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What Miley Cyrus Taught Us About Content Regulation

My law school professor pointed out that showing breasts on a movie screen is
considered racy, bad and subject to censorship. But showing a man being decapitated is good content – suitable for audiences of all ages and kinds.

He used this as an example of the hypocrisy that plagues us; and makes it hard to regulate content and speech.

Censorship, certification and content regulation are the core of media entertainment laws, across jurisdictions. But because what is “appropriate” and “inappropriate” media content is subjective, these laws are easy prey to the hypocrisies and moral policing of the societies they seek to govern.

“Content regulation laws” are a bit of a misnomer in that nobody is truly convinced of having learnt the means to effectively monitor, nor to identify what needs monitoring.

And so, celebrity wardrobe malfunctions and public breakdowns and meltdowns that make “good TV” spark off so much debate.

On August 25, 2013, Miley Cyrus set out on her quest to make history (her words) at the MTV Video Music Awards, 2013.

What happened that evening on stage is now the stuff of legend… a strange, awkward, and possibly unsuitable, legend. And some two months later, everyone is still talking about Miley Cyrus twerking. (Twerking refers to a dance move that involves the dancer to shake their hips in an upward-downward motion, in order to basically shake their buttocks as well. In simple language – it’s sort of like dancing in a way that makes sure you’re wobbling and jiggling. Twerking has been associated with a number of things including national pride and sexual expression, but has almost always courted controversy.)

And Miley’s vigorous VMA performance earned a lot of attention, some good but mostly bad.

The FCC (Federal Communications Commission – an independent watchdog charged by the American Government to regulate broadcasting) received more than 150 complaints from troubled parents; and from organisations representing other troubled parents.

The FCC constantly debates what can and cannot be approved for American audiences, but its reach does not extend to cable TV.

Network TV is transmitted widely (i.e., ‘broad’cast), it is easy to access and authorities keep an eye on its content. Cable TV is by subscription and cannot be accessed except by those who pay to access it and so there is much more latitude in regulating its content. (Although, the FCC does recommend that cautious parents obtain some kind of filtering device to make sure that kids at home are saved the trouble of having to witness ‘inappropriate content’ that might be present on cable TV channels like MTV.)

At the MTV awards night, Miley Cyrus twerked and danced through her number, titillating audiences everywhere.

So what?

Several Americans and people the world over thought this was a big deal. Listening to them you’d think they were hurt that their innocent minds had been exposed to the over- sexualised antics of a former Disney teen icon.

If anything, Cyrus’s performance tells us that we, as a society, are still quite unprepared to regulate the content we produce.

The VMAs have historically been the site of several performances that have been best described as outrageous, over-the-top, racy and extravagant.

The 2013 VMA featured Miley Cyrus dancing with another performer, singer Robin Thicke who was already at the centre of controversy thanks to his gender-centric number, ‘Blurred Lines’. Another titillating performance was by Lady Gaga, which earned a funny and earnest response from Will Smith’s family that was caught on the audience-cam.

But it was Miley Cyrus’s twerking that got everyone in an uproar.

And this begs the question, “Were people upset with the twerking or with Miley Cyrus?”

Does society want Miley Cyrus to grow up at all? Had Miley Cyrus never been Hannah Montana, her twerking might have been deemed age-appropriate if not completely ignored. Do we really let our favourite icons mature? And is this one way by which we subject them to the hypocrisy of the content regulation debates?

The inability to separate the subject from their actions is always dangerous, and regulators—politicians and moral police everywhere—are quick to capitalise on it.

In July 2004, Hindu Businessline reported that then minister Sushma Swaraj dictated that condom advertisements must make family planning the subject of their ads. And not the enjoyment of sex. Apparently, Swaraj felt that the sexual desire of two healthy, young persons on television might offend TV viewers.

Recently, the Mudgal Committee set up to revise the Indian Cinematographic Act 1952, recommended that movie songs are checked for content before the movie is screened.

They want to regulate the lyrical content of songs. They reasoned that they would not want to allow impressionable young children believe that they can get away with saying nasty, obscene things because their favourite actors are doing it.

As long as we are hypocritical and uncertain in our standards, we will never draw clean boundaries and therefore, we will never enact effective laws.

Meanwhile, we will gleefully watch decapitated heads of monarchs carried on spears, but we will squirm at the dance moves of the pop star who was merely expressing herself.