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Miley Cyrus, twerking, and the 'sexual hazing' of American pop stars

The vision of Miley Cyrus twerking on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards might have caused outrage, but such performances have become a rite of passage for young female artists.

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Robin Thicke (l.) and Miley Cyrus perform 'Blurred Lines' at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday at the Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

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Miley Cyrus twerked her way into a cultural maelstrom Sunday, after her tongue-wagging sexual prancing at MTV’s Video Music Awards made her the talk of nearly everyone with an Internet connection.

Yet even as millions of viewers continue to watch and rewatch her VMA performance on YouTube – there have been more than 7 million hits since Sunday night – Ms. Cyrus may have uncovered more than her flesh-colored bikini costume, laying bare as much about contemporary culture as about the young artist herself.

It's a clash straight from the pages of Sigmund Freud: a deeply-rooted desire to gaze on sexual images – of women in particular – while at the same time cluck-clucking about the moral standards of the female performing. This moral ambivalence has become part of what some scholars call a well-rehearsed pop ritual: A female pop star comes of age by becoming an exaggerated sexual caricature, exploiting the moral controversy her performance generates for financial gain. In other words, sex always sells, in the end.

Cyrus’s performance was, in many ways, one of the most explicit and raunchy performances ever seen on MTV – and that is saying a great deal. Coming onstage first in a small, skin-tight leotard, Cyrus performed her summer hit “We Can’t Stop,” a song that celebrates “twerking,” the name for a hip-hop-inspired club dance in which a woman bounces her hips up and down to emphasize her derrière.

She was then joined by Robin Thicke, an R&B artist whose smash hit “Blurred Lines” has also generated controversy this summer, since its video includes nude models dancing around fully dressed men, who sing “I hate these blurred lines; I know you want it, but you’re a good girl.” Cyrus danced and twerked and used a foam “No. 1” finger prop to simulate a variety of lewd acts on Mr. Thicke.

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