Can Literature’s Women Help to Answer ‘The Miley Question’?

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Recently, Sinead O’Connor wrote an open letter to Miley Cyrus, urging the young pop star to stop allowing the music industry to prostitute her. (You might have heard about it.) Then Welsh singer Charlotte Church weighed in, saying that Cyrus' sexualized behavior is a product of coercion and exploitation. This commentary comes in the wake of Miley’s latex-laden twerk at the VMAs in August, which many have used the word "pornographic" to describe. But that Miley’s face was recently emblazoned on the cover of Rolling Stone and that her album Bangerz is at the top of iTunes in 70 countries suggests that ‘The Miley Question’ — that is, is she empowered or exploited? — is not as one-sided or as straightforward as her commentators might think. In fact, many Miley supporters are arguing that the star’s bad behavior should be celebrated for what it really is: An expression of female empowerment and self-possession — perhaps not one done in particularly good taste, but one done boldly and very much out loud. Miley is not backing down. And because it seems clear that the sledgehammers she licks in her "Wrecking Ball" video will not be her last, ‘The Miley Question’ is one that we must continue to think about. This conundrum is not a new one, and is certainly not one that applies only to Miley. Rather, this pop star joins a menagerie of oversexed female literary characters that have propelled similar polarizing stirs. These women are vilified and celebrated in the same paradoxical and dynamic ways in which we are currently vilifying and celebrating Miley. Can their twerks down the rabbit hole teach us something about Miley’s?

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