We’re Not in Montana Anymore: Miley Cyrus is a Feminist Icon

Once upon a time, being compared to Miley Cyrus was such a vile proposition that it almost ended my relationship. My adorably naïve then-boyfriend (now-husband) thought he was giving me a compliment when he said, “Y’know who you remind me of?”

In return, he received his first-ever JENNIE DEATH STARE. I launched us into a fight so atrocious and unexpected that I almost scared him away for good. But you guys, I really couldn’t stand Miley Cyrus. I wasn’t into the tacky glitz; I wasn’t into the cheesy music; I definitely wasn’t into knowing that the basis for the comparison probably stemmed from the fact that we both have the adorably pudgy cheeks of a baby cherub (all I’ve ever wanted are visible cheekbones).

But, most of all, I wasn’t into this version of the girl next door: seemingly vacuous, clearly catering to the male gaze, and generally coming across as kind of blah in an effort to offend no one.

BUT. Miley and I have both come a long way, baby (cheeks). Here’s a map of my path to discovering a deep respect for this woman:

1. It all started with the music. I saw online that Miley had launched a new website. I linked over, looking for fodder to tease the boyfriend with (that original Miley reference is now a cornerstone of our inside humor). Lo and behold, let the pudgy cherubs sing: I found out that she is actually very talented. PLEASE check out all three videos from The Backyard Sessions, where she performs gorgeous, raspy covers of some of her favorite songs. They’re real and earthy and exquisitely effortless. Hello, Miley.

2. Then she cut her hair. This is not news; we ALL know that she cut her hair, and most of us have strangely strong feelings about it one way or another. As for me, I swooned. At the time, I was 27 and having a serious internal debate over chopping off my own shoulder-length locks. Miley was only 19, and she made it look so easy. She committed to a drastic choice – the haters hated, hard – and she was cool and collected and did exactly what she wanted despite them.

For me, a heroine was born that day. Three months later, I cut off twelve inches of my hair and sent it to Locks of Love. Along with the trimmings, I also left a lot of self-doubt behind on that salon floor. Yes, my husband would still find me attractive with short hair. No, I wouldn’t instantly regret my choice the first time someone questioned it. Yes, I was doing this, because it felt fun and exciting to me. Thanks, Miley, for being an amazing example.

3. Since then, Miley’s transformation has moved far past the physical. Let me highlight her intellectual maturation with a quick comparison. In June 2008, the infamous “sheet shot” showing her bare back ran in Vanity Fair.

At the time, Disney representatives (concerned with her image as the lead in Hannah Montana) were outraged:

“For Miley Cyrus to be a ‘good girl’ is now a business decision for her. Parents have invested in her a godliness. If she violates that trust, she won’t get it back.”

So, Miley said she was sorry:

“I took part in a photo shoot that was supposed to be ‘artistic’ and now … I feel so embarrassed. I never intended for any of this to happen and I apologize to my fans.”

That was Miley at 15. Let’s jump to Miley at 19. Last year, she re-tweeted a quote from physicist Lawrence Krauss and said it was, “Beautiful.”

The quote contained the phrase, “So forget Jesus. Stars died so you could live.” When critics came out of the woodwork to accuse Miley of abandoning her Christian roots, she (oh so calmly and eloquently) defended her thoughts:

Get ’em, girl. Something wonderful has happened in the last four years.

And now, we’ve reached the end of my road map. X marks the spot where I find myself happily recognizing Miley as a feminist celebrity. Yes, she made some choices growing up in the public eye that would cause a certain type of “feminist” to raise an eyebrow. (“What? She posed with her tongue touching a penis-shaped birthday cake?? She used her sexuality to boost her album sales??? I’m not so sure about this one…”) But in my book, she’s got real feminism nailed:

  • She cultivates an outward appearance that she loves, regardless of detractors who say her previous look was sexier/more beautiful/more womanly.
  • She follows her passions, whether it’s country music, dubstep, or twerking in a unicorn suit. (You’ll have to find your own link for that one, since I didn’t find it especially mesmerizing… but she definitely had a good time.)
  • And – most crucially – she holds her own opinions and defends them in the face of public opposition because she’s confident enough to practice her own beliefs in her own way.

As for my original disdain? I’ve learned some things about being a feminist, too. Besides being generally less judgemental of other women who are trying their best, I’ve learned to especially give some space to young women. I want to raise daughters someday, and when they are 15, I hope the people around them will realize that they’re in the middle of a long process of growing into themselves.

