By: Sydney Lesnick
This past Summer has become ‘The Summer of Women.’ On the heels of the Barbie movie’s release, the Eras Tour, and new music from strong female artists, women should be empowered by the media, yet we still have a long way to go. Women are often judged not by their character but by their appearance. The standards are very different from that of men. For instance, if women are leaders they are often thought of as bossy and mean, while men are labeled brave and bold. It is imperative to shine light on this damaging ideology and work as a society to change it for the better.
Miley Cyrus’s new single “Used to Be Young” has swept the internet by storm. Released on August 25, 2023 — a date that marks a decade since the debut of her monumental “Wrecking Ball” music video — this song serves as a tribute to Cyrus’s past self as she reflects on growing up in the spotlight and the harsh public perception she received.It was often forgotten just how young she was when she first stepped into the public eye. She filmed the pilot for her Disney hit show Hannah Montanna when she was just 13 years old. As she grew up, the media was not criticizing her for her age, but for failing to meet their expectations of who she should become and she matured. This vulnerability has added fuel to the fire on the impossible standards that the media has placed on women in society.
This has been an eventful year for Cyrus, as she also released an album called Endless Summer Vacation in March. Speaking to British Vogue about the album and its inspiration, Cyrus gave insight into the scrutiny she received during her teenage years. “Now that I’m an adult, I realize how harshly I was judged… I was harshly judged as a child by adults, and now, as an adult, I realize that I would never harshly judge a child,” she said.
This problematic ideology that she has dealt with since the beginning of her career perpetuates the unfortunate cycle of women being faced with impossible standards as young girls and growing accustomed to them. These sentiments are echoed throughout “Used to Be Young,” as Cyrus compares who people say she was ‘yesterday’ to the person she actually perceives herself to be today. While this song is meant to celebrate her self growth, it is hard to ignore the subtle mentions of criticisms she experienced that made her who she is. This is especially apparent as she sings, “You say I used to be wild. I say I used to be young.”
Through this single, Cyrus works to reclaim the narrative that shaped her youth. She demonstrates just how overdramatized the media portrayed her to be. When she was having fun and doing normal things for her age, outlets called her ‘crazy’ and ‘wild.’ This is exactly why the release date of “Used to Be Young” is so significant. Releasing this single an exact decade after her most controversial music video, she is finally able to reshape the narrative and take back control of her reputation.
Speaking of one’s ‘reputation,’ this is not the first time a female artist has released a song criticizing the media. In 2017, Taylor Swift released her sixth studio album titled Reputation following a year of being constantly scrutinized and forced into ‘hiding.’ On X (formerly known as Twitter), #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty was trending in 2016 following revelations that the singer knew about her mention in Kanye West’s song “Famous.” It was later confirmed that she did not know exactly what the line was. The now infamous line is “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / I made that b**** famous,” implying that Taylor Swift wouldn’t be famous without a man, despite ten albums worth of original music and a largely female fanbase.
Despite this being a highly offensive and sexist remark, Swift was the one receiving backlash. This sets a harmful example for society, as it allows for men to undercut the success of women and get away with it. Instead of defending her triumphant career and shaming West for trying to take credit for her accomplishments, the media spent months picking Swift apart and wishing for her downfall. She acknowledged this criticism on her track “Delicate,” which begins with the line “Is it for the best? My reputation’s never been worse so you must like me for me.”
This was not the only time Swift has referred to the negative aspects of media in her music. In 2021, she released her second re-recorded album Red (Taylor’s Version) which featured a new song called “Nothing New'' (Feat. Phoebe Bridgers) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault). This song was written when she was 22 and reveals her struggle with enjoying life in the spotlight due to the media’s unattainable standards. She sings, “They tell you while you're young, ‘Girls, go out and have your fun,’ then they hunt and slay the ones who actually do it.”
Music is not the only way that pop culture highlights society’s faults. These ideas were apparent in another hit of the summer: the Barbie movie. The film, directed by Greta Gerwig, follows Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Ken (Ryan Gosling) as they leave ‘perfect,’ female-dominated Barbie Land and navigate the real world, quickly realizing the harsh reality of living amongst humanity's male-dominated society. While the movie was humorous and witty, it also touched upon a much more serious topic — emphasizing the unattainable standards of both men and women that are ingrained in our society.
“It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don't think you're good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we're always doing it wrong.” — The Barbie Movie
America Ferrera’s now iconic speech about being a woman in a patriarchal society has gone viral, bringing attention to today’s double standards. However, Barbie encompasses a wider perspective, also bringing to light the difficult expectations of being a male and trying to combat toxic masculinity. The film dubbed the word “Kenough,” referencing Ken’s struggle to accept who he is, in order to overcome fragile masculinity projected unto men and encourage everyone to be themselves because “they are ‘Kenough.’” In Ken’s eyes, he struggles to live up to his potential, which is apparent in the song “I’m Just Ken.” Gosling sings, “‘Cause I’m just Ken, anywhere else I’d be a ten. Is it my destiny to live and die a life of blond fragility?”
The reality is that the media has a long way to go with redefining the standards for members of society, especially women. However, bringing these issues to light, whether it be through pop culture or civil discourse, will positively shape expectations and create a much more accepting atmosphere.