Miley Cyrus and the ‘patriarchal bargain’

For reasons unknown to me, Ms. Naughty posted a link to a blog entry she wrote last October, entitled “Patriarchal Bargains, Agency and The Authentic Feminist Sexuality™[1] on her twitter time line. Intrigued, and having apparently missed it previously, I read it.

Her posting is apparently in response to one Lisa Wade, whose posting I probably really should read (Ms. Naughty recommends that I do), and haven’t. Wade seems to be arguing that while Miley Cyrus, whose ‘twerking’ and other ‘provocative’ antics have certainly gained attention, may be claiming agency,  she does not in fact exercise agency because she does so in a patriarchal context that commodifies the sexuality of women. Rather, Cyrus has made a ‘patriarchal bargain’ that apparently sells lots of recordings.

Ms. Naughty responds that this view deprives Cyrus of agency because Wade’s unstated assumption is that performers do not enjoy or derive sexual pleasure from their work:

The problem with the idea of a “patriarchal bargain” in this context is that it automatically assumes that acting in an overtly sexual way – or doing sex work – is a Bad Thing. That wearing skimpy clothing or twerking or getting nude or using your body to arouse/stimulate the viewer/client is inherently harmful, both to the individual and to women in general. Thus, Miley’s actions aren’t “good for women” in Ms. Wade’s eyes.[2]

Ms. Naughty argues that many sex workers do in fact enjoy their work and may even find it a form of sexual expression, that this might even be “the epitome of sexy to them.” Ms. Naughty goes on to acknowledges an assumption of her own:

Again, there’s an unwritten premise here that “commodifying [one’s] sexuality” is inherently bad. I’m not an anti-capitalist and to be honest I don’t have a problem with the idea of people making money from their bodies or their sexuality. It’s their life, who am I to tell them what to do with it? And I don’t think that it’s inherently harmful to individuals or society either.[3]

Let me begin by acknowledging that I find Cyrus’s antics entirely repulsive. And like Ms. Naughty, I don’t like her music either.

But unlike Ms. Naughty, I do think there’s a problem with capitalism. Beginning with the notion that human beings have become commodities. I’ve said in the past that employers positively relish a view of their workers as infinitely replaceable. In the course of research for my doctoral program, I came upon this quote from a traditionalist conservative who is as patriarchal and as anti-feminist—he even objects to divorce—as it is possible to be: “We sense,” Christopher Olaf Blum writes, “that we are interchangeable, standardized, disposable parts within the modern economy and bureaucratic state—which is to say that we are not parts at all, but mere particles of sand in some great heap or pile.”[4] I’ll agree with him on little else.

And while Cyrus’—and for that matter, sex workers—might often be relatively well-paid, they remain, to borrow Blum’s phrase, “particles of sand in some great heap or pile.” Or perhaps you’ve heard what Raquel Welch, the great ‘sex symbol’ of my childhood, has been up to lately (yes, she is apparently still alive). The fact is that, as a society, we use these ‘sex symbols’ up, then spit them out. The difference is that these two examples make or made a living at it, while a great many workers are even more disposable, and aren’t paid even a living wage.

Reducing human beings to commodities is precisely what capitalism does. Whether they enjoy it or not. Whether they make a living at it or not. Because that’s what a market is for: to exchange one form of commodity (usually money) for another form of commodity (a good or service). And if you think that here I conflate the person with her or his work, I’d point out that we judge people by their ability to consume, that is, very often how much money they have, very often how much money they ‘earn’. And we do so in significant part precisely because of displays like Cyrus’.[5]

What Cyrus is illustrating, then, is still not freedom or agency, but rather an insidious role in an insidious system. Yes, she may be having fun with it. Yes, she may feel she is challenging some traditional roles with it. But the questions her example presents goes far beyond the one Ms. Naughty acknowledges, “what would female sexuality look like without a male-dominated culture?”[6] to what would entertainment look like, what would our interpersonal relationships look like, and what would our society look like in the absence of consumerism? Further, given that Cyrus is so much better compensated than so many exploited workers, how does the amount she is paid relate to the value she provides for society?

For that matter, how does the value provided for society by the financial industry justify the outrageous compensation it offers even following the financial crisis of 2007? How does the value provided for society justify corporate management pay generally?

And how can we attribute all this to supply and demand on the marketplace when people with Ph.D.’s, fully qualified to teach, are rendered invisible, paid peanuts, and denied the opportunity to organize,[7] while—and you might notice we talk about this even still far less—students can’t get the classes they need to graduate?[8] How can we attribute this to supply and demand on the marketplace when childcare workers, along with many caregiving workers, are among the most poorly paid?[9] How can we say, even, that money facilitates the exchange of goods and services when there are so many unemployed, supposedly because there isn’t money to hire them, supposedly because workers and the unemployed don’t have money to spend?[10]

Money is, at least now, if not from its inception, a profoundly broken concept. It prevents me from teaching (I don’t have a Ph.D. yet, but there are still many teaching positions I could accept if they were available). It rewards people without regard to their contributions to society. And it deprives people of what they need. But it keeps a certain class of people exceedingly and undeservedly comfortable.[11]

Ms. Naughty can be forgiven for failing to challenge her assumptions about capitalism. But that doesn’t absolve Ms. Cyrus.

