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April 24, 2014

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Why Miley Cyrus’ VMA turn was good for girls

If you feel scandalized by sex and pop culture, consider this: It was 41 years ago that Marlo Thomas and her friends put out an album called “Free to Be... You and Me.” Gen Xers probably still know most of it by heart: an earnest crusade against gender stereotypes, which argued that girls could be doctors and boys should tap into their sensitive sides.

I downloaded it recently, for nostalgia’s sake, and tried to play it for my 9-year-old. She wasn’t interested. She’s more into Miley Cyrus.

Before your coronary sets in: We’re talking Miley 1.0, from “Hannah Montana” reruns on the Disney Channel. My daughter hasn’t seen the video for Cyrus’ hit “We Don’t Stop” or her hypersexed performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, which introduced a new use for those foam “No. 1” fingers and caused several generations of older Americans to look up the word “twerk.”

Anyone who lets an elementary schooler near the VMAs needs her head examined. Still, many reactions to Cyrus have fallen along the lines of “what it means for children” — how her trajectory, from a wholesome starlet to a girl who can’t keep her tongue inside her mouth, fits into our ongoing conversation about boys and girls in American culture.

Which is why I couldn’t help thinking about “Free to Be.”

This month, the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington held a panel discussion on the project, featuring Thomas, director/performer Alan Alda, and Ms. Magazine co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin. A recording of their conversation yielded some interesting facts. At first, the biggest backlash had to do with boys: ABC, which aired the TV special, balked at the songs “William Wants a Doll” and “It’s All Right to Cry,” worried they would transform American males into “sissies.”

Also, Alda’s feminist awakening began when he was young, lingering backstage at his father’s burlesque shows. He saw the female performers as sexualized beings, Alda said, but also as three-dimensional people who nurtured and understood him.

That last revelation was striking in light of Cyrus’ VMA performance, which was basically a modern-day burlesque — willing, knowing and not especially shocking, in the context of the VMAs or the long line of de-clothed former Disney stars. I wonder what the panelists think of Miley 2.0. I imagine they’d object to how she’s transformed herself into a live-action Bratz doll.

But maybe they’d find something heartening, too, about Cyrus’ shift from a wholly owned Disney subsidiary to an independent artist, free to make mistakes. That endless twerking might have been a mistake — for its predictability or for its awkward racial overtones. But given that modern pop music still sends plenty of the messages that “Free to Be” once fought, Cyrus’ VMA turn might be more meaningful than we think.

No, Cyrus isn’t Marlo Thomas or Macklemore, using music to explicitly promote social change. She’s no role model for tweens. She sings about sex and drugs. But in a country where every 9-year-old knows that girls can be doctors but has also seen the video for “Gangnam Style,” where Rihanna offers a blueprint for accepting domestic violence and assertions of female strength largely happen in breakup songs — Cyrus offers an interesting twist.

Here are the words to Daft Punk’s summer hit, “Get Lucky”:

She’s up all night ’til the sun

I’m up all night to get some

She’s up all night for good fun

I’m up all night to get lucky

And here’s Cyrus’ version of the ode to the endless party (written by brothers from the Virgin Islands):

It’s our party, we can do what we want to

It’s our house, we can love who we want to

It’s our song, we can sing if we want to

It’s my mouth, I can say what I want to

Better, right? At the VMAs, Cyrus shared the stage with Robin Thicke, whose “Blurred Lines” is a throwback in every way to the days when girls were seen as mere tools for boys’ pleasure. And yes, in a reference to the women in Thicke’s video, Cyrus was almost naked while Thicke was fully clothed.

But in her tongue-wagging way, Cyrus turned the script around. Unlike the women in the video, she didn’t just prance past him or — oy, Marlo! — allow herself to be pet.

She sang with him, teased him, challenged him and proved herself the bigger star.

“Just let me liberate you,” Thicke sang. But Miley Cyrus needs no liberating from him. Maybe, in its own way, this is progress.

Joanna Weiss is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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