Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and American gun culture

A recent article on Yahoo addresses an interview with Miley Cyrus in which she expressed the view that she is often labelled a bad role model while, by contrast, the pop star with the squeaky clean image, Taylor Swift, is seen as the good role model. This divergence, she argued, hides double standards, more particularly the different ways in which the media’s use of images of violence and images of nudity are valued.

Cyrus was not talking in general terms, although her very specific remarks do have serious implications on a general cultural level. Miley was speaking of the fact that a certain portion of public opinion seems to valorise pop diva Taylor Swift for presenting an image of being “good”, but at the same time appears to be criticising herself because of her apparently “wild” ways. Here is a quote from the article: “In fact, the 22-year-old can’t help but notice that while she is called a ‘bad role model’ for being a little bit raunchy and ‘getting her t*tties out’, Taylor Swift is hailed as a hero despite endorsing ‘violent revenge’.”

For those readers (probably not many) who don’t know what the “violent revenge” refers to, it concerns Swift’s music video Bad Blood, showing her and her “gun-wielding girl gang” out on a “getting her own back” mission, and industry gossip has it that it was aimed at another pop queen, Katy Perry. Such in-house gossip and the fact that the Yahoo article dwells further on Swift’s penchant for producing “revenge” music videos (another one, Better than Revenge, supposedly takes aim at an actress for stealing her boyfriend from her) do not really concern me; what does interest me is the broader cultural and axiological (value-oriented) landscape implicated by Cyrus’s reported statements.

One observation on Cyrus’s part, particularly, is an index of what I have in mind, namely where she says: “I don’t get the violence revenge thing.” I assume she is talking about the hypocrisy of frowning upon images of her naked body while condoning Swift’s projection of images that implicitly justify gun violence. And what Cyrus intends by “not getting” it probably also means that she herself is not that way inclined, and prefers (nearly) baring it all to images of violence.

Miley Cyrus (Reuters)

Miley Cyrus (Reuters)

I could not agree more — it is a sad fact that a streak of neo-Victorianism still runs through American culture (and many others globally, including South African culture), according to which it is a cardinal sin to witness images of nudity and sexual intercourse, but at the same time it is more than okay to see depictions of the most excessive violence in the media. The implications of these pervasive images, while not “directly causing” violent (gun) behaviour in social reality, amount to “normalising” such violence: the more people perceive violent behaviour in media, the more the message sinks in, that it is all around us, and the more readily people would imitate such behaviour as being acceptable — especially when it is presented as THE way to solve problems of any kind. It is this ethos that guns constitute the preferred means for overcoming problems that must be challenged, because there are many other ways of doing so, even if they don’t make such spectacular television or cinema material.

I’m therefore willing to bet that, if pressed on it, Cyrus would indeed “get it” in a different sense, namely, where this tendency of resorting to images of violence to get a message across comes from. At a cultural level they are part and parcel of American, specifically Hollywood, culture, and they have been exported to the rest of the world for a long time in cultural products such as movies, television series and music videos.

Some time ago I posted a blog titled “Guns, patriarchy and violence against women”, that was triggered by the trial, at the time, of Oscar Pistorius for shooting his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, dead with a handgun. There I discussed the relevance of Ridley Scott’s feminist film, Thelma and Louise, as a critique of, among other things, the connection between masculinity and guns in American culture. It seems to me ironic that, in the light of Swift’s music video Bad Blood, women like herself have also turned to the use of gun-images to make a point. And this point is not confined to the medium of the music video in question.

Some readers may be familiar with the American television series Banshee, which revolves around someone who is freed from prison after 15 years’ incarceration for “grand larceny”. He “becomes” the sheriff, Lucas Hood, of a Pennsylvania town called Banshee when he assumes the identity of the real Lucas Hood when the latter is killed by two henchmen of the town’s criminal warlord, ex-Amish Kai Procter. The series, which has been broadcast for three seasons, has a huge following in the US and elsewhere, for different reasons. One is the excellent characterisations of the main personae in the narrative; another is the outstanding film work — the last episode of season two is a lesson in film-making at various levels. Sadly, another reason for its popularity is its indulgence of unadulterated, excessive, graphic violence, a large portion of which involves handguns, shotguns, semi-automatic rifles and automatic machine guns. That same last episode of season two is also a grotesque symphony of carnage orchestrated with guns and more guns. Hence, while I appreciate other aspects of the series, I find this glut of images “celebrating” violence — such as seeing, in graphic detail, a man’s head being half-blown off by a shotgun blast — repulsive, to say the least.

