Illustration by Lizzie  Buehler
Illustration by Lizzie Buehler

When, on February 9, the New York Post announced that Miley Cyrus had submitted a short film to the first-ever New York Porn Festival, countless gossip blogs rushed to report on Cyrus’ final descent into vulgarity. Of course, the pop star is no newcomer to media uproar— after spiting her Disney Channel roots by chopping off her hair and publicly declaring her love for drugs, the singer has provided a steady stream of shock factor for tabloids. Yet even Cyrus’ twerking and questionable tattoo choices seemed tame in comparison to the ultimate disgrace of pornography. The ex-tween icon would no longer simply be flirting with obscenity: she would be a proponent of it.

The scandal gained even more attention when, only twenty four hours after the New York Post’s announcement, the Huffington Post reported that the video had, in fact, been pulled. Readers were puzzled. Had Cyrus—infamous for her shameless attitude towards sexuality— finally realized she had gone too far?

The media skimmed over the fact that the short film, entitled “Tongue Tied,” is far from pornographic. To be fair, Miley is not exactly clothed; R-rated regions are covered by black panties and x-shaped nipple pasties. Yet almost-nudity is nothing new to Hollywood. One need only look to Britney Spears’ chart-topping single “Three” for a music video far more sexually explicit—both visually and in its thematic content—than “Tongue Tied.” Perhaps more significantly, though, Miley’s sex organs are not the video’s focus. In fact, the first thirty seconds of the video are entirely focused on Cyrus’ face. If there is anything scandalous about this segment it has to do with its psychedelic style—the kaleidoscopic shots of Miley’s head are more like something from an acid trip than a strip club.

The film’s psychedelic elements should not be surprising given its director, Quentin Jones, a London-based fashion photographer and multimedia artist whose collage-style prints often have a surrealist quality. “Tongue Tied” employs all of Jones’ characteristic techniques. There are the cut-and-paste images of Miley’s head against a black backdrop; the dreamlike transformation of the human body as two black roses bloom over her eyes. Yet even in its psychedelic flair, nothing in Jones’ film seems sensational. Unlike Miley’s past music videos and performances—many of which have been heavily criticized for being “attention-seeking” and offensive—“Tongue Tied” is a piece of art. The short film is practically bursting with symbolism, from the black X’s painted over Miley’s eyes to the cat and mouse masks she dons towards the video’s beginning. Even the X-shaped pasties on Miley’s un-enhanced chest have more to say about the censorship of the female body than any of the glamorously skimpy outfits we are used to seeing on female pop stars.

Jones objectifies Miley’s body, but not in the traditional Hollywood sense. Without a doubt, Cyrus is an artist’s object; her body in all its exposed glory is front and center. Yet her skin is not there for sex appeal—or, at least, not entirely. Jones’ editing doubles her, dismembers her, turns her into a two-headed, four-legged psychedelic creature that is as beautiful as it is disturbing. She is masked, covered in paint, tied and gagged up with a glistening, synthetic material that looks like black caution tape. Yet if Cyrus’ performance evokes any S&M themes—as countless bloggers jumped to announce—Miley is no passive, eyelash-batting, 50-Shades-of-Grey-style sex kitten. She might be sexy, but she is also filthy and angry and eager as hell to break free of her restraints.

To call “Tongue Tied” porn would mean redefining the term porn itself. Not only is there no actual sex (or even nudity) in the film, but Jones also defies just about every exhausted cliché about gender and sexuality that characterizes heterosexual pornography. If porn rejects intellectualism to provide an experience that is totally sensual, “Tongue Tied” subjects sexuality to intellectual scrutiny. For five and a half minutes, Jones takes a sexually attractive female body, and has her wage war with all of the rules of feminine propriety. Yet while Miley is no lady, she is also no “naughty” or “dirty” porn star who embraces her own shaming.  Instead, the singer rejects the notion that female sexuality should be a source of shame at all, biting and clawing and sticking out her tongue at the very camera that objectifies her.

If Jones’ film was not pornographic, I couldn’t help but wonder, how did it end up on the itinerary for a porn festival? The only feasible answer I could come up with was that Miley was simply playing the mass media; capitalizing on our cultural obsession with sex and scandal. Though released last spring, “Tongue Tied” had received little attention, though Cyrus used select footage from it in her live shows. By submitting the film to a porn festival, Cyrus guaranteed a surge in the video’s popularity and catapulted herself back into the media spotlight.

Though mere speculation, this theory chimes with much of what is conveyed in “Tongue Tied” itself. In Jones’ film, Cyrus manages to claim total authority over her own sexual objectification in a way that is, I think, unique in pop culture. I wouldn’t be surprised if the formidable 22-year-old is gaming the tabloids in precisely the same way.