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Miley Cyrus. (Photo: Rob Sinclair/Flickr)

Why Would You Teach a Class About Miley Cyrus?

• May 06, 2014 • 4:00 AM

Miley Cyrus. (Photo: Rob Sinclair/Flickr)

Carolyn Chernoff talks about “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus: Race, Class, Gender, and Media,” which she’ll be teaching this summer at Skidmore College.

About a month ago, word began spreading across the Internet that Skidmore College, a private liberal arts college in Saratoga Springs, New York, was offering an upcoming summer course titled “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus: Race, Class, Gender, and Media.”

The response was divisive. “You’ve heard of institutions of higher learning? Skidmore is its antithesis,” wrote an anonymous commenter on the New York Daily News. “Don’t complain about debt when you waste your money on this nonsense,” another commenter opined on BuzzFeed. On Complex, where news of the course first broke, one commenter lauded the initiative to introduce more students to social theory through today’s leading pop-culture figures, stating, “Frankly, I think this is the model the academy should be moving toward.”

According to a flier advertising the class, the idea is to use the former Disney star as a lens to explore issues of identity, cultural appropriation, childhood commodification, and depictions of the female body in the media, amongst other points of contention in today’s society. To get a better sense of what’s actually going on here, we spoke with Professor Carolyn Chernoff, who will begin teaching the 200-level course at Skidmore later this May.

How would you describe the general reaction to news that you’ll be teaching a class on Miley Cyrus?

Some of it was the generic polarizing culture wars stuff that we’ve seen for years and years and years. But I’ve been very pleased with some of the media coverage—much of it is pretty nuanced. There are publications that understand the importance of media in contemporary life, and that race, class, gender, and representation are issues that are helpful to unpack.

I’m assuming almost every sociology department teaches courses along these lines. Does all this media attention for yours in particular confirm the power celebrities have in our culture?

“You can’t say, ‘Well, Miley did this, therefore America’s going to hell in a hand basket.’ Nor can you say she’s only a product of her environment because that also takes away from what she’s doing and what’s unique about her.”

Absolutely. What professors and universities are being asked to do these days is prove that their courses are relevant and that they connect to the real world. So, in many ways, the course title and content do exactly that. It responds to the charge that many university professors are refusing to be public characters or intellectuals, or that the research is always in the past and not connected to contemporary events. For me, that’s not how I see my research. That’s not how I see my role. Basically, I see this as an opportunity to talk more about what sociology does.

How will Miley Cyrus help with that?

I think it helps to focus with certain images and names. As a teacher, I find it helps my students choose relevant examples of the larger theories we’re trying to master. We take these abstract ideas and apply them to specific moments, and Miley is a very specific moment. She’s a product of her larger environment, but she’s also a very particular example. So it’s less that I’m using her name to garner attention, and more that it helps people focus on how the course looks at pop culture.

Could a number of other celebrities bring the same focus to the issues you want to explore in your course, or is Miley Cyrus occupying a unique space in the culture right now?

As a joke, people have asked me, “Oh, what about a Justin Bieber course?” But I’m not a sociologist of celebrity. I care less about celebrity in general and more about how Miley is a useful lens. So if I teach a course on race, class, gender, and media again, there are a ton of things I could choose to focus on. This summer session it’s Miley Cyrus because so many of her different phases, guises, and faces line up directly with core issues. We will watch videos, read media coverage, such as in People magazine and Rolling Stone, and talk about both Hannah Montana and Miley’s most recent incarnations. We’ll also look at what scripts, messages, and tensions she’s embodying, and also how people react to her, to better understand how we as a society understand race, class, gender, and representation.

Would you say Miley’s changing our views on these issues or more so mirroring a change that’s already occurred in society?

Well, it’s always both/and. We don’t live in an either/or world. There are no easy answers. You can’t say, “Well, Miley did this, therefore America’s going to hell in a hand basket.” Nor can you say she’s only a product of her environment because that also takes away from what she’s doing and what’s unique about her. These easy binaries of virgin or whore, good girl or bad girl, are so deeply embedded that I think it’s helpful to look more critically at media representation, particularly of someone who on paper should be America’s sweetheart, and at one point was. She’s cute, she’s young, she’s white, she’s thin, she’s cheerful, she was in a very family friendly show, and she’s a wealthy woman who has never not been wealthy. So she has a lot of those things that we like in a pop princess, but then her female sexuality somehow troubled the waters. Some of the ways she’s working with notions of what an appropriate feminist, or rebel feminist, should be or look like are very interesting to me.

How so?

All of those open letters to Miley by Sinead O’Connor and Amanda Palmer that were being bandied about the Internet a few months back basically outlined two different positions in contemporary feminist thought. One states that whatever a woman wants to do, as long as she wants to do it, is feminism, so go do whatever. The other more old-school notion states that, yes, feminism is about empowerment and choice and multiple representations, but if you are showing your body or performing in a heteronormative framework you’re necessarily being exploited.

How much of all this stuff—Miley twerking at the MTV Awards, the music video for “Wrecking Ball”—amounts to no more than a couple frivolous debates on Twitter? To what degree do these things actually affect the way we live?

Why does everybody have something to say about it? Why does everybody ask if she’s a good or bad role model for girls? Why would we care if she’s trivial or ephemeral? One of the things that pop culture gives us is what I’d call data or cultural residue. These are trails of lived battles and ideas that shape how we treat other people. They basically show who is safe, who is acceptable, who is worthy of protection, and who is not. This is a very old American story.

Other institutes of higher learning have at some point or another offered courses on celebrities such as Beyonce, Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, and David Beckham. Is this something you think we’ll start seeing more and more of in the future?

I’d say we’ve seen celebrity courses forever, or for as long as we’ve had literacy and the printing press. We see the rise of celebrity with some of the earliest novels. What we now see as high-status English literature is basically concerned with the creation of the celebrity. People’s concern with fame and celebrity is not a new urge or focus or impulse.

Paul Hiebert
Paul Hiebert is the editor of Ballast, a Canadian-centric Website about culture and politics. Follow him on Twitter @hiebertpaul.

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