The Un-Discussed Ism in the Miley Cyrus Scandal

Miley Cyrus has been making me sick. Her performance at the VMAs and her video of “We Won’t Stop” were both filled to the brim with racism, cultural appropriation, misogyny, and general unappealing weirdness.

Even so, I posted on Facebook my discomfort with the woman-hating that ensued. Miley’s performance was offensive, upsetting and nauseating, but she doesn’t deserve to have her butt compared to the backend of a turkey, or to have all kinds of slut comments thrown at her (especially when Robin Thicke didn’t appear to take much heat for his creepy rapey-ness).

Yes, Miley is an individual, and she has agency and a voice (and a fairly good one at that). She could stand up, take charge and refuse to propagate this bullshit. Instead she perpetuates it by saying she wants a “black” sound, using black women’s bodies and sexuality to promote her own coolness while never having to learn anything about black culture, history and oppression.

She could take a stand.  I hope one day she does.

But Miley is also being produced, marketed, engineered, managed and generally controlled by a whole lot of older people who are out to make a buck, and will encourage any wild antics if they seem like money makers.

If Miley says she wants to twerk, my guess is it gets run by a whole bunch of older men who eventually come to the consensus: yes, Miley twerking= profit.

This is sexism, capitalism and a whole lot of yuck in one seemingly small interaction.

But there is one other ism wrapped up in this that no one is talking about.

Adultism.

In my organization- Jewish Youth for Community Action (JYCA)- we talk about Adultism as the oppression of young people by older people. It is different from ageism (which is oppression based on age, and also targets the elderly).

Adultism is the way that young people get oppressed by adults and society because they are young. Adultism is adults who won’t think twice about screaming at children and teenagers to shut up and behave but would never speak to their peers that way. Adultism is stores that put up signs “limit 3 teenagers at one time” and no one calls the ACLU. Adultism is youth getting sent off to die in wars at the age of 18, but are not trusted to drink responsibly. Adultism is the way youth in most school systems get zero say in their education. Adultism is the way young black men get stopped, frisked, beaten, killed by cops on the street all the time.

Adultism doesn’t stand alone. It intertwines with racism, sexism, homophobia, able-ism, militarism and much more. It’s also important to say, as we do in JYCA, that the opposite of adultism isn’t treating youth like adults, but rather Youth Empowerment: helping youth see themselves as powerful agents of change. Just in the way the opposite of sexism isn’t “treating women like men,” but rather building rights and power for people of all genders. So too, youth empowerment and anti-adultism is about meeting youth where they are at and supporting their process. In fact, it would be adultist to try to treat youth like adults, rather than their actual age.

Back to Miley. And to me.

Miley, daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus, famous country music star.

My parents aren’t famous on a Cyrus level, but they are both well known in some Jewish communities. I’ve spent much of my life with the name “David & Linda’s Daughter.” I dreamt of making a name for myself (of being Entirely Talia). I love my parents, and sometimes being their daughter gains me access to people and places that have given me enormous privilege. But the adultism of not being treated like my own person is hard. And I can’t imagine what it must be like for kids of big time celebrities.

At age 11 Miley became famous in her own right: a Disney Channel star, an immediate success with her role as Hannah Montana, a character trying to be a normal kid while leading a secret life as a pop star. Like all Disney stars she is sweet, funny, innocent, perky, pretty…

Miley is not the first Disney star to progress from lovely princess to sex-pop icon. Most notably, Brittany Spears went from Disney Mousketeer, to innocent schoolgirl seductress, to full-out sex kitten, to mental breakdown and back again. Christina Aguilera also ditched her Disney innocence for her “grown-up” image. It looks like Selena Gomez is right on track. Heck, even Justin Timberlake was eager to show off his sexuality post-Disney days.

So what’s going on? Is there some Disney conspiracy to create future sex icons?

Perhaps.

But I think this is also how oppression and adultism works.

These young folks with talent are taken from their lives, offered promises of fame, money, popularity, and then forced to promulgate a specific image of youth (that has nothing to do with their actual lives): a sugary image which then gets spoon-fed to the rest of the nation’s young people who will gladly take a break from their own lives filled with adultism, sexism, racism, poverty, boredom and whatever else. In these adult created Disney representations of young life, kids experience snafus, embarrassment, fights with friends or parents…. But they are well taken care of, well resourced, with a perfect rainbow of friends who never have to confront racism in multiracial friendships. They have crushes, but they don’t have sexualities.

So I admit it. I watched a few episodes of Hannah Montana when it came out. I watched because I was taken with her singing. She was this very young girl, and yet her voice was so mature. In fact at some moments, she almost sounded like an adult. Hmm. As if that’s what it takes for young people to get an adult’s attention. To sound like an adult. To act like an adult. To look like an adult.

Given Brittany, Justin, Christina and everyone else- I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised what happened.

In 2009 Miley came out with “Party in the USA” and was bombarded with accusations of stripper-ness. Disney refused to comment. Then- you know the rest, with her new “black sound” and scandalous performance. And now women are accusing her of being slutty, of not being a good role model. Youth are not supposed to talk about sex, even as they (and all of us) are being bombarded with it thousands of times a day.

These young Disney girls get set up to be fantasies. Whether they are the fantasies of young people wanting a better, easier life, or the sexual fantasies of older men with some healing to do, or even the fantasies of adults such as me, intrigued by something adult-like within them. Is it any wonder they rebel, partially by running in the other direction (“I’m not that innocent!”) but also straight in the direction they have always been pointed: deeper into fantasy land, taking the hidden sexual fantasy element of their stardom and making it fully public?

The oppressive cycles of adultism, sexism and capitalism continues.

I wonder what would happen if we could get Brittany Spears and Miley Cyrus to one of JYCA’s Youth Empowerment and Adultism workshop. If we could teach them about how Adultism is the first oppression that everyone experiences and how it conditions us to accept all other oppressions and eventually perpetuate them ourselves? If we gave them space to remember what it was like for them when they were young, all the ways adults controlled them and took away their voice even as they belted it out. Would they then go out to all the other young stars and say, “Hey, it’s okay. Oppression is real. I know. What’s it been like for you? What do you really want for yourself? For the world?” Maybe we could start an army of pop princesses, marching hand in hand right to the studio execs, to the 1%, to anyone who will listen and demand an end to adultism, to racism, to sexism, to the perpetuation of oppression.

By the way, if you’re a high-school aged youth in the Bay Area and want to talk about this stuff more, come to JYCA’s “Adultism and Youth Empowerment Workshop.” Sunday September 15th, 2013 at noon in Berkeley. Email Talia@JYCA-Justice.org to RSVP or for more info. (Open to all high-school aged youth)

For more info on JYCA and Adultism, you can visit our website, and follow us on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Tumblr.  Contact Info@JYCA-Justice.org if you are interested in bringing the Adultism and Youth Empowerment workshops to your organization, workplace, circle of friends etc… (for groups of all ages).

If you want to hear my music (not my parents!), check out my Facebook, Reverbnation, YouTube, Twitter and WordPress.

And for more information on Adultism, also check out Paul Kivel’s website for lots of great resources.