  1. [1]Ms. Naughty [pseud.], “Patriarchal Bargains, Agency and The Authentic Feminist Sexuality™,” Ms. Naughty’s Porn for Women, October 17, 2013, http://msnaughty.com/blog/2013/10/17/patriarchal-bargains-agency-and-the-authentic-feminist-sexuality/
  2. [2]Ms. Naughty [pseud.], “Patriarchal Bargains, Agency and The Authentic Feminist Sexuality™,” Ms. Naughty’s Porn for Women, October 17, 2013, http://msnaughty.com/blog/2013/10/17/patriarchal-bargains-agency-and-the-authentic-feminist-sexuality/
  3. [3]Ms. Naughty [pseud.], “Patriarchal Bargains, Agency and The Authentic Feminist Sexuality™,” Ms. Naughty’s Porn for Women, October 17, 2013, http://msnaughty.com/blog/2013/10/17/patriarchal-bargains-agency-and-the-authentic-feminist-sexuality/
  4. [4]Christopher Olaf Blum, “On Being Conservative: Lessons from Louis de Bonald,” Intercollegiate Review 41, no. 1 (2006): 23-30.
  5. [5]Anup Shah, “Creating the Consumer,” Global Issues, May 14, 2003, http://www.globalissues.org/article/236/creating-the-consumer
  6. [6]Ms. Naughty [pseud.], “Patriarchal Bargains, Agency and The Authentic Feminist Sexuality™,” Ms. Naughty’s Porn for Women, October 17, 2013, http://msnaughty.com/blog/2013/10/17/patriarchal-bargains-agency-and-the-authentic-feminist-sexuality/
  7. [7]L.V. Anderson, “Death of Duquesne adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko: What really happened to her?” Slate, November 17, 2013, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/education/2013/11/death_of_duquesne_adjunct_margaret_mary_vojtko_what_really_happened_to_her.html; L.V. Anderson, “Why Adjunct Professors Don’t Just Find Other Jobs,” Slate, November 19, 2013, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/education/2013/11/death_of_duquesne_adjunct_margaret_mary_vojtko_what_really_happened_to_her.html; Kelly J. Baker, “The Impermanent Adjunct,” Vitae, February 26, 2014, https://chroniclevitae.com/news/354-the-impermanent-adjunct; Josh Boldt, “99 Problems But Tenure Ain’t One,” Vitae, January 21, 2014, https://chroniclevitae.com/news/283-99-problems-but-tenure-ain-t-one; Austin Cline, “Duquesne University: Unions Are Anti-Catholic?” About.com, September 27, 2013, http://atheism.about.com/b/2013/09/27/duquesne-university-unions-are-anti-catholic.htm; Ella Delany, “Part-Timers Crowd Academic Hiring,” New York Times, December 22, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/23/world/europe/part-timers-crowd-academic-hiring.html; David Drumm, “Duquesne University Professor Dies In Abject Poverty,” JonathanTurley.org, September 28, 2013, http://jonathanturley.org/2013/09/28/duquesne-university-professor-dies-in-abject-poverty/; Billie Hara, “How Do You, NTT Faculty, Pay Your Rent?” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 23, 2012, http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/how-do-you-ntt-faculty-pay-your-rent/39146; Keith Hoeller, “The Wal-Mart-ization of higher education: How young professors are getting screwed,” Salon, February 16, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/02/16/the_wal_mart_ization_of_higher_education_how_young_professors_are_getting_screwed/; Scott Jaschik, “Hiding Adjuncts From ‘U.S. News’,” Inside Higher Ed, September 3, 2009, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/09/03/usnews; Daniel Kovalik, “Death of an adjunct,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 18, 2013, http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/opinion/perspectives/death-of-an-adjunct-703773/; Sarah Kendzior, “Zero opportunity employers,” Al Jazeera, September 23, 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/09/2013923101543956539.html; Moshe Z. Marvit, “Duquesne University Adjuncts’ Fight to Organize,” Unionosity, n.d., http://magazine.unionosity.com/; Mark Oppenheimer, “For Duquesne Professors, a Union Fight That Transcends Religion,” New York Times, June 22, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/23/education/for-professors-at-duquesne-university-union-fight-transcends-religion.html; Stacey Patton, “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps,” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 2012, http://chronicle.com/article/From-Graduate-School-to/131795/; Claudio Sanchez, “The Sad Death Of An Adjunct Professor Sparks A Labor Debate,” National Public Radio, September 22, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/09/22/224946206/adjunct-professor-dies-destitute-then-sparks-debate;
  8. [8]Andy Kroll, “Back to $chool: College Is the Past, Prison Is the Future,” TomDispatch, October 2, 2012, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175600/tomgram%3A_andy_kroll%2C_the_death_of_the_golden_dream_of_higher_education/
  9. [9]Riane Eisler, The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics (San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler, 2007).
  10. [10]Paul Krugman, “How to Kill a Recovery,” New York Times, March 3, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/04/opinion/04krugman.html; Robert Kuttner, “Austerity never works: Deficit hawks are amoral — and wrong,” Salon, May 5, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/05/05/austerity_never_works_deficit_hawks_are_amoral_and_wrong/; Sandra Pianalto, “When the Small Stuff Is Anything But Small,” Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, February 25, 2010, http://www.clevelandfed.org/For_the_Public/News_and_Media/speeches/2010/Pianalto_20100225.cfm; Steven Rosenfeld, “This conservative billionaire wants to raise the minimum wage,” Salon, January 30, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/01/30/6_reasons_why_conservative_billionaire_run_unz_wants_to_raise_minimum_wage_partner/
  11. [11]Sean McElwee, “Sorry, neoliberals: Inequality is driven by greed, not technology,” Salon, November 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/11/30/sorry_neoliberals_inequality_is_driven_by_greed_not_technology/; Lawrence Mishel, Heidi Shierholz, and John Schmitt, “Don’t Blame the Robots: Assessing the Job Polarization Explanation of Growing Wage Inequality,” Economic Policy Institute, November 19, 2013, http://www.epi.org/publication/technology-inequality-dont-blame-the-robots/; Joseph E. Stiglitz, “The Price of Inequality,” Project Syndicate, June 5, 2012, http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-price-of-inequality

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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