I’m your standard Internet feminist. I’m an outspoken critic of body-shaming, victim-blaming, and all the buzzwords out there. But one Tenet of Internet Feminism I haven’t quite been able to sign off on is the classification of any critique of the way a woman presents herself as “slut-shaming.”
Don’t get me wrong. I agree with the core philosophy behind the push against slut-shaming: That even if a woman walks down the street wearing nothing whatsoever, it is still zero percent her fault if anyone harasses or assaults her. What I struggle with is the notion that if we take issue with a woman being objectified, we are slut-shaming her. This accusation especially becomes problematic when it makes feminists afraid to call out the objectification we see disproportionately toward women every day.
The Internet Feminist Majority was hurling accusations of slut-shaming back in 2013, when Miley Cyrus released a video for “Wrecking Ball” that featured her ostensibly naked (though actually in a nude-colored leotard) and then when Cyrus twerked at the VMAs in similarly colored underwear. While some felt Cyrus was objectifying herself, many feminists backed her up as the victim of a double standard that prohibits women from expressing themselves sexually.
Since I had the former reaction, I checked myself. I reminded myself that if anyone views Cyrus as an object, that’s their problem. But I still had a tough time believing she was licking phallic objects in the “Wrecking Ball” video for her own empowerment.
What I struggle with is the notion that if we take issue with a woman being objectified, we are slut-shaming her.
I checked myself in a similar manner when I was disappointed to find provocative photos accompanying Cyrus’s interview supporting LGBT rights and animal rights in Paper magazine. After all, I told myself, someone can pose nude on a magazine and care about social justice, and a woman’s sex appeal should not take away from our respect for her ideas. I also tempered my initial reaction by noting that Cyrus’s interview revealed she doesn’t “relate to being a boy or girl,” and the photos are appropriately gender-bending—one with beads hanging from her crotch in a phallic manner—making me wary of filing them under “women being objectified.”
Yet, still, I couldn’t help but notice a few classic signs of objectification in the photos, including the dismemberment of certain body parts pictured in isolation from the rest of the person (Cyrus’s legs are shown sticking out of a pyramid shape) and the implicit association drawn between women and animals (Cyrus is pictured covered in mud with a pig, though, to be fair, the pig is hers and the image may be trying to elevate the pig rather than debase herself).
I also can’t help but notice that before Cyrus’s photos “broke the Internet,” Paper’s original “Break the Internet” issue featured heavily airbrushed, nude photos of Kim Kardashian with her body clearly edited to Barbie-like proportions and her butt used as a shelf (literally an object) for a champagne glass.
The critiques I have read of some feminists’ attempts to police women’s bodies have changed my perspective on photos like these. I’ve evolved to believe that, the same way a woman deserves to wear whatever she wants without be harassed or assaulted, she deserves to present herself however she wants in any media appearance without anybody reducing her to an object.
But while I will defend these women’s right to be photographed however they choose and still be taken seriously, I can’t work up the enthusiasm to rally around magazine covers like Cyrus’s and Kardashian’s as celebrations of women’s liberation. I don’t blame them for exploiting the means they have to “break the Internet,” but I’m sobered by the fact that women best accomplish that feat by taking off their clothes. In contrast, male cover stars in popular magazines are far more often clothed, their images a teaser for the interview inside rather than the main attraction.
While I will defend these women’s right to be photographed however they choose and still be taken seriously, I can’t work up the enthusiasm to rally around magazine covers like Cyrus’s and Kardashian’s as celebrations of women’s liberation.
I’m not privy to the motives of Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus, or any other woman who has stripped down for a photo shoot, but I highly doubt that more women than men just happen to enjoy being photographed in objectifying poses geared toward heterosexual male desire. More importantly, I can’t help but view this gender disparity as connected to the unwanted attention on the appearances of women in politics (think of the attention drawn to Hillary Clinton’s hair and Condoleezza Rice’s boots), media, science, and a slew of other fields who are frustrated by the public’s inability to focus on their thoughts instead of their looks.
We can’t hold any one cover star responsible for setting women back, and we also can’t hold any celebrity responsible for moving women forward. But if they want to advance the feminist cause, demanding that women gain attention without taking off their clothes would mark much more progress than posing naked and defending their right not to be slut-shamed for it.
Yes, letting women make choices is feminist. No, that doesn’t mean that every choice a woman makes is a feminist choice—or that women should be applauded for “choices” that weren’t really theirs. As Amy Schumer pointed out in her Glamour Women of the Year Awards speech, when a woman walks into a photo shoot, the magazine often already has a specific idea of what the photos will look like. Assuming that women are being empowered is as misguided as assuming they’re being exploited.
I am glad that Miley Cyrus is speaking out about important issues, and her NSFW photos should not detract from what she has to say. But while her right to be taken seriously no matter how she appears is feminist, the photos themselves are not. And by confusing those matters, we’re maintaining a status quo where women who choose not to be presented for men’s viewing pleasure have trouble making a dent in the Internet, let alone breaking it.
Suzannah Weiss is a writer whose work has also appeared in Bustle, Salon, Seventeen, the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Paper magazine, Alternet, YourTango, Thought Catalog, and Ravishly. She holds degrees in Gender & Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture & Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University, which she uses mainly to over-analyze trashy television and argue over semantics.
Screengrab via MileyCyrus/VEVO