The most controversial six square inches of Miley Cyrus's body is her tongue, which can be seen lolling out on the controversial cover of the latest Rolling Stone. Cyrus's tongue first reached national infamy during the VMAs last month, in a performance in which Cyrus showed admirable hamstring flexibility while twerking. Is Cyrus's tongue an embarrassing unsexy sign of a girl who is trying too hard? Or a brilliant sendup of prepackaged coy femininity that is genius in its grossness? Brian Moylan and Elspeth Reeve debate.
Miley's Tongue: A Defense
I choose to believe that Cyrus's protruding tongue is a satirical take on the traditional non-threatening female sexuality displayed by her pop star predecessors like Britney Spears. You've seen it a million times: the tip-of-the-tongue-in-the-corner-of-the-mouth thing. Spears's tongue is sexy in a nonthreatening, coy, "I promise I'm a virgin" way. Her tongue was so active there's a slow-motion mashup of its every appearance in YouTube (still at right). You can see it in Spears's ad for Candie's, which, fittingly, also paid Bristol Palin to talk about teen abstinence. This hint-of-tongue thing has been imitated in countless teen selfies.
Cyrus's tongue takes this away from sexy, into just gross. It's like Gene Simmons-level tongue. It's aggressive and sloppy and not cute. At the VMAs, to emphasize it, Cyrus wore a gray fur bodysuit with an image of a bear-mouse thing nearly licking it's own eyeball (at left) before she stripped down to a nude plastic-y bikini. It's disgusting! It was meant to be! The proof of its success is that it creeped out the creeps. The Washington Post's Richard Cohen was appalled by Cyrus's performance, and wrote a bizarre op-ed in which he suggested it had something to do with teen rapists — "acts such as hers not only objectify women but debase them." Cohen was reprimanded by the Post for sexually harassing a 23-year-old aide in 1998.
Miley's Tongue: A Rebuttal
While I appreciate your take that Miley is using her tongue is some sort of comment on female sexuality, but I find it problematic that she's doing it at the same time as she's showing off more and more of her body to the world, first at the VMAs, then with pasties and a body stocking, and now completely nude on the cover of Rolling Stone. If her tongue is some sort of feminist statement about sexuality, then Miley is trying to have her cake and try to eat it, but she really can't because her tongue is sticking out of her face like she's some sort of human Lil Bub. Also, if it's supposed to be coupled with her new sexy image, why has she been doing it since her relative demure days in 2008 when the picture below was taken?
My real problem with it is that her tongue sticking is happening at a time when she's trying to shift her image from Disney Princess to Ratchet Bitch. Along with the top knots on her head, her grills, and her twerking, its an appropriation of black culture for edginess and cachet. Everyone from Elvis to Madonna has ripped off African-American culture for pop gain, but at least Madonna had the reverence to vogue in a ball gown and treat it with respect. The one thing that always accompanies Miley's ratchet look (along with the gang signs) is the tongue, which is sort of like saying this persona that she has adopted is some sort of gonzo idiot who can't keep its tongue in her head.
Miley's Tongue: Not Racist
Miley's tongue and her appropriation of black culture are two separate issues. She addresses that charge in the Rolling Stone interview, saying:
"I don't keep my producers or dancers around 'cause it makes me look cool," she says. "Those aren't my 'accessories.' They're my homies." Meanwhile, she argues, the idea that she's somehow playing black is absurd. "I'm from one of the wealthiest counties in America," she says. "I know what I am. But I also know what I like to listen to. Look at any 20-year-old white girl right now – that's what they're listening to at the club. It's 2013. The gays are getting married, we're all collaborating. I would never think about the color of my dancers, like, 'Ooh, that might be controversial.' What do you mean?" she says with a laugh. "Times are changing. I think there's a generation or two left, and then it's gonna be a whole new world."
You can see that in her performance. See how she's on the same level as her dancers? They look like friends in her video for "We Can't Stop":
Miley's not standing above them. They're not accessories in the background, like Lady Gaga's dancers in "Paparazzi":
Or status-enhancing props in Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines:"
But this is all separate from the issue of the tongue. You can argue that twerking is lifted from one subset of black culture — and that such borrowing is bad, and that it's worse than straight up stealing songs from black artists — but you can't say that of tongue lolling. Maybe Miley's appropriating the culture of European monarchs? King Charles II of Spain famously had a lolling tongue. (It was because of inbreeding.)
Miley's Tongue: Still Gross
Oh, it looks like you fell for the ever-effective "look at all my black friends" defense of cultural appropriation. Yes, that one always works! (And if you think that Robin Thicke's backup dancers are status enhancing props and Miley's are not, you're sadly mistaken.) Whether or not you buy her defense, it's still a question of authenticity. As she admits, she is a rich white girl with an achy breaky heart in her DNA, she has not come by this image honestly and now she is making people look like buffoons.
As for the rest of it, I'm fine with her just being Miley. All her thrusting and revealing outfits and spurning of her conservative upbringing is something that pop stars have been doing since the dawn of time, or at least the dawn of the record player. (Actually, Maybe we should get mad at Miley for stealing Madonna's schtick, who inaugurated writing on the VMA stage at the first show in 1984.) But why the tongue? Why? It's not sexy, or a comment on sex, as you assume, it's just a gross appendage that God put on the inside for a reason. It's an affectation with no rhyme or reason other than to piss people off and gross people out. There are better ways to do that, like with her songs (which are still mild, disposable pop trash) or with her words (which are always mild, disposable media-trained pablum). Without either of those, all she is left with is her image and her tongue, both of which are doing a good job of getting her attention.
Honestly, I wouldn't mind seeing her change and grow as an artist, but take a look at her Wrecking Ball video. It's just a titillation, a hunk of flesh, covered in saliva, that is supposed to get a reaction out of you. Just like her tongue. All she's doing, one way or another, is using her body to get herself attention. It could all use a bit less flash (and a lot less flesh) and a lot more substance.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.