Should Miley Cyrus take some responsibility for female apathy towards the development of Women’s Rights?

Is feminism a dying cause due to developing cultural norms?  The recent media backlash surrounding Miley Cyrus’s ‘Wrecking ball’ and Robin Thicke’s misogynistic ‘Blurred Lines’ music video, both suggest that we still live in a society that applauds the objectification of women. These portray a view that without sexual appeal women are irrelevant because power, social-standing and wider appreciation come from image and sexuality. This message is being instilled to a whole generation of young girls, making patriarchy further ingrained in a web of social norms and understandings, suggesting change may be difficult in the future. This is embodied by my sister, a 15 year old who, being deeply interested in pop culture, accepts such representations of women without reflection. Does this in itself undermine the work done by rights organisations as girls seem more interested in the size of the gap between their thighs than furthering the cause of ‘women’s rights’?

The portrayal of women in the media could lead young women to think that without sexual appeal they lack power. In the 21st century this cultural portrayal of women moves the focus to the sexual aspect of femininity, rather than the feminism that was the byword of our mothers and grandmother’s generations; with many role models in politics, the media, music scene and therefore young girls viewing Feminism (with a capital F) with contempt. These views suggest that many women take their rights for granted and downplay the need for further campaigning for equality domestically and internationally because the emphasis on what is important about women is skewed.

In fact the pre- determined gender roles  stated in Bourdieu’s in ‘Masculine Domination’ [1] are thus legitimized by women openly marketing themselves or by the music industry, for example,  using overt sexuality as a marketing tool for the ‘white male gaze’ in order to sell records[2]  without considering the implications of this on their younger market. Constant exposure to these views leads these ideas to become further ingrained.

It has been 95 years since women were granted full suffrage and the right to vote in the UK. This is a cause our ‘foremothers’ died and starved for in the hope that one day women might be on an equal footing to men and perhaps thought of as something more than an ‘inanimate sex object’ or ‘baby oven.’

You would have thought that nearly 100 years later we should be closer to this goal. However as Miley Cyrus and her fellow ‘twerkers’ reveal, women still have a long way to go before they are no longer regarded as sexual objects and if a lack of interest remains I can only assume that the rights of women will start to be degraded once again. I think that the exploitation of women in the music industry could be analogous within a broader social milieu. The way society views women is argued by theorists such as Bourdieu or McKinnon to be institutionalised and reinforced constantly and subtly as a form of ‘Habitus’.[3] If male patriarchy can’t be removed from society then there is only so far that conventions such as CEDAW can go.[4] This could be because, as Bunch argues, laws don’t trickle down to people[5] they stay within the male dominated, legal sector of the state. In order for anything to actually change for women it is societal and global norms that need to be addressed, whether it is the objectification of women in the media or the practice of forced genital mutilation, neither will end until women are enlightened from their ‘false consciousness’ which Enloe argues is pertinent for the furthering of ‘women rights’ and equality.[6]

Yes, the women’s rights movement may have come a long way since the days of the Pankhurst’s, with women being considered instrumental in economic, business and social sectors.[7]  Despite this even, powerful, successful woman are ridiculed by the media on their looks. For example Angela Merkel’s dress sense is an important talking point in the media. Hence, reinforcing a belief for many women, regardless of her achievements, that success is dependent on appearance as ‘she is a failure if she is not beautiful’.[8] Does this suggest that rights have a lower status to other considerations about women in our perpetually masculinised system?

If we in the ‘west’ are looking to be an  example of a society of emancipated and respected women then the music industry and the media alone prove that we are still one that also champions the degradation and sexualisation of women. Sexism and the abuse of women’s rights are global problems and ones that women themselves should seek to reinforce. How can we expect to encourage the equal treatment of women internationally and prevent sex trafficking and sexual exploitation of women, when even in the so called ‘developed’ western world we encourage and even celebrate the objectification of our own bodies? [9]

The Human Rights Act and CEDAW do little to support those wishing to address actual social issues outside of basic civil and political rights. Whilst some women rely on the European Convention on Human Rights, for example, in relation to illegal abortion and rape, generally protection does not go far enough because the rights are defined too narrowly with a focus on state violation. However  women also need protecting from the more basic cultural ills of everyday society, yet we could use cultural means to ‘awaken women’.[10]

In my view these issues are not black and white, thus should we question whether women have achieved basic equality? And if we do, we need to keep striving for rights domestically and internationally or we must accept that our campaigning can only achieve basic political equality due to cultural distractions such as the importance of a woman’s thigh gap rather than a perceived need to be able to identify where Syria is on the map? At least the media hype about Miley Cyrus has brought these issues into the limelight and the fact that they are being discussed suggests women are having their “consciousness raised”[11].  If women are empowered by such actions this can only have positive effects so in this sense maybe Miley’s exploitative act was for the greater good in the cause for ‘women rights’.   As Enloe states, that staying, “intellectually curious” is “what keeps one taking seriously…the experiences, actions and ideas of women and girls. Take away an explicit interest in femininities, and it will be impossible to develop…”[12]

[1] Bourdieu ‘Masculine Domination’

[2]; (Charlotte Church in the recent John Peel lecture focused on the fact that ‘pop’ music is predominantly bought by white males)

[3] Bourdieu “The masculine domination.”

[4] Susan Zwingel, ‘How do Norms travel? Theorizing International Women’s Rights in a Transnational Perspective’, International Studies Quarterly.

[5] Charlotte Bunch, “Womens Rights as Human Rights: Toward a Revision of Human Rights.” Human Rights Quarterly 1990.

[6] Cynthia Enloe ‘Gender’ is not enough: the need for a feminist consciousness’, International Affairs Volume 80, Issue 1, 1 APR 2004.

[7] Maryam Zar, “Miley Cyrus and the disempowerment of women”, Huffington Post 28/8/2013.

[8] Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman

[10] Susan Zwingel, International Feminist Strategies: Strengths and Challenges of the Rights Based Approach.

[11]  Clare Chambers “Masculine domination, radical feminism and change” Feminist Theory December 2005 vol. 6 no. 3 325-346

[12] Cynthia Enloe, “Gender is not enough; The need for a Feminist Consciousness.”


About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
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