Wrecking gender stereotypes, or just a wreck?
Students discuss how celebrities have redefined gender roles for women
Published: Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 29, 2013 21:10
Chemical weapons, Syrian conflicts and Miley Cyrus.
It’s all about hot topics at UB’s new monthly InFocus discussion series.
Last month, UB students gathered to have an informal conversation about the conflicts in Syria and the United States’ involvement. Next month, the InFocus discussion will cover the violent subculture of America, mainly revolving around gun use and gun control.
But this month, the discussion series took a bit of a different approach: The Miley Effect.
“The Miley Effect,” a discussion facilitated by Dr. Laina Bay-Cheng, an associate professor and director of the Ph.D. program at the UB School of Social Work, allowed students to openly discuss how pop singers redefine gender roles for women.
The debate, held on Oct. 18, focused on whether artists are empowering young women to embrace their sexuality or if they perpetuate negative stereotypes. Megan Bragdon, program director for the university’s Honors College, said Cyrus is an example of someone who can either empower or disservice young women.
Bay-Cheng said society’s response to Cyrus’ new image directly relates to her studies on how social norms and conditions – such as relationships and pop culture – shape young women’s sexuality. She said figures of popular culture like Cyrus don’t only reflect current norms and ideas about young women’s sexuality, but they also create those norms and ideas.
Jeremy May, a junior communication and psychology major, attended the event after having many discussions and debates over Cyrus and the “obviously volatile type of issue” present.
During the discussion, May said Cyrus’ old “good girl” image and the big change that she has experienced relates to Christina Aguilera’s transition “from traditional girl to expressing herself in a radical, rebellious way.”
May considers Cyrus’ transformation to be similar to Aguilera’s, except “on steroids and even more social.” May said hearing that other people have similar views helped him further understand Cyrus psychologically.
Bay-Cheng discussed the two images of Cyrus: the delicate and “virginal” Disney star and the rebellious, crude VMA sensation. She explained that, traditionally, female sexuality has simply been about virgins versus whores. Now, adolescent females are dealing with sexuality, which creates more of a gray area that is being explored between the two labels.
Bay-Cheng believes Cyrus is the perfect example for this sort of study.
Cyrus’ “Hannah Montana” days reveal an innocent part of her life, guided by male figures around her, such as her father. Her new image is guided by her personality and appearance, and Bay-Cheng said both of these sides are polarized on this “virgin/whore” spectrum, yet it is not about focusing on these oversimplifying labels.
During this InFocus meeting, students discussed what they believe Cyrus represents and how she serves as a reflection of pop culture and gender norms. Participants dissected her new persona to explain women’s sexuality.
Though many had strong opinions on how Cyrus exploits her image in media, others felt it was more than just about the face value.
Paige Melin, a senior English and French major, questions why Cyrus is such a big topic when many other celebrities have come out and sexualized their image, representing a metamorphosis to womanhood.
“I think what we need to be talking about is pop culture,” Melin said. “I think she’s just doing what pop culture has taught her to do as a woman from the day she was born.”
One attendee said Cyrus must push limits and break the image of being “Billy Ray Cyrus’ daughter” and Hannah Montana in order to enforce the message that she is an individual.
Bay-Cheng said young women are turning to figures like Cyrus to see what is going on and to possibly find some inspiration.
She added that recently, more girls are like Cyrus in the sense that they “go wild” and reject judgment thrown at them. Bay-Cheng said that in the past, women did not feel they had the right to express themselves like Cyrus does today.
“Not saying this is ‘awesome feminist progress,’ but it is movement,” Bay-Cheng said.