Because life is no stranger to violence — in nature as in society — it is understandable that art and literature in their various manifestations have always, since the beginning of recorded history, depicted it at many levels. Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey, as well as the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah (the Old Testament of the Bible), is permeated by violence; so are the recorded myths of all cultures. Shakespeare’s dramas are no strangers to violence. The cinematic genre of film noir, which is predicated on the pervasiveness of evil in the world, understandably includes a large dose of violence. I could go on and on. Perhaps this is why violence is valorised in contemporary media.

And because, like many others, I am familiar with Charles Darwin’s work and its many adaptations — sometimes in the guise of crude “social Darwinism” of the form: “the fittest nation shall survive” (something that was used to justify Britain’s military supremacy at the height of its imperialist, colonialist history) — I am quite aware that many would defend the use of violence in series such as Banshee as merely being an accurate depiction of “the way things are”. The realpolitik of everyday life as presented in the media. Perhaps I am just too much of a philosopher, or a believer in the existence of other ways of resolving problems between people and nations; if I were not, what would be the sense in doing philosophy, which, like psychoanalysis, could be described as a “talking cure” among other things?

There are many instances (too many to deal with here) of the arts, including cinema, which acknowledge the part that violence plays in life, but do not valorise or celebrate it. Anyone familiar with Dutch film director Marleen Gorris’s Antonia’s Line (1995) or the equally beautiful August Rush (2008), directed by Kirsten Sheridan, would know what I mean — perhaps it is significant that both of these films were directed by women. But the unfortunate fact that the vast majority of popular movies coming out of the American film-machine project a world where (particularly) gun violence is glorified means that more and more people are likely to buy into that dubious creed.

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    • Bert Olivier

      Oops! The sentence, “Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey, as well as the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah (the Old Testament of the Bible), is permeated by violence; so are the recorded myths of all cultures” should read “Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey, as well as the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah (the Old Testament of the Bible), are permeated by violence; so are the recorded myths of all cultures”. I must have been half-asleep…

    • Maria Marquez

      @ Toby1: You do realize, I assume, that you have just confirmed Bert’s point? The fact that you regard the one thing as a mere fantasy, but the other as something “sacred,” is the relevant symptom. Is life not sacred, and if you believe (erroneously) that you can restrict images of killing to the media, why not images of semi-naked bodies too?

    • Tyroy 2

      At the base of human behaviour we find emotions of anger, fear, lust and self preservation.
      At the base of Hollywood commercialism we find all the tools to pander to these raw human behavioral traits.
      Thinking for one’s self and the providing of objective information has never existed in the human experience as manipulation and deception has been the means of all people seeking domination and control – religious, social and financial.
      Miley Cyrus comes across as the tortured prisoner in discussion with her slave master the benefits of various torture methods and why she has the right to demand her own method of self destruction.
      The mass media has all the latest ammunition, weapons and opportunity to carry out the wishes of the ruling elite or in simple language – the people who want all your money and then just a little more.
      Human behaviour has been observed and researched since the beginning of time – there is very little left to discover in this field and the only way for humankind to preserve it’s independent identity and some sort of free choice is for total withdrawal from the mainstream rat race of life which, unfortunately, then results in reduced opportunities of choice .
      This human dilemma is not helped by promoting ‘ creatures ‘ created by this consumerist cabal of unseen manipulators who just continue spewing rhetoric and propaganda.
      Not long ago in Hollywood a woman was slapped through the face on film for the first time and the world reacted in horror and condemnation.
      Now, a woman can, in HD, be gang raped, chopped up, fed to the pigs and then sold as bacon pies – your nine year old will then change the channel as they have seen it all before and are looking for a new and better high.
      The dumbing down and desensitizing through visual and audio means has been going on for years.
      It is by no accident and definitely by design that we now hold debate with so called ‘authoritative’ people who should not be allowed to go the toilet on their own and whose opinions beggar belief by the most moderately intelligent of persons.