The Common Good

Miley Cyrus, the VMAs, Sex, and Moral Outrage

I didn’t watch the Video Music Awards last night, but this morning I noticed that Miley Cyrus is getting all the attention.

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Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s Morning Joe gives voice to the moral outrage that many are feeling. She just couldn’t stop lambasting Miley for her performance:

That was really, really disturbing … That young lady, who is 20, is obviously deeply troubled, deeply disturbed … probably has an eating disorder … That was disgusting and embarrassing … I feel terrible … That was really, really bad. They [MTV] should be ashamed of themselves … She is a mess … I don’t want to see that ever again on this show … It was pathetic.

Well, Mika’s vehemence intrigued me, so I found the video on YouTube and watched it. It's bad. Awkward might the best word I can find to describe her performance, and it only became more awkward when Robin Thicke joined her onstage. Then it became awkward and demeaning. And I was instantly reminded of why I don’t watch the VMAs.

I don’t watch the VMAs because I expect this very thing. For example, back in 2011, the Ryan Seacrest Blog stated that, “The MTV ‘Video Music Awards’ have always been a must for millions of people waiting to see the latest and most outrageous moments on television.” Do you remember when Dianna Ross fondled Lil’ Kim’s breast in 1997? Or when Madonna and Britney Spears kissed in 2003? Or when Sacha Baron Cohen dressed as a scantily clad angel and landed in a sexually explicit way on Eminem in 2009?

Wait, you don’t watch the VMAs either? Well, fortunately many websites have provided us a list celebrating the most scandalous moment at the VMAs, including not just gossip websites like Celebuzz, but more serious websites like the Huffington Post and CNN.

The truth is that we love feeling morally outraged by scandals, especially sex scandals. I love to blame celebrities, politicians, and star athletes when they get caught up in these scandals – I especially like to blame them when they are obviously guilty, which is one reason that the VMAs are so popular. Every year the VMAs provide us with a live, juicy scandal, where guilt, shame, and attempts at sexual excitement are projected on a television screen for all of us to see.

Our response of moral outrage is totally understandable, but mimetic theory helps us understand something deeper about these scandals. Scandals are about scapegoating – blaming others for our cultural problems. As James Warren points out in his recent book Compassion or Apocalypse? A Comprehensible Guide to the Thought of René Girard, whenever people blame others, “They are able to occupy the high ground of conscience because they have a scapegoat to blame, to mock, to gossip about, to cast aspersions upon” (246).

It's easy to take "the high ground of conscience" toward Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke for their hyper-sexualized performance at the VMAs, but it won’t solve the bigger sexual problems facing our culture. Sex scandals and blame will continue with each of our cultural rituals. Who will scandalize us at the next awards show? Who will scandalize us at the Super Bowl halftime show? Who’s the next politician to have an affair? Who’s the next celebrity to attend drug rehab? I don’t know, but I do know that we will love feeling morally outraged and enjoy taking the “high ground of conscience” as we imitate one another in uniting in animosity against whoever is caught up in the latest scandal.

If we are honest, we will admit that Miley isn’t much different than the rest of us. Whether positive or negative, we all crave attention, which is exactly what Miley is getting from us right now. Here we see that scandals are always relational and we are each responsible for our role in them: They create a co-dependent relationship between the offender and the offended. Miley needs our attention and we need her scandals to feel morally superior.

But, it doesn’t have to be that way. I hope that Miley and Robin will take responsibility for their actions, but we all need to take responsibility for a culture that breeds these kinds of scandals.

Now, you might be asking, “Isn’t talking about scandal just innocent fun? I mean, are we really supposed to stop gossiping about celebrities, politicians, athletes, and our neighbors?”

The biggest problem with our addiction to celebrity scandal is that scandals can start to consume our lives. Talking about celebrity scandal can seem innocent enough but, like a contagious disease, it will soon spread to other areas of our lives. We will start gossiping about our family members, friends, and neighbors. And once that happens the relationships we actually care about threaten to be destroyed.

Maybe the answer isn’t in getting caught up in moral outrage, but rather to move away from feeling scandalized and towards feelings of compassion.

Some questions I have: Instead of outrage, is it possible to feel compassion for Miley Cyrus? Why hasn’t much attention been paid to Robin Thicke’s role in this scandal? What would happen if you started feeling compassion for someone who created a scandal in your neighborhood? If you began to love your neighbor as yourself, would you start a scandal? 

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.

Image: Miley Cyrus at the 2012 VMAs, Jaguar PS / Shutterstock.com

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