Just as it took Miley time to find her own voice (both literally and figuratively), she also needed time to experience enough of the world to make an informed decision about who she wants to be. Like the lyrics from her Backyard Sessions song Lilac Wine say:

“I made wine from the lilac tree

Put my heart in its recipe

It makes me see what I want to see

And be what I want to be.


36 responses to “We’re Not in Montana Anymore: Miley Cyrus is a Feminist Icon

  1. Okay I have never been a Miley fan, but I think you have changed my mind. That last pic of her is gorgeous, I LOVE the short hair on her.

    How did it feel going short for you?! I’ve thought about it but I don’t think I’m anywhere near doing it.

    • Your comment made me go, “Skeee!” (That’s my go-to excited noise.) I’ve never been much of a fan-girl of any celebrity but she has impressed me, so I’m excited you see it, too!

      As for going short, it felt wonderful. At the end of the day, it’s just a choice you have to make. I read endless articles on the internet while I was trying to decide. (‘You’ll hate it!” “You’ll love it!” “It’ll always grow back!” “It takes forever to grow back!”) That was a waste of time and so I found a salon with good reviews, asked whether they had a short-hair specialist (this is KEY), and just went for it.

      Short hair simultaneously makes me feel more badass and more feminine. Badass because I can easily look tough, like while I’m mean-mugging in the mirror during kickboxing class… but also feminine because my neck is exposed and I’ve developed obsessions with dangly earrings and cute headbands.

      So… if you ever give it a go, I bet you’d have fun. Sorry for the super wordy answer; short hair on women is a pet topic now. 🙂

  2. Seriously great points! I’ve never exactly been a Miley hater, but I’m not devotee either, but she has made a lot of great changes, and she’s come a long way.

    I hated her for cutting all her gorgeous hair though. I possibly always will.

    • I think it’s harder to watch people cut their long hair when you yourself have really bomb-ass long hair. I never did (it was long, but not especially flowy or glossy or whatever). See, you’ve got those sultry waves, so I can understand why you’d be attached.

  3. Pingback: 7 Facts, 15 Bloggers | I am a heathen.·

    • Well, huzzah! I need to dig out my New Year’s party horn and make obnoxious celebratory noises!

      Thanks for sharing the love; of course I will participate, because I think you’re the *ish.*

  4. Holy S**T! Jeff F*&king Buckley cover???!!!!!!! (I’m taking a lot of flack for this from my friends for showing them this enthusiastically.) Thanks for this, Jennie. Although, I have a 16 year old daughter who will never let me live this down!

    • Ah, you’re giving your 16-year-old something to live for! (At that age, *all* I wanted to do was lord something over my parents.) Glad you like the song cover; I think it’s amazing.

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    • Hello! I hope you find something to like. My love for her music as of now is somewhat limited to her cover songs, but I feel like there’s a lot more musical goodness that’s going to come out of her in the future.

      I’m glad to know about your blog, by the way – I can’t wait to read more.

  6. She can’t be Hannah Montana forever 🙂 Thank you for stopping by my blog Jennie, I’d be curious to learn more about your writing background with the university and colorful endeavors.

    • Ask away! I myself am looking forward to more of your words:

      “I’ve always wondered where dreams come from and how the written word dips its pen into that source code.”

      Good stuff. 🙂

      • Thank you, quoting what I wrote today, that’s making me blush. Blogging has helped me get back and practice what I love, writing. So what does a coordinator for a writing program do? How do you like to play with ideas?

        • I order a lot of food! Yep, that’s about 90% of it. 🙂

          No, I kid. It’s a great job. I talk to incoming first years about their required writing classes, I plan events when we bring speakers to town or host conferences of student work, and sometimes I get to do some graphic design or curate gallery displays. Being on a college campus means a lot of good intellectual energy.

          Playing with ideas tends to follow the formula of dreaming up something crazy and then committing all my mental and physical resources to seeing it through – whether that’s a marathon or submitting an article for publication.

          Your turn! How do you play with ideas? (I feel like you must; how else would one create poetry?)

