Rape Culture Isn’t a Macy’s Parade Balloon

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There’s this quotation. Most people attribute it to Eleanor Roosevelt, though some people attribute it to an Admiral. It goes like this:

Great minds discuss ideas;

Average minds discuss events;

Small minds discuss people.

As far as quotations go, that’s a good one.

It’s simple, slightly poetic, and carries moral weight. But I don’t like the idea (and I get the irony in saying “idea” right there) that ideas are somehow more important than events or people.

Because they aren’t.

Ideas arise from people and how they respond to events. People and events — those are the epic ingredients from which we cook up Existence. Our relationship to ideas, therefore, should be grounded in them.

What does this have to do with anything? It has to do with Miley Cyrus —

— and I know, you’re sick of everyone’s Unified Field Theories about the VMAs. Don’t worry. I’m not going to add another one. I simply wanted to observe — as inane as the VMAs are, I’m glad that we’re talking about them. I’m not glad that we may be talking about them and consequently not other important things, like the possibility of a U.S. invasion of Syria or our cultural history of racism and homophobia.

We need to talk about the important things.

But notice what I said. Yes, I am frustrated that sometimes we only talk about pop culture and sometimes we never talk about things other than pop culture.

But I am not frustrated that we talk about pop culture.

I get it — pop culture is annoying. Pop culture is a great big bag of WTF and OMG and LOL and *facepalm*.

But it is also fundamentally important to our cultural identity, to how we as human beings relate to our world. There are ideas being communicated. Some are healthy, some are unhealthy. These ideas are shaping, for better or worse, our dialogue and our reality. And these ideas are not simply disembodied platonic forms, like Truth or Sex or Racism or Rape Culture.  They are not up in the sky, floating around languidly. Rape Culture is not a Macy’s Parade balloon. Rape Culture is made up of people and events.

That’s where Miley Cyrus comes in.

I saw a flurry of activity the other day. Slut-shaming, Miley-shaming, thoughtful critiques about racism and sexism, provocative connections made between rape culture and purity culture and entertainment culture. I must say, I guess I have awesome Facebook friends. Because most of what I read was actually insightful.

Sure, there was a good deal of shaming going on. But I saw less shaming and more intelligent conversations about meaning and communication and loving one’s body and respecting women.

And maybe it’s because of the good conversations that I was struck by this. What I was struck by was how something so seemingly inane — Miley Cyrus performing at the VMAs — can be such a powerful moment for having big Conversations about big Ideas. As Libby Anne said,

There is more to be learned in the aftermath of the 2013 MTV VMAs about ourselves as a culture than about Miley Cyrus.

These are conversations we often try to avoid.

Conversations about what it means to slut-shame.

Conversations about male privilege.

Conversations about white privilege.

Conversations about consent and rape culture and respecting other people’s bodies.

Even conversations about how Cyrus’ performance can be a teaching tool (and so can Robin Thicke’s performance) for parents to educate their children about these things, too.

We need to have these conversations.

Yes, a thousand times yes, let’s talk more about Syria and the March on Washington.

But let’s talk more about Miley Cyrus, too.

Not Miley Cyrus, per se. That’s not the point. The point is that talking about celebrities or awards shows is never somehow “beneath” us or that somehow an Idea with a Capital I has more value than people or events. We need to talk about how people (like Miley) take part in events (like the VMAs) because it is through those very things that we get ideas.

Ideas like young women are “asking for sex” by “being sexy.”

Ideas that we find in very important events where the people who run our justice system “[enable] rapists by placing blame on victims.”

Ideas like it’s hard to draw a line between raping a kid and consensual sex because a kid looked “older than her chronological age.”

How’s that for a blurred line, Robin Thicke?

As a culture, we don’t usually like to talk about these things. We might get mad, shake our fists, and then move on. But unless we use these moments — however silly or ridiculous they may seem — as opportunities to talk about what we value and how we should be relating to each other, we’ll just keep moving on —

We’ll keep moving on from one Steubenville to the next, moving from Penn State to Steubenville to Billings, and behind us will be a landscape strewn with the lives and tears of people hurt by our silence.

And if talking about Miley Cyrus is the only way to get our culture at large to start taking ideas like Rape Culture seriously, then goddamnit —

I’m going to talk about Miley Cyrus.

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