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The Problem with Role Models (and Miley Cyrus)

29 Aug

We’ve all heard the message: Girls need role models. ASAP.

Enter Hannah Montana and her fresh-faced Disney counterparts. They’re predominately white, blue-eyed, skinny, and conventionally attractive. To top it all off, they’re pushing seventeen, but have thirteen year old mentalities when it comes to boys and real-world problems.

Because that’s what every mother wants their daughter to grow up believing — that in order to be like the “role models” they see on tv, they will need to be white, attractive, and perpetually thirteen.

It’s not just Disney displaying this image. If we look globally —

Here are the women of Girls’ Generation. They’re from the k-pop scene that have made waves in Japan and even the US (their album charted #126 on the top 200 billboard).

Most of these Girls were born in 1989. The youngest in 1991.

They look thirteen, minus the heels. That isn’t a coincidence. They are marketed that way. They could just as easily be dressed up like this.


And suddenly they’re the Pussycat Dolls.

So why are these twenty-somethings marketed as if they are sixteen year olds pretending to be thirteen?

Because their brand depends on a “good girl” image, one that makes bank by its members being attractive, talented and fresh-faced. Otherwise known as looking innocent, a must-have if you’re selling role models to parents of younger girls.

Parents want their girls to say, “I want to be (Hannah Montana/Tiffany from GG/other role model here) this Halloween!” What parents don’t want to hear is, “I want to be a Pussycat Doll.”

We don’t want our girls acting like women, so our women have to act like girls.

But we want our boys to act like men and our men to act like men. Men are men. Women are girls. It’s frustrating. Which brings us to our favorite thirteen year old in a twenty-something body —

I don’t blame Taylor Swift for catering to a younger audience. I don’t blame her for media’s obsession with boys and more boys. It’s that obsession that birthed the Taylor we know today. She’s a product of what society deems acceptable: women as girls that like boys (*cough* men *cough*).

But that doesn’t mean that her song “22” sounds like a twenty-two year old’s life. It sounds like a fourteen year old’s image of what being twenty-two means.

Yes, there are still breakfasts at midnight (because you’re already trashed by 11:45 and craving IHOP).

Yes, tonight’s the night we forget about the deadlines (loan payments, car payments, projects at work that can cost us our livelihood).

Yes, it’s miserable and maybe, somewhat, magical? Maybe? (Some twenty-two year olds are moms, some take care of their sick parents or grandparents, and some are skating by on minimum wage — even if they are middle-class).

There’s really just not a lot of time to dress up like hipsters and dance around to a song about a club disguised as a song about a sleepover.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22.”

Jamie Lynn Spears, are you?

Songs like “22” and “good girl” idol T-Swift carve out the feminine place in the limelight. It’s a very dark place that won’t shed light on sexuality and other things on growing girls’ minds — but will remind them to think about boys, boys, and why they’re not already dating boys.

Twenty-two year old idols act eighteen, at best. Eighteen year olds act sixteen. Sixteen year olds act thirteen. And, here, twenty-two can also be thirteen. Either way, the scale points down.

This is an extremely damaging trend that doesn’t allow girls to understand what it is like to be women.  We go on and on about what it is like for boys to turn into men. It’s a power struggle that involves conquering other boys in physical/intellectual strength and/or conquering girls sexually.

But girls only become women when they’re too old to be role models for the youngest generation. They’re stuck at thirteen until then, unless they somehow manage to break that mold and become eighteen year olds (just old enough to be legal) in twenty and thirty-something bodies.

This happens when media catches on to the fact that these “girls” have adult bodies and, thus, can be scrutinized like other adult women based on their sex appeal.

The twenty-somethings who are allowed to act eighteen must (a) allude to sex  (b) be classy, not trashy  and  (c) be ready to ditch their role model status for a near-nude photo shoot at any moment.

Remember when this happened?

Suddenly Lea Michele went from high school sophomore on Glee to a high school senior for this shoot. (Fun fact: Lea was born in 1986!) And the media went abuzz with slut shaming and publicly stripped Lea of any role model status that Rachel Berry had.

The joke was on them. Lea Michele clearly didn’t want  the goody-goody title thrust upon her. If anyone still thinks Glee is a good show to find role models on, they’re seriously not paying attention.

So why is it okay for Selena Gomez to look sexy? Glee’s high school at least has sex. Wizards of Waverly Place’s didn’t. Why can she sing “Come and Get It” while bestie Taylor is stuck in middle school?

Because Selena merely alludes to sex with her peek-a-boo skin and PG lyrics. She doesn’t say, “I’m up all night to get some,” but she sure wants someone to come and get it.