          • Good deal! There is a lot of good energy on a college campus, so very f*ing true. I started playing with ideas when I took my first writing class, my last year of college. I guess now, I just see my life as a poetic nightmare, lol, a set of events that can only be explained with imagery and metaphoric insight. Or I just run with the ball and the voice in my head, maybe we have colorful thoughts! Kinda crazy how different everyone’s style is when it comes to writing blogs. Some of it more journalistic, personal, etc. So you get to continue to live the good life of college huh, good deal Jennie 🙂

  7. I appreciate a women’s perspective on her – one of her generation. The video provided shows she has some real potential an a singer. But you as a music lover must know there are many talented young women musicians out there who do not have Miley’s good fortune. I saw one recently who sings well and is an amazing fiddler from Corvallis, OR (Tatiana Hargreaves) who in traditional music will be a star. At 17 she has Miley’s stage presence, and in my humble opinion a more soulful voice and delivery. Of course it helps she plays wonderful Old Timey music (she writes some as well). Just one example of so many great women musicians in every genre that are just as deserving of our attention. I don’t begrudge Miley her shot, I just hope she remembers it is ultimately about the music and not how fancy the music video or stage performance is.

    • Hi, Charles. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I absolutely agree with you about the many talented musicians who don’t stand a chance of making it big because their looks don’t meet the industry standard, or they don’t have the money/connections to pursue the career path, or they simply love music in a niche genre. I don’t think Miley is by any means the end-all be-all of young female musicians, but when I wrote this article I was responding to my surprise at finding out how much of her I was glossing over in my assumption of what her personality must be, based on what I commonly saw about her in the media.

      I think,ultimately, my message is to remind myself and others not to judge too harshly, and to dig a little deeper before deciding how we feel about artists. Whether positive or negative, people always have more facets to them than we think. I still need to write an update to this article addressing Miley’s VMA performance – that’s one more layer on the onion!

      Thank you, as well, for your musical recommendation.

      • Well, I thank you for arguing to the rest of us that she is worth a second look. And she will be on my radar from now on. I would hope she makes enough money and has enough of fame to take off on a sabbatical of sorts – go back to Tennessee and Kentucky where so many great musicians live and play and humbly ask for some of their time and advice, and play by their side. I would love to see her take that voice and develop its range and emotional power. Imagine the kind of break out album that could come of that – even I might buy it and put it on my playlist.

  8. Jennie, This is the most reasoned, enlightening, thoughtful debate I’ve read on the whole “Miley issue” and I applaud your approach. I think as all of us who consider ourselves Feminists look back on our lives, the journey to finding our own voices has been a long and winding path. Thanks for your perspective … and congrats on being FP. Very well deserved. All the best, Terri

    • Terri, thank you for this. I wrote this post months before the VMA “scandal” (so NOT a scandal in my opinion) and, while I have added more layers onto my thoughts about Miley since that night, I still believe what I said in this piece.

      I did so many things like this – both the trying to be uber-sexy and the trying to be part of a culture not my own – as I was growing up. Miley is simply too young for people to reasonably saddle her with the burden of representing feminism and racial understanding perfectly (What would perfect representation look like, anyway?) and, while there are learning points to be pulled out of her performance, anyone blaming her is utterly missing the point of what it means to be a young adult.

      It’s very refreshing to hear your feminist perspective on this, as well. I’m so excited to have crossed paths!

    • Good question. Right now, a few months after my original post, I wouldn’t use the word “icon.” I think she did fill that role for younger women for a time – and she may continue to do so in some ways. But after watching the infamous VMA performance and her follow-up video release “Wrecking Ball,” I’d call her a young woman figuring out who she wants to be. I’d also still call her a feminist – just not an iconic one.

      This is not because of how she danced or what she wore or the fact that she likes to lick things in public. I don’t think overt sexuality is counter-feminist. If anything, I think some people were uncomfortable with her performance mostly because she seemed far more aggressive and in control of the dancing/touching than Robin Thicke did, which I’d argue is inherently a more empowered move than if she’d merely recreated the docile attitudes of the models in the original “Blurred Lines” video.

      The reason I’d rephrase my earlier statement is because it was wrong of me to put that much pressure on someone so young and set them up to represent an entire movement. I consider myself a strong, committed feminist now, but at 20 I was also grinding on people I didn’t know and trying to get attention any way I could. I wouldn’t go back and undo any of it, because it was all my choice, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. But I didn’t know what my own voice was well enough to be a clear voice for anything larger than myself, and I think that’s right where Miley is now. And that’s probably right where she should be.

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