The Ethics and Erotics of Queer "Wrecking"

Curator's Note

Love and sex appear and are described in Miley Cyrus’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ through the visual/textual language of “clawing”, “hitting”, “breaking”, "warring" and “wrecking” and in the official video we see a simultaneously forceful and utterly vulnerable Miley seducing, making love to, and totally destroying the room she is in as well as the wrecking ball she’s employing for her act of erotic demolition. This video gave rise to a surge of media and online debate (most notably an open letter from Sinead O’Connor: about how Miley, in making this video, is “wrecking” her image, her life and the mental stability of twenty-first century young women in general. We don’t want to rekindle the discussion of whether Miley is positionable herself as a suitable role model, but rather we wish to investigate the ethics and erotics that are involved in Miley’s performance of “wrecking” in the first place. In our clip, the official video for ‘Wrecking Ball’ is neighboring on the director’s cut version. This double vision creates an alluring set of affective contrasts. In one version Miley is smashing up the room, whereas in the other the only motion that detracts from her moving lips is a single tear that she quickly wipes off her cheek. The affective power of these twinned clips lies in their extreme in/action. There is simultaneously the sense of cathartic emotional release and complete stillness - tearing up and a tear. Possibly, this is another aspect of Miley’s ‘stuckness’ discussed earlier in this theme week. As she’s riding her wrecking ball, smashing all the surrounding regimes of the normal, she also remains in the one room, stuck in the wreck of her own past. There is an acute vulnerability in her naked foetal pose on the floor in the official video, but the nakedness of her emotion is never more stark than in the director’s cut. One single tear speaks louder than any number of sledge hammers. Jack Halberstam has written about Gaga Feminism as an erotics of surfaces and of flaws and flows, a gender politics which is responsive to the cracks in the walls of the sex/gender system in our current moment of trouble for the normal. Gaga feminism is marked by excessiveness, loss of control and “a maverick sense of bodily identity”. Halberstam labels this a punk aesthetics, a wild feminism, a practice of going gaga. We might also call it Miley Feminism, an an-archic eroto-(aesth)ethics of wrecking, tweaking and twerking, fucking with normative regimes. Miley Feminism promises and holds out a queerly undefinable future in its gestures towards ever new forms of revolt.


First of all, I'm sorry that I am just now getting around to commenting on this great wrap-up post! I'm glad that you have chosen "Wrecking Ball" because it has always stood out to me, especially after seeing the director's cut. Many of Miley's other songs and videos are characters by extreme anarchic action and a sense of wild abandon. With the exception of Adore You (another fascinating video--and relevant to our discussions about masturbation/auto-eroticism), this director's cut seems to be one of Miley's only moments of stillness, of reflection. Since the other music video we examined closely this week was "We Can't Stop", I am thinking of how we might put that video in conversation with this one. "We Can't Stop" has Miley surrounded by bodies and her language is quite collective--she uses the plural third person and even refers to "dancing with Miley" as though she were not herself. And yet, in the midst of this big party with "sweaty bodies everywhere" we see a lot of auto-eroticism and commentary on the self: she is one among many and yet our focus is still strongly on her. In the director's cut for "Wrecking Ball", however, Miley is alone in the extreme--the starkness of the video is almost unsettling. Although her body is the only body in the video, we don't get the same sense of auto-eroticism or self-pleasure. In fact, the lyrics position Miley in relation to someone else, the unnamed "you" who both wrecks and is wrecked by Miley. I guess what I'm trying to get at here is an interrogation of the various types of wrecking that Miley offers us in her ouevre. Certainly her masturbatory performances are a kind of erotic wrecking--of the self, of sex, of gender, of her past, etc. And yet, the wrecking we witness in the director's cut here is self-splitting or self-wrecking in a different kind of way: it's vulnerable but also confrontational--her gaze never breaks from us. Perhaps this nakedness is just as anarchic or queer as her unstoppable, ouroboric, ratchet moments, especially in its excessiveness, its unabashedness.

