The MTV Video Music Awards (VMA's) are known for the controversy that they generate - in fact the notion of controversy is precisely the reason that people, mostly young people, tune into the show. It serves as a platform for musicians and reality stars to make a splash in the world that they inhabit, something that has grown in magnitude in the last couple of decades during the broadcast. That ability to make a splash usually means engaging in extraordinary and shocking behavior, whether it be Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift during her acceptance speech in 2009, the infamous exchange between Britney Spears and Madonna in 2003, Lady Gaga's meat dress in 2010 or the lascivious dancing by a young Miley Cyrus in 2013, the VMA's certainly hand out their "moon man" awards for popular music videos, but the winners are rarely the big story.
The 2015 VMA awards proved to be no different, with the August 30th broadcast including a wide variety of dancing and music lyrics that would make most of us blush. However the news this year wasn't an artist engaging in hyper-sexualized behavior, nor was it someone interrupting a speech. It wasn't even host Miley Cyrus, who's profanity laced hosting was anticipated by MTV well before the awards began, with the live broadcast being delayed by several seconds to allow for censoring of her language.
A Bold Statement
The story this year was two reality television stars, Blac Chyna and Amber Rose, who hit the red carpet in bold outfits covered in graffiti style words that are the worst derogatory terms for women. Their choice to showcase the language which is regularly used to describe women in much of pop culture brings to the fore something much deeper than what the VMA awards traditionally talk about, and confronting head on the double standard with which women are faced with daily. In addition, the entourage of these two women included two male models dressed in outfits covered in graffiti style derogatory words for gay men, another bold statement about the power of words and the state of bigotry.
The stars expressed their views in interviews during their walk on the red carpet, sharing that they wanted to stop the cycle of victim blaming and to empower women not to be ashamed to express themselves. While reality television stars aren't who we'd normally expect to see sending empowering messages for young girls who are struggling with self esteem and peer relationships, in this instance it was most certainly the focus. Amber Rose and Blac Chyna highlighted their desire for young girls to not feel overwhelmed by the opinions of others.
Girls, Bullying, and Suicide
Cyber bullying and shaming of women over sexual actions is something that is well documented and a serious issue for teens today. The explosion of social media in recent years has tremendously exacerbated the issue of women's image of themselves, and it translates into real life and real world relationships. 97% of girls between the ages of 12 and 17 have access to the internet according to Pew Research (Poole, 2013). That kind of access is unheard of in previous generations, and teens are struggling to navigate the complex world of social media. Poole (2013) describes how girls can lose their future over a single bad decision when it goes viral, and how the boys who are in the same situation don't face the same consequences.
Suicide ideation, planning, and attempts among teens are estimated to be 12.1%, 4%, and 4.1% respectively (Messias, Kindrick, & Castro, 2014). In addition, cyberbullying is a wide issue that affects a large number of teens, with nearly 17% of teens according to recent research (Shpiegel, Klomek, & Apter, 2015). Cyberbullying is also linked with higher depression rates among affected teens and is reported to be on the rise. Pictures are the language of social media, with over sexualized pictures of girls being a particular liability for them in peer relationships.
Why the MTV VMAs Matter
It might seem as though an awards show full of singers and reality stars is not of huge consequence to the issue of suicidal ideation in teens, but underplaying the gravity of impact that this media event has on teens would be a mistake. The target demographic of the show is 12-34 year olds, and with a viewership of over 8 million viewers last year, that's a big chunk of teens to be watching. In addition, the VMA's flood social media outlets, representing a number of trending hashtags on Twitter and Instagram. The impact of social media is significant in the life of teens.
The terminology that Blac Chyna and Amber Rose shined a spotlight on during the 2015 MTV VMA awards is precisely the language of cyberbullying, and is a key part of the puzzle when it comes to the cyberbullying of girls. These words are hurtful, they cut right to the core of a girl’s self esteem and self worth. By wearing them proudly, these two reality stars are sending a powerful message to the girls who are watching that these words don’t have to carry the meaning that is intended by attackers, and that women are capable of taking these words back for themselves as a form of empowerment. While it remains to be seen as to whether this red carpet statement will have a lasting impact, one thing is for certain - it has started the conversation.
Dillon, N. (2015). Amber Rose, Blac Chyna turn MTV VMA red carpet into "Slut Walk". New York Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/music/amber-rose-blac-chyna-shock-vma-red-carpet-article-1.2342458
Messias, E., Kindrick, K., & Castro, J. (2014). School bullying, cyberbullying, or both: Correlates of teen suicidality in the 2011 CDC youth risk behavior survey. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 55(5), 1063-1068.
Poole, E. (2013). Hey girls, did you know? slut-shaming on the internet needs to stop. University of San Francisco Law Review, 48(1), 221. Shpiegel, Y., Klomek, A. B., &
Apter, A. (2015). Bullying, cyberbullying, depression and suicide ideation among youth: Comparing online to paper-and-pencil questionnaires. International Journal of Child and Adolescent Health, 8(2), 161.