blurred lines


I’ve held my tongue for awhile now, not joining the national conversation about the performance that left the country speechless. Speechless, but only for a moment. Following the MTV Video Music Awards last month, it seems we all had plenty to say— and, with good reason. Many good reasons, only some of which I hope to speak about today.

Amidst crisis in the Middle East and the slaughtering of Syrian lives, many have criticized the media’s abundant coverage of the sexualized show by pop-stars Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke. I hear their concerns, and I don’t entirely disagree. Yet, alongside a global crisis of one nature, there is a social crisis of another. Those six minutes at the American Music Awards inspire an important conversation too. And, it honors our nation’s youth to be out-raged and saddened by those six minutes.

For those who didn’t catch the show, take a few minutes to travel over to YouTube and check out the performance that has everyone talking. Usually, this is where I’d post a video clip and show you myself, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.

Seen enough? Not interested in watching? Here’s an article that pretty much sums it up. Visuals included. Sometimes, a picture really is worth a thousand words. None of them flattering.

There are so many ways to talk about those moments and many talented writers and speakers have contributed great perspectives to the conversation already. So much has been said and it’s not my intention to belabor the conversation or speak unkindly about Miley or Robin. They need a big blanket of grace wrapped around them and a serious heart-to-heart with someone who cares about their lives and the lives of their public.

I don’t know either one of them personally, but if I did, I hope we’d speak about the following ideas together. Hey, maybe we’d even get so mutually fired up, we’d start a social movement of change. Miley and Robin, no need to wait for me… I have no doubt you can do better for the world without me. Here’s what I’d hope we’d chat about though (candidly and compassionately) and rally together to create change around. You in?

1) To be fair, Miley owned the stage alone for quite some time before Robin entered the scene. But, there seems to be some fuzzy math happening in this national dialogue nonetheless. With so much chatter about Miley, one might never know there were eventually two people on that stage. Robin Thicke has walked away from that night with much less destruction and criticism than his female counter-part. Despite the fact he is a husband, a father, and twice Miley’s age, he shoulders little responsibility for the night. I have no desire to speak to the details about who did what to whom that night, but I do think it’s important to talk about gender lines. Very blurred ones.

When our eyes are wide open, we can clearly see where girls and women across the globe are held responsible for a man’s sexual (not always violent) behavior. I’m about to sound a bit extreme here, but stay with me. My point is valid. In countries that cry out for social justice, girls and women are often imprisoned and mutilated and sentenced to death after suffering sexual assault, forced adultery, or incest at the hands of men. In our own country, women may retain their lives, but they are often blamed (or disbelieved) for such victimizing acts. We don’t have to look far to see where social response often minimizes male responsibility, thrusting it toward girls and women who unfairly pay the price.

So, when Robin Thicke thrusts and grinds on a twerking Miley Cyrus, America let’s her know how horrified they find her behavior. While some have spoken out in mutual criticism of the two, the scales of judgment fall heavily in Miley’s direction. Instead of girl-weighted gossip, I’d love to see more men and women alike rise to encourage the integrity of men, husbands and fathers – both on and off the stage. And, while they rise to call men to be better men, let them also move toward girls and women to inspire their rising sense of self-worth.

2) We are responsible for our choices. However, we don’t make them in a vacuum. We are all members of particular communities and have deep, powerful relationships in our lives. We are surrounded by people and by social systems that influence us and shape our decisions. On a practical note, the media has spoken very little about the “powers that be” that co-created with Miley and Robin that night. Yet, we can be certain there were dozens (if not hundreds) of people who either conjured or gave permission to the six minutes that has the country up in arms. What’s worse? They knew they’d have no public consequence since their performers would take all the heat. If I were Robin and Miley, I’d be doing a lot of soul searching right now about those who genuinely care about them and their families. Fame and fortune appear quite powerful, but it can also makes one very vulnerable to being used.

Well, that’s one community of influence to consider (and a direction at which to point a few fingers). You and I? Well, we’re the other…

Now, this is where Americans have to get uncomfortable and do a little self examination. The six minutes that shocked us was also giving us exactly what we want. The wise former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, used to say, “We teach people how to treat us,” and she was right (within reason). In America, sex sells. Scandal sells. You put the two together and you have a gold-mine. We don’t have to look far to see how our media and market places support the sexualization of girls and women or lends permission to sexual shock and dishonor. In our country, women are sexually objectified. From a very young age, this becomes clear to girls and boys alike. Miley and Robin were paying attention “in class.” They know what sells, and so does their management.

