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Cat Power by Richard Avedon

I’m graced with a beautiful child, in the “double digits,” as she says with whoops and twirls in her black cape and leopard-print beret – now ten years old. Sometimes I feel like I feed off her exuberance as I slouch cynically, ever closer to the Big Four-Oh. She weeps when a garden spider’s web is dinged on the clothes line, demands ice cream with the steel of Stalin, concocts secret languages, and sleeps with her mouth half open, hands over her head in surrender – a pose she assumed on her first night outside my body.

“Ten years old today” repeated in my head when a friend sent me some internet drivel: “You’re a mom. What do you think?”

It was a Gawker post about pop sensation Miley Cyrus’ latest controversy – modeling for fashion photographer Terry Richardson. She tokes on a joint in some shots. In others, she tugs at her cherry-red leotard to display the contours of her labia. She holds a tall-boy can in front of her genitals, protruding like an erection, her tongue sticking out in her trademark way. The lighting is glaring. The photos are flat and soulless. Richardson appears in some looking like a character from Gummo, despite the obvious attire of a Midtown Manhattan apartment, and Time Warner headquarters shining through the window.

I hadn’t followed her twerking – too busy reading actual news. Besides, isn’t that dance just harkening to the days of Josephine Baker? But these photos hit me, as my daughter is closing in on adolescence. The point is packaging sexuality, not celebrating it. Violation is the theme – the dirty old man with his bad little Disney princess and her corporate sponsors.

The photos reminded me of Richard Avedon’s portrait of singer Chan Marshall, published in The New Yorker in 2004. At the time, Marshall, also known as Cat Power, was in late-stage alcoholism and just discharged from the hospital. The elderly Avedon visited her in the ward with a bouquet and flattery. The next day, after champagne, he photographed her in his apartment. Her hair is done up in a messy bun. Her eyes glow through dark circles. A cigarette with an inch-long ash is in one hand. In the other, she holds a swatch of a Bob Dylan T-shirt like a dish towel over her breasts. Her jeans are unbuttoned, and we see her pubic hair trail the zipper line.

“I was so drunk I could barely stand up,” Marshall said in a 2006 interview. “I couldn’t zip up my pants because my stomach was killing me. I didn’t even realize I wasn’t wearing underwear until the magazine came out.”

It’s a cringing and tragic photo, but she’s still beautiful. Violation is sexually potent. That’s inescapable.

Ceding power to the man behind the lens, or the wallet, and celebrating hot messes is what my generation tried to act against. Riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill performed in her underwear and scrawled “slut” on her belly. P.J. Harvey wrapped her body in cellophane for an album cover. But when a wasted Chan Marshall showed her snatch to the twentieth century’s great portraitist in The New Yorker, nearly every smart guy – and woman – I knew swooned.

There’s snobbery in the Miley Cyrus derision. Here she is, all twerking and teddy bears, making more money the more she points out her privates, when riot grrrl Hanna stripped her way through Evergreen State College. In the 90s, sex work became cool, and alumna of elite liberal arts colleges got naked at clubs in most hipster enclaves. Some scored book deals. Others landed mortgages. Is Miley just another empowered grrrl, albeit in a greedy, unhip, corporate fashion?

Sinead O’Connor gave her take in a blunt letter – “don’t prostitute yourself” – and caught hell for slut-shaming. But if you read it, it’s obvious that she’s just a concerned mama bear. However, she’s lost culture cred because she never slid down a pole or shed her clothes for a lens. Old-fashioned and ancient history.

Hanna told The Daily Beast in March that her stripping was “a shitty job,” not a feminist statement. And riot grrrl was as much about writing on rape and emotional abuse, anorexia and addiction, self-empowerment and strong examples, as it was about a music scene.

The “power” question is more relevant now than ever, with events like the Steubenville High School case, where teens filmed a gang rape and used social media to brag. Recently, numerous young women have been bullied online, taunted after sexual assaults go viral, and killed themselves as a result.

After I saw the Gawker post, I walked my daughter to school. The girls in her class huddled and giggled. I heard “Miley Cyrus,” and hyper chatter.

As I left, tears welled. A line from a poem by Roberto Bolaño came to mind: “Best of luck to those bestowed with dark talents and no good fortune. I’ve seen them wake up on sea shores and light cigarettes as only those who long for teasing and caresses can.”

Published in the October 2013 issue of CounterPunch magazine.

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