Miley Cyrus' split with Liam Hemsworth isn't just celebrity gossip — it's a blow to the patriarchy

Women like Cyrus are speaking out about sexuality in ways that put the power — and responsibility — back into their own hands.
Miley Cyrus performing at the Sunny Hill Festival in Pristina, Kosovo, on Aug. 2, 2019.Armend Nimani / AFP - Getty Images
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By Marcie Bianco

Over the past week, an assortment of trending stories — from Jeffrey Epstein to the Dayton and El Paso mass shooters, to Miley Cyrus’s separation and Julianne Hough’s declaration that she’s “not straight” — together have laid bare the strictures of an American patriarchy on the edge of a nervous breakdown. As the status quo, heterosexuality is just not working.

As a snapshot of 2019 America, these stories present a startling picture: Men continue to coerce, harass, rape and kill girls and women — and go to extreme lengths to avoid responsibility for their actions. On the other side of the issue, girls and women are challenging heterosexuality, and even absconding from it altogether.

Framed differently, the picture is this: Men need heterosexuality to maintain their societal dominance over women. Women, on the other hand, are increasingly realizing not only that they don’t need heterosexuality, but that it also is often the bedrock of their global oppression.

Patriarchy is at its most potent when oppression doesn’t feel like oppression, or when it is packaged in terms of biology, religion, or basic social needs.

Patriarchy is at its most potent when oppression doesn’t feel like oppression, or when it is packaged in terms of biology, religion or basic social needs like security comfort, acceptance and success. Heterosexuality offers women all these things as selling points to their consensual subjection.

Historically, women have been conditioned to believe that heterosexuality is natural or innate, just as they have been conditioned to believe that their main purpose is to make babies — and if they fail to do so, they are condemned as not “real,” or as bad, women.

Celebrities are not always at the vanguard of feminist thought, but both Julianne Hough and Miley Cyrus have recently spoken out about sexuality in ways that puts the power — and responsibility — back into their own hands.

In the “Women’s Health” September cover story, Hough, an actress and “Dancing With the Stars” champion, describes her personal transformation, which included “de-layering all the survival tactics I’ve built up my whole life.” One of these survival tactics, she says, meant “connecting to the woman inside that doesn’t need anything, versus the little girl that looked to [my husband] to protect me.” She voices concern that her husband will respond negatively to this newfound self-sufficiency: “I was like, ‘Is he going to love this version of me?’ But the more I dropped into my most authentic self, the more attracted he was to me. Now we have a more intimate relationship.”

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Part of the intimacy entailed telling her husband that she was “not straight” but had chosen to be with him. This is an inspirational statement, because it offers a new model for women to enter into heterosexual relationships with men that redefines the power dynamic. “I think there’s a safety with my husband now that I’m unpacking all of this,” Hough continues, “and there’s no fear of voicing things that I’ve been afraid to admit or that I’ve had shame or guilt about because of what I’ve been told or how I was raised.”

Miley Cyrus has never been shy about discussing her own personal sexuality. In 2015, the “Wrecking Ball” singer said, “I don’t associate men and protection necessarily,” in a Time magazine interview. “I think that’s what’s given me the openness of sexuality.”

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Shortly after it was announced that Cyrus and her husband, Liam Hemsworth, were splitting up, photos of the singer kissing a woman in Italy made the tabloid rounds. But even before the break-up, Cyrus embraced her nonheterosexual identity in Elle’s August cover story. In language that echoed Hough’s ownership of, and responsibility for, her sexuality and marriage choices, Cyrus noted that she “made a partner decision” by choosing to marry Hemsworth in late 2018 because he was, she explained, “the person I feel has my back the most.”

Shortly after it was announced that Cyrus and her husband, Liam Hemsworth, were splitting up, photos of the singer kissing a woman in Italy made the tabloid rounds.

Cyrus thoughtfully explains how her sexuality is both distinct from and influences her definition of what a relationship looks like. “Being someone who takes such pride in individuality and freedom, and being a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community,” she writes in a personal memo in Vanity Fair in February, “I’ve been inspired by redefining again what a relationship in this generation looks like. Sexuality and gender identity are completely separate from partnership.”

She added that her goal for 2019 was to “live carefree but not careless” — a brilliant distinction that could serve as a mantra for anyone in a marriage, straight or gay. The difference between carefree and careless in a way represents the ideological division in the definition of “freedom.”

"To be free is not to have the power to do anything you like,” Simone de Beauvoir writes in “The Ethics of Ambiguity.” Indeed, Friedrich Nietzsche asserted that “freedom is the will to be responsible for ourselves.”

And this responsibility carries over from the self to society, which is why, according to Toni Morrison, “The function of freedom is to free someone else.” For Audre Lorde this definition of freedom is a social contract: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

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This is a far cry from the type of freedom espoused by those on the right, for whom freedom, as I wrote in an earlier article on how misogyny is the driver of mass shootings in America, is conflated with domination. In this context, freedom is actually possessed by a select few, as it is dependent upon the oppression — rather than the liberation — of disempowered people, particularly women and minorities.

Cyrus’s and Hough’s respective declarations does more than raise visibility for the queer community at large — it is a powerful assertion of their bodily autonomy and control over their sexuality.

Women’s sexual liberation has always had a place in feminism. In “The Second Sex,” Beauvoir explains that “freedom is recognized in