And most importantly, her sexiness is for the audience’s pleasure. It is not a statement of her independence. It is not a joke. As long as men in their forties can lust after her, and her attire is considered fashion, not trash, it is a-okay.

It’s all about skirting that precious line between classy and trashy; sexy and slutty. It doesn’t matter that Selena appropriates and sexualizes the bindi when she performs Come and Get It. Pssh, we’re post-racial, remember? What even is cultural appropriation?

All we care about is whether she landed on the right or wrong side of that sexy line.

Beyoncé often skirts that line. She was criticized for her (lack of) attire while performing at the Super Bowl, but the general consensus is that she played it close enough to sexy instead of slutty. She’s still considered one of the classiest female performers out there.

When child stars leave their high school characters behind, we expect them to become ladies like Queen B. And that means to be sexy in a classy way. Women artists aren’t worth their salt if they aren’t able to be sexualized.

But being sexualized doesn’t mean that these stars can have the audacity to strip, gyrate on stage, and (oh, the truly nasty part) enjoy it.

When women are props, they strip and gyrate for the performing artist and audience’s pleasure. When women are the performing artists, they must live up to the impossibly high standard thrust upon them — be a lady first, a person second.

Even if men never have to act like gentlemen to be performing artists. Boys don’t need role models. Boys need idols. Boys need father figures. Boys need success stories.

Girls are the ones who need role models, otherwise they might grow up into fully-fledged people who do awful things like have sex and opinions. 

When traditionalists talk about role models, they mean “good” girls like on the Disney channel who only talk about school, boys, and pranks. Feminists mean “strong” women with class like Michelle Obama and Beyoncé. Both opinions leave a lot to be desired.

Why do girls need role models so badly that celebrities must be punished? Why do their choices affect our daughters?

Because we expect our daughters to grow up to be ________________.









Anything BUT strippers, scantily clad teenagers, or sexologists.

Pick your poison.

When we say that girls need role models, what we are really saying is that we want to police how girls look and act. We are saying that our daughters cannot grow up believing that they are sexual beings capable of weakness, mistakes, and the capacity to be more than sexual objects.

For reference, sexual objects look like this.

Sexual beings look like this.

Both women shown sexualized (with the man who perpetuates rape in this summer’s #1 hit) are wearing nude underwear and not much else. One is accepted, the other is not.

Women being used sexually by men is normal. Women being overtly sexual? Nope, nada, no. Cut to commercials, please.

Miley’s performance was over the top. It was unusual. It was of all things, a spectacle. But it was not degrading for the reasons you think. Being sexual does not debase a woman. Being ridiculous at the same time does not justify gender-based ridicule.

Being sexual with a fully-clothed older male artist? Who sings about “blurred lines” and “good girls” who he knows “want it”? Without their voices ever being heard?

The awful, racial implications of black women with “the big butt” being used as literal props? “The big butt” being sexually used on stage? By the white woman who appropriates and stereotypes one facet of black culture? And makes $$$ because of it?

That’s downright degrading.

But only a small group of people are talking about that. The media is fixated on Miley’s butt, tongue, and foam finger.

Miley stepped outside of society’s little black box that keeps women in line. And she gave us the finger while she did it.

It was uncomfortable. Not just because of how awkward and choreographed it seemed, but also because we are simply not used to seeing women so out of control.

I have seen multiple comments online asking where her manager was during all of this. And blaming Daddy Issues on her behavior. Because women need to be managed. Women need to have deep-rooted issues with men to behave so unabashedly sexual.

They are saying these things because Miley Cyrus was and continues to be an idol. For female performers, this also means that they are role models, first and foremost. It’s an empty title thrust upon them with strict rules that must be followed or else we bring out the guillotine.

There’s no doubt that there are many girls who aren’t allowed to fangirl over Miley since her Disney departure. She sings about drinking and drugs! She cut her hair!

And most importantly, role models don’t do THIS on television.

But people do.

Miley was a person before she ever donned Hannah Montana’s blonde wig and stepped into the harsh light of what we call media. And she will still be a person long after her eleven year old fans have eleven year olds of their own.

So the next time someone brings up the term “role model,” do society a favor and kindly point them toward Miley’s foam finger.

Brave: Tomboys vs Girly Girls

14 Jul

When I first tried on the feminist label, I was coming out of high school and my first Art History class. I loved (and still love) the Gentileschis of the world. I thought feminism was about women  putting the sword to patriarchy. Cutting hair. Burning bras. I thought it meant renouncing soccer moms and traditional gender roles.

I’m not entirely sure when my feminism changed, but I think it was between the first and second season of Game of Thrones. Let me get this out of the way right now: I am a Sansa Stark stan.