I've really been interested in the all the comments this week about Miley's work - the curator's note here got me thinking about this idea of "vulnerability" and the paradoxical way that functions with Miley's performance - on the one hand, her physical nakedness, her boyish girl-to-woman body, the long shadow of a history of the white female body as needing "protection"; on the other hand, this video coming on the heels of the "We Don't Stop" video and the backlash to its representations and the VMAs performance and thus her vulnerability being about her under attack by those who decried racism (in what she seems to imagine as a post-racist society) or those who vilified her while ignoring Robin Thicke. I wonder about the way her vulnerability gets constructed because it seems so intentional that we see her as "human" and "helpless" yet also able to do harm. Zach directs us to think about these two videos (Wrecking and We Can't) in conversation and I think the stark contrast is telling, but both seem invested in reminding us of her white feminine form (albeit queered by her boyish/quasi-boi/still "developing frame) - in "We Can't Stop" by surrounding her with non-whiteness and here by forcing our gaze on her face and her form, clothed in a whiteness, in a sterile setting that does not try to hide itself as anything more than a soundstage. This last bit is what makes me cautious about how we read Miley's aesthetics and its relationship to a punk or anarchic mode of being - the way that Miley seems, like Britney before her, to court our gaze and viewership in part by staging herself as part of a machine that she is fighting against. I can't help but think that "Wrecking Ball" is about fighting back against the "haters" that don't love her as they should and "the system" that, true to Britney, she fights while continuing to participate in. We could read her destruction as intensely queer because she ruins nothing staged as real and nothing we can see as necessary; or we can read it as destroying nothing and thus just participating in the ongoing machinations of a neoliberal machine. Miley Feminism seems to be about that both/and; one in which you reap the benefits of being young, privileged, white and feminine and also play with the trappings of queerness and race.

Thank you both Zachary and Brendan for your thoughtful comments! I think you're getting to something really interesting in your comparison between "Wrecking Ball" and "We Can't Stop" - the eroto-de/construction of nakedness as vulnerability. Interestingly nakedness becomes a rather complex thing to define in Miley's videos - and it can't be confused with something 'true' or 'real'. As Zachary points out, "We Can't Stop" offers an abundance of introspective and auto-erotic moments (which are often connected to nakedness), but Miley is surrounded by people throughout most of the video and the 'self' that emerges within the collective never appears vulnerable, lonely or in any sense naked. In the official video of "Wrecking Ball" Miley is completely physically naked (except for her boots) - which is what Sinead O'Connor reacts to - but I think she is powerful and in a sense affectively armed in this nakedness. It is only in the director's cut that you get a real sense of emotional nakedness - and I would argue that this VIRTUAL nakedness only appears as a result of the complete stillness, sterility and absence of ACTUAL nakedness in this version. Importantly, the director's cut wouldn't have the same affective power if it weren't produced as a contrast to the official version. The fact that we know of Miley's alternative violent response to the topic of the video, makes her stillness very striking. The single tear is starkly different to the tears Miley makes to the walls, but the structural tears are constantly reflected in that one tear down her cheek. It comes to express an absence of violent eruption at the same time as it mirrors the possibility of violence. There is a really powerful play of internal vs external and actual vs virtual nakedness here, but the core of its power does not come from Miley's separate incarnations, but the contrasts, mirroring and duplicity they produce. Miley Feminism is thus not simply a punk ethics and aesthetics. It's not just a play of surfaces, wild rampages of demolition, and expressions of resistance to 'the system'. Neither is it just a play of destruction and reiteration of the neoliberal apparatus. There is also the presence of something beyond this - something that is certainly produced by its machinations - but exceeds the forms it takes. I guess I would describe this as the contrasting force in itself - and I find it beautifully expressed in the juxtaposition of the various Mileys we've encountered this week. This is possibly the closest we can get to a 'true' or 'real' message in Miley's oeuvre (obviously acknowledging that there can be no such thing) - a message of critique or complication for the sheer fun of it. Karin

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