Miley Cyrus, “Wrecking Ball,” and Intimate Partner Violence

After Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance, people were all about slut-shaming her (not much was said about Robin Thicke’s participation). The mainstream media appeared scandalized by her performance – a young woman exhibiting sexuality? *Gasp!*

Richard Cohen, of the Washington Post, seemed particularly appalled – at least once he looked up the word twerk. He thought Cyrus should probably read a New Yorker article about the Stubenville rape (“so-called rape,” by Cohen’s definition). The immediate implication was that a woman dancing like Cyrus danced in the VMAs was asking for rape (or, presumably, other forms of violence).

Now, Cyrus has released a video, “Wrecking Ball” that features her licking demolition tools (absolutely no phallic overtones there, nope, none) and, eventually, shedding her clothes to swing naked on a wrecking ball. The message, according to a blogger at The Guardian is that women need to be sexually available. Fox News took issue with the music video director (and posted several sexy stills of Cyrus) and his “checkered past.” And, Time took the opportunity to provide a short history (and metaphor) of the wrecking ball.

Cyrus is destroying and destroyed, according to the lyrics of the song, and the metaphor of the wrecking ball.

But what I find most disturbing about this song is that this song can be a metaphor for an abusive relationship — intimate partner violence, or IPV, is the current broad umbrella term for this. Take the lyrics:

“I came in like a wrecking ball, I never hit so hard in love. All I wanted was to break your walls.”

Breaking boundaries is one of the things abusers do. It’s one of the things rapists do. It’s one of the things women are taught to do when they “fix” men or other people in their lives. It’s a form of IPV. It doesn’t demonstrate care or consent; it demonstrates trying to overpower the other person in the relationship, and with that dynamic, there can never be partnership.

“All you ever did was break me.”

If a person you’re in relationship with is breaking you, it’s time to step back (at the very least) or step out. Especially when they leave you in ashes – or you mutually leave each other in ashes.

“It slowly turned, you let me burn. And now, we’re ashes on the ground.”

At this point, the relationship isn’t fixable. Yet Cyrus croons about how she will always love the person she’s singing about and that they can never say she didn’t try.

“I never meant to start a war. I just wanted you to let me in. And instead of using force, I should have let you win.”

What, exactly, should Cyrus have let the object of this song win? And, would that mean that Cyrus would have stayed whole by leaving this (hypothetical, let’s hope) relationship? Or just that, like so many abusive relationships, she would have continued to be brutalized by it, wrecked by it, but become silent?

This song is not a metaphor of love. It not a metaphor of what a crush or otherwise healthy relationship going down the tubes looks like. It is a metaphor of abuse, of letting someone win the war to keep their love because you can’t imagine life without them – a trait that abusers usually cultivate.

For me, Cyrus’a song recalled Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” in which the speaker says “I guess the fortune teller’s right, I should have believed what was there and not some holy light…I’m cold and I am shamed, lying naked on the floor” by the object of the song. “Torn,” for me, was always about abuse – rape – not simply, as the music video would imply, about a relationship that didn’t quite work out.

“Torn” came out the year I was in sixth grade. I was embarrassed to listen to it in the car with my parents, because to me, it was so clearly about sex – and sexual abuse. It played on the radio all the time, usually just after the ever-creepy “Sex and Candy” by Marcy Playground. These songs are by no means alone in normalizing IPV – just to name a few, there’s also Rihanna & Eminem singing “Love the Way You Lie,” the Toadies “Possum Kingdom,” and The Beatles “Run for Your Life.” And, of course, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Basically, IPV in music has a long history, and one that apparently, is going to continue to grow.

Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” fits this same category in that the words itself – and the video – serve the purpose of objectifying women, of teaching them the “proper” role in life — one that is subservient to a dominant partner, and which further normalizes the idea that a dominate partner should win, that they should conquer. Even after just listening to “Wrecking Ball” a handful of times, I found the song caught in my head. This, along with “it’s just a song” is how violence gets normalized.

Liz N. Clift is a writer and blogger living in the American west. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in anderbo.com, Tulane Review, RATTLE, The MacGuffin, WomenArts Quarterly Journal, and others. She is also a contributor to The Nervous Breakdown. Follow her on Twitter: @NWBorealiz, or find her online at flexitarianwriter.blogspot.com

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  • http://feministing.com/members/nancyshrew/ Nancy Shrew

    Why is “Sex and Candy” creepy?

    • http://feministing.com/members/blueeyes90/ blueeyes90

      I was just thinking that while reading this.

    • http://feministing.com/members/lizc/ Liz N. Clift

      Mainly because the speaker is “Hangin’ round downtown / By myself And I had so much time / To sit and think / About myself” and then this person is lounging in his chair (??). The repeated verse of the speaker thinking about himself is, for me, what drives home the creepy factor — coupled by a video that shows no other person, only a spider (I guess a reference to a black widow, but maybe not since it’s a tarantula?) crawling around while he sticks his head out of a hole in the cartoonish landscape.

      Specifically, creepy is that we don’t know how the person he’s singing about gets into his chair / if there are really devious stares (who’s ever heard of a devious stare??) or if this all continues to be something he’s imagining for the person. The singer is displaying narcissism and then there’s the smell of sex and candy.

      • http://feministing.com/members/nancyshrew/ Nancy Shrew

        I heard the title came from the singer having just had an “afternoon romp” with his girlfriend, and then a friend came by after they were done and the friend remarked that it “smells like sex and candy in here”. I don’t know how true that is, but interesting that we have different interpretations.

  • http://feministing.com/members/roxannei/ Roxanne

    It seems that music videos are showing women with less and less clothing recently. Until Blurred Lines and now Wrecking Ball, I don’t remember seeing completely nude women in videos. I think its definitely concerning that women’s bodies are being used to get more views and it’s especially concerning that this strategy works so well. (Miley’s video is already breaking records on Vevo). Why do female singers need to be seen as sex symbols to be successful?

    • http://feministing.com/members/lizc/ Liz N. Clift

      Roxanne – I agree with you in that I don’t remember (ehm, I should admit my limited interactions with music videos post middle school right now) many (any) music videos with naked women before “Blurred Lines” and “Wrecking Ball.” It does seem like women’s disrobed bodies are being used to increase views (“what, omg, you can almost see Miley Cyrus’s nipple??”), and at least in the case of “Blurred Lines,” this is very clearly for the male gaze.