But I wasn’t always that way.

I do love the Aryas and Briennes. Actually, the ladies of A Song of Ice and Fire merit their own articles, so I won’t go too far with them here. But I will say that I have learned to appreciate the Sansas and Catelyns along the way. The feminine characters are now my favorite.

brave poster

Which brings me to Brave and its heroine Merida, a spunky, redheaded tomboy (reluctantly) in a dress. Something the former feminist me would have eaten up. I still get googly eyed at women in dresses with weapons. There is something tantalizing about the mix of feminine and masculine.

Brave thinks its clever by making her corset dress restrictive, a tell-tale  sign of oppression, and not a real part of who our heroine is. But Merida’s mom likes corsets and dresses, as do many modern women (has anyone paid attention to wedding dresses lately? Corsets, corsets, corsets!).

But it’s about a girl wanting to have control of her life! That’s feminist!

Yes, girls and women having autonomy with their lives and bodies is feminist.It’s a huge part of what women across the United States are fighting for when they stand with Wendy Davis.

What’s not feminist? The only girls we flaunt as feminist are masculine characters. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being masculine, as there is nothing wrong with being feminine, but somehow along the way the poster child of feminism never stopped being girls in trousers.

There was a time when feminism absolutely needed to be about women being able to be like men. We wanted voting rights! Only men were allowed to vote. We wanted to be doctors! Only men were allowed to be doctors. Men were in control of their lives and ours. So breaking into the “man’s” world and allowing to be like them was a force for the cause.

In a way, we accomplished that. We can vote. We can be doctors. And most importantly, we can wear pants (or even the pants). Internalized misogyny causes us to reject the feminine, half of the social construct. There is a reason that Twilight, Justin Bieber, and One Direction are so laughable. They cater to teenage girls. And teenage girls are laughable.

Teenage girls are typically depicted as feminine: full of raging emotions (and hormones), in cliques, worrying about their bodies and social status, and wearing impossibly high heels in high school movies. Everything we don’t want to be.

So when a pre-teen without pesky breasts or periods or heels shoots with a bow and arrow, we’re captured by her. She’s not like other girls. Those five words are something we’ve heard before, and internalized before. We see it all the time in our representation. It’s okay that this girl gets to be with the hunky guy in the movie because she’s not like other girls. She’s smart. She’s not like other girls. She’s not traditionally pretty. She’s not like other girls.

She’s Juno! She’s not like other girls.

The “not like other girls”  is detrimental to our kids, pre-teens, teenagers, and women. It limits our sex. It says that the majority of our sex is not acceptable. It furthers the virgin/whore, tomboy/girly girl dichotomies. We are not either/or. If men are shades of gray, why can’t we be?

So that’s my main beef with Brave. Merida is hailed as not like the other Disney princesses. Not like other girls.

Merida sword

Except she is. There are plenty of girls that are tomboys, that disagree with their mothers, that don’t fit in. That’s the thing about being a girl, whether you’re masculine or feminine, you don’t fit in. The only way to fit in is to be a cis white able-bodied male, something we are not, no matter how many arrows we shoot or how many sports we play.

It’s important that we get the tomboy princesses from Disney and the girly girls, but the fact that Merida doesn’t like dresses or sewing and doesn’t want to be married doesn’t make her the feminist face of Disney.

I do think that Brave is a good movie from a feminist perspective, but not for the reasons everyone else thinks so (besides, where are the POC???) and not for the reasons the trailers showed. “I’ll be shooting for my own hand!”

merida and mom

It’s because the story is not just about tomboy Merida, but it’s about her girly girl mother too, and their relationship. Something the world needs more of is good representation of the love and struggles between mothers and daughters. It was refreshing. The trailers did not make it apparent that the story was about a mother and daughter (probably because it wouldn’t sell to boys, the main demographic of everything ever).

But, still, refreshing. Sure, the story relies on a lot of stereotypes about the masculine and feminine, daughters and mothers, but the message was that though they were different, Merida and her mother could understand and relate to each other. If they would only listen to the other.

There is a struggle between old and new. The story isn’t revolutionary. Girls have wanted to be like boys all my life and long before I was born. There is a reason girls are hailed as “cool” when they can hang with the boys, enjoy comics, and dodgeball.

I challenge story tellers to take this idea to the next level. What would be really feminist? A masculine mother and a feminine daughter coming together. (And, seriously, some POC). We need some modern femininity depicted as the new age, not the old.

I’ll wait for Brave 2. Hopefully Merida’s daughter will be every bit as feminine as Merida’s mother.