America, we are liable in this “sex scandal” too. Are we willing to change this? Are we ready to take a stand against sexually objectifying ways? What objectifying messages are you supporting in your life? (Yours truly included.) Sadly, we often don’t have to look very far… The television we watch, the music we listen to, the clothes we purchase. Ouch, guilty as charged. And, let’s not forget the multi-billion dollar industries of pornography and prostitution/sex trafficking contributing to this conversation. Supply and demand. America asks and she receives. More blurred lines… sexually objectifying ones.

3) Growing up can be tough. For most of us, the transition from adolescence to adulthood is rocky and full of messy moments. Under the best of circumstances, this transition is powerful and beautiful and private from the public eye. That isn’t Miley’s story though. As a child star, she’s grown up before our very eyes. I have no idea what that must feel like. I imagine it to be very tender. Miley’s performance gives us a glimpse she’s finding it harder than her heart deserves. Aside from the giant stuffed animals dancing by her half-naked body, Miley seems to be skyrocketing to leave behind the days of wholesome and childlike. She’s a sexual woman now and wants this “coming of age” to be clear to the world: the outfits, the twerking, the self-stimulation. Speaking of, I’m very tempted to address the gender double-standard about masturbation here, but I’ll refrain for now… and simply say there is no question Miley is now a sexual woman. No longer Hannah Montana. Message received.

But, let’s talk about sex. What does it mean to be sexual? Sex can be honoring and loving. It can be sacred. It can be casual. It can be angry. It can be rebellious. It can make a woman centered or leave her feeling wrecked. It’s not my place to choose how Miley or Robin create sexuality in their life (though I hope it brings them goodness). My concern for their sexual expression that night is that they used their power and their platform to perform for the world ways of behaving that are never good for one’s heart. Since they are role models to America’s youth, and as a therapist who works with young women, this concerns me. Sex from a rebellious spirit or a casual disconnection or with a man twice one’s age always leaves the soul desiring more. Women, both of youth and maturity, deserve better sex, and so do men. What America watched that night is not glamorous or sexy or worth desiring. Boys, as you become men, you deserve better sex. Girls, as you become women, you do too. What you saw that night was not sexy. Nor was it the kind of feel-good-sexuality that’s truly possible when it flows from healthier places. Robin and Miley clearly ooze talent, but that night, they missed a great opportunity to model how men and women can express themselves as strong, confident, sexual people.

As a woman who walks with girls through these years of becoming sexual, this transition can absolutely be incredible and full of bliss and overwhelmed by deep peace. Miley deserves this, and girls, so do you. What might be the silver-lining in these six scandalous minutes sweeping the nation? It has certainly surfaced a dialogue that needs to happen. And, as the conversation dies down around these two pop-stars, I hope America will keep talking. Sex talks are good. They are needed. They satisfy. Whether sexually active or abstaining, our sexuality is a significant aspect of our sense of self. We are only honored as whole people when we speak about how sexuality is expressed and practiced in our lives and in our relationships. How do you want sexuality to look in your life, publically and privately? What values and beliefs inform this vision? How has sexuality felt to you? What have you wrestled with in the journey? As their staged sex-storm settles, I hope Miley and Robin have safe, open places to talk about these spaces in their life. I hope you do too.

One final word. (I just can’t help myself.) Miley and Robin, if you happen to stumble across these words… We live in one of the greatest nations on the planet where the famous and powerful stumble and fall every day… just like us all. And time again, we watch as they (and we) resiliently rise and seek to restore what’s been lost and transcend what’s been broken. We see healing take place and we see people do well again. You are in good company. My hope for you both is that the world would be gracious and kind to you moving forward, offering you both the room to rise from moments that must bring regret in your most honest moments of soul-searching. As the beloved Maya Angelou says, “When we know better, we do better.”

Better is waiting. We are all waiting for a world where men and women both do better by each other… on a stage, in a bedroom, and everywhere else. Seriously you two, consider starting that movement. You already have quite the following. You might just change the world…

SHANNON WEST

is the owner and founder of Speaking Pink, a private therapy and consulting practice devoted to teen girls and twenties women in Seattle / Kirkland, Washington. Shannon is a licensed family therapist, a private consultant, and a writer about all things on the journey from girl to woman. Follow on Pinterest and Twitter or send an email to Shannon@speakingpink.com.