Was Miley Cyrus's VMA Performance a Failed 'Blurred Lines' Criticism?

Last night wasn't all about shock value—there was commentary, too.

Charles Sykes / AP

Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards were all about reactions. In the most GIFable award show ever, our digital souvenirs include Drake solemnly staring at the ground, Rihanna giving the stink eye, and endless cutaways of Taylor Swift being Taylor Swift. Most are in response to Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke's medley of her "We Can't Stop" and his "Blurred Lines," two of the year's most controversial music videos brought together as the night's must-see moment.

Bringing the "fucked-up selfie" concept of her video to life, Cyrus straddled giant teddy bears, spanked butts, touched herself, thrusted across Brooklyn's Barclays Center, and gave Gene Simmons a rival for most notorious tongue in music—and that was before Thicke even sauntered onstage to start their duet. The performance, as multiple headlines point out, "stunned" audiences and, atypically, generated more chatter than the show's opening and closing acts of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, respectively. Reactions ranged from the expected (The Parents Television Council was not pleased) to the more surprising: MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski called Cyrus "deeply disturbed" and accused her of having an eating disorder during a Morning Joe rant.

So here's a fun theory: Was Cyrus's and Thicke's performance actually a thought-out response to "Blurred Lines" criticism? Even before the song hit No. 1, "Blurred Lines" and its oft-parodied video have been accused of treating women like objects and promoting rape culture with its "I know you want it" hook, physical aggression, and subtle messages about alcohol and consent. Cyrus's performance with Thicke played with several of these themes in a way that could be read as commentary—though, at best, failed commentary.

It would be easy to write off her performance as just looking to deliver shock value: Cyrus has openly professed her admiration for the Britney-Madonna-Christina smooching trinity of scandal that opened the awards show a decade ago, so it's possible that Miley was just being Miley to carry the torch of sexually provocative pop stars. That idea is also consistent with the message of "We Can't Stop," which kicks off her hip-hop makeover by warning it's Cyrus's party, and she can do what she wants. But from the way she introduced her performance—by having Saturday Night Live's Vanessa Bayer revive her Cyrus caricature—it's clear that Cyrus is more self-aware than she perhaps gets credit for. And if there's anything we learned from Lady Gaga's "Applause" video, it's that pop stars responding to or parodying their own critiques is not out of the question.

At first glance, the performance doesn't appear all that different from the "Blurred Lines" video: Thicke is fully clothed in a Beetlejuice suit and barely moves; Cyrus is clad in a flesh-colored two-piece and struts around him. But from the moment she eagerly ripped off her furry-fantasy get-up, Cyrus not only embraced and amped-up her own sexualization, she threw it back in Thicke's face (and lap). She got right up in Thicke's mug to shout some of the most scrutinized lyrics in "Blurred Lines" ("tried to domesticate ya / but you're an animal"), and she didn't back down after he took over vocals. With a giant foam finger, the night's most famous prop, Cyrus ran her hand over his crotch before grinding and nuzzling against him, trying to objectify Thicke in the way the original video didn't.

The performance doesn't totally reverse the original "Blurred Lines" set up, but it did attempt the message of its most famous parody, a scene-for-scene, gender-swapped recreation by Seattle-based "boylesque" group Mod Carousel. The video went viral because it's an accurate and impressive mimicry, and because it has the same levity of the original minus the vague rapeyness. The parody, however, wasn't designed to foster hate for the Thicke video. According to Mod Carousel's YouTube description, the half-naked romps dreamed up in "Blurred Lines" could be great fun as long as all parties involved felt equally empowered. Accordingly, the video tries show the dolled-up men as equal participants in a way the original didn't achieve (despite the stated intentions of the director, who also directed Cyrus's "We Can't Stop" video). Mod Carousel argues that flipping the genders of a music video to demonstrate sexism usually does "everyone a disservice" by ridiculing the male form rather than actually trying to empower the women excluded—it's more punitive than restorative. The solution, they say, is to create a space "where objectifying men is more than alright and where women can be strong and sexy without negative repercussions."

That sounds exactly like the type of space Cyrus and Thicke tried to create last night—but that's obviously not how it came across to a lot of viewers. There were, in fact, plenty of negative repercussions for Cyrus, who was quickly labeled a slut by many anonymous Internet-goers and accused by the New York Times of "molesting" Thicke. If Cyrus was trying to send a message about her sexual autonomy, why wasn't she successful? One reason is what Salon's Daniel D'Addario calls the "fake sex positivity" of her performance. For comparison: Christina Aguilera, whose own sexual and artistic expression ignited similar conversation a decade ago, challenged criticism and championed empowerment through her music. Cyrus, on the other hand, just appears to be the over-eager participant in Thicke-worshiping, not the subverter of his messages.

There are other reasons why the performance makes audiences cringe: For some, the age difference—she's 20 and getting called a slut, while he's 36, has a family, and is mostly getting off the hook—makes their interplay feel exploitative, even if she's initiating. To others, the aggressive degree to which she did initiate contact seemed like less-than-consensual activity instead of a playful move to level the playing field. And then there's Cyrus's troubling appropriation of black culture—specifically, her use of her dancers' bodies as exotic accessories—that pervades her album's promotional campaign despite mounting criticism of it.

All of these problems turn what could have been a clever take on the song of the summer into not much more than a televised coming-out party, her official rebranding as an edgy pop star with a sex life. As Cyrus's performance shows, she's intent on skipping the "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman" phase of pop-star predecessors. But as she executes her transformation, it seems the line between where she's in on the joke and where she becomes the joke is, well, blurred.