My public speaking teacher gave an assignment: present a two minute speech about any idea you like. Student after student got up and delivered their speeches: topics included talking animals, the subjectivity of time, and driverless cars. Then I heard a speech that stopped me dead in my tracks. The topic? Crop tops.
“We’ve all seen it- girls wearing shirts too small and shorts too high,” she begins humorously. She blames it on J-Wow and Snooki, she blames it on MTV, but mostly, she blames it on Miley Cryus and her infamous twerking. She says twelve year olds have never been this sexualized before! Something, she cries, should be done to save these young women from such dangerous times.
“When I was growing up, we had Lizzie McGuire!” Hold up one second! I thought. What about Britney Spears? What about crop tops in the 90s— I distinctly remember Sabrina the teenage witch bearing her belly on multiple occasions.
At the beginning of her speech, I was smiling and nodding along. It was pretty funny—and who doesn’t hate those awkward looking clothes? But about half way through, a sinister realization dawned on me. This was slut shaming, pure and simple. The factors she blamed were all women. She implied that these women were immoral. She linked morality and sexuality in the easy-breezy way our culture does.
But where are the references to the media’s sexual objectification of women? What about rape culture? I waited for a turn in her speech, but it never happened.
Women damning other women. Women judging women for what they wear, for how they behave.
What was the male role in any of this? It went unmentioned.
As silly as this sounds, by the end of the class, I was holding back tears as I was writing my response. Although the tone of her speech was light hearted, its content had dark implications for how women view other women.
Freshman girls wearing crop-tops and short-shorts— this phenomena isn’t new. Clothes have been getting skimpier for decades, each generation has cried out in despair at the indecency of it all. These girls are Bad Girls. And yet, they’re doing the same thing all women do— they’re just trying to fulfill the conflicting expectations of being sexy, following fashion, but staying Good. And they can’t. It’s impossible. They buy the clothes that their peers are wearing, the clothes that were marketed to them. And then they’re damned for it. It’s not their moral failing.
Which brings me to the virulent media reaction to Miley Cryus. It saddens and confuses me that Miley is under attack, but Robin Thicke is not. Thicke’s song is about Good Girls who secretly want sex, but say no because of society’s expectations. Thicke’s song encapsulates the Maddona-Whore dilemma. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t; the best thing is to say no and fuck anyway. Blurred lines between consent and non-consent: this is rape culture at its core. Women in revealing crop tops must want sex. Of course they do! Look at the way they’re dressed! They may say no, but men can’t be blamed for their actions because obviously, the girls are asking for it.
Thicke is a middle-aged, married man. In his music video and on stage at the VMA awards, he dances with highly sexualized young women. Miley is not married. Miley is a young adult who is free to dance as dirty as she wants— but because she does it in front of the camera for millions of viewers, she is “setting a bad example.” Well, what the hell about Thicke? Isn’t Thicke setting a bad example? He’s an older, married man whose song dismisses women’s ability to consent to sex!
As usual, the young girl and her sexuality is at fault. This girl who is doing exactly what is expected of a pop star, the only problem being, she took it too far. Most of the criticism against Miley comes from other women, just as most of the scoffs and judgment directed against girls in revealing crop tops comes from other girls.
You’re giving us women a bad name. That is the underlying message behind our sneers when we pass a “slutty” stranger in the street. We lose credibility when you flaunt your sexuality. You are objectifying yourself the way men objectify you.
This is wrong.
We are the objectifiers.
We are the oppressors.
We support a system that judges and shames women for not playing into certain roles.
We think of ourselves as liberated women— yet we subjugate ourselves. We look at a woman wearing a head-covering and think: that poor, stupid woman. She is oppressed. We look at a woman wearing a crop top, and we think: that poor stupid woman. She is objectified. We slut-shame her.
Let me repeat myself: we objectify. We oppress. Instead, we should stand up for other women, and take accountability for our role in the system. Otherwise, a woman will continue to be reduced to the extent of her sexual expression, or her lack thereof. How can we hold men accountable for their sexism when we can’t even stop judging ourselves on the same lines?
I too, am at fault. I am ashamed. I have looked down on other women, and I know they have looked down on me. Men never scrutinize each other’s clothing choices to such an extent— they are too busy scrutinizing the choices of women.
I’m not saying you have to like Cyrus’s dancing. But by attacking her for being a “bad girl”, you are playing right into the message behind Thicke’s song.
Women are more than a mere expression of their sexuality. Remember that before you pass judgment on a young girl in short dress, or even on a pop star.