Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Miley Cyrus--Girl Gone Wild?

I have seen the Miley Cyrus photo and heard it described, alternately, as soft core porn and as a publicity stunt. Either this 15 year old girl has been taken advantage of by all the adults around her, or she has taken her first step toward becoming the next tabloid train wreck.

I'm conflicted about this. My own 7 year old, like 7 year olds around the globe, is obsessed with Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana. My knee jerk reaction was to be appalled that her parents allowed the picture to be taken, that Annie Leibovitz would even think to take such a picture, and to lament the hypersexualization of young girls in our culture. Yet...

I've also just returned from a conference where I (along with Alison) delivered a paper that argued, in part, that women's sexuality is marginalized/ignored/pathologized by mainstream society. We are deeply uncomfortable with female sexual desire and pleasure. Yet, paradoxically, it is exactly sexual pleasure and desire, or at least the performance of it, that we offer young girls/women as the means by which they assert their autonomy. I'm reminded of Jessica Simpson talking about how empowering it was to wear Daisy Duke's shorts in the Dukes of Hazard movie; of Anne Hathaway wanting to take the breast-exposing role in Brokeback Mountain in an effort to shed her Disney princess image; of Lisa Bonet in Angel Heart as she attempted to move out from under Bill Cosby's shadow; of Halle Berry's Oscar for Monster's Ball. One can easily imagine that Miley Cyrus, in the thick of her hormonal adolescence, perhaps feeling the claustrophobia of being a star in the Disney machine, fearing losing herself in the squeaky clean image of Hannah Montana, jumped at the chance to work with Annie Leibovitz and create the kind of sexually provocative images Leibovitz is known for.

Who knows? I do feel sorry for her, though. Not only will the outcry about this be huge (already prompting Cyrus to deliver an Obama-style repudiation of Leibovitz), but I also feel like we've ruined whatever kind of joy or power or solace she may have found in the picture, or by extension, her burgeoning sexual self.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Of Natural Hair and Role Models

I've talked in this space before about my fraught relationship with my hair. After getting my hair relaxed in October of last year, I decided to go natural. Being too chicken to cut all my hair off (the easiest way to go natural after having relaxed hair), I decided to let my relaxer grow out and try various hybrid hairstyles while decided exactly what to do with my hair. Alas, my inherent hair laziness kicked in and three weeks ago I was back at the salon getting my hair chemically treated. I thought a lot about the decision and thought I felt good about it (reading the comments on a post about natural hair at Stuff Educated Black People Like got me really thinking about the fetishization of natural hair in certain circles) until I went to work the next day.

Several students on separate occasions came to me to ask about my hair. Did I get a relaxer? Did I get my hair pressed? Was all that all my real hair? Not only was I caught off guard by those questions (who knew people were paying that much attention to my hair?), but I was also surprised at their sense of betrayal. These students, all young black women, were clearly very disappointed in me. I'd let them down.

I hate the very idea of making choices about my personal appearance based on other people's expectations, but at the same time I understand that my public persona is very important. Being a black professional in a place like Charleston, SC matters in very real, material ways. My very presence, my actual physical body as well as the idea of me, intervenes into all kinds of weird racial histories and tensions here, so it's important that I take seriously what that presence says. I get that. Yet...there also needs to be room for me to be the me that I'm going to be. And maybe that me has chemically straightened hair. I know that sounds defensive and maybe it is just my justification for participating in my own oppression. Who knows?

I haven't made up my mind about how I feel about all of this.