure she ever intended for – but only because I know that peer influence still matters and she is leaving a legacy for tweens, teens, and 20-somethings to learn from, whether she means to or not.

I’m no stranger to Twerking and it’s not like this is the first time Miley has made mention of it or done it on a stage in front of thousands of viewers. It’s her party she can twerk if she wants to. Her backup dancers though? I’m sickened by the way she objectifies them, spanking them and sexualizing them. The fact that her entire cast of dancers is black makes the situation that much more appalling. She treats the women like props. Some have critics have accused her of appropriating Black Culture, without any of the prejudice or intolerance that also comes with the culture.  At the end of the day, Miley is still white and has all of the privileges associated with that identity. Never mind the gross assumptions that this statement makes about Ratchet Culture = Black Culture.

Some people have claimed that it’s “slut-shaming” to dislike or disparage Miley’s performance. This one got me thinking, I have no problem with Miley wanting to be sexy and putting herself on display if that’s what she wants. But this wasn’t sexy, it was underwhelming and awkward at best. Like Brittney and Madonna’s kiss at a VMA ages ago, she is using a marginalized group/identity to manufacture shock and publicity.

At the end of this performance, I was honestly left confused. I realize that there is a lot of exploration and transition that happens at this age, and that it can be dramatized by people who have grown up in the spotlight. I don’t think she is trying to send us any messages beyond “I’m not a Disney star anymore” and “Buy my music”, but Miley (and many, many others) are sending messages to our young men and women about what it means to be an adult whether she means to or not. I’m looking forward to next week when all of this press has died down and we can go back to other conversations with the young adults in our lives. Until then, I hope we can have critical conversations with them about the messages they are hearing and seeing from performances like this one.

*Disclaimer – Yes, I know Robin Thicke/Blurred Lines are not without fault and deserve a blog post of their own. I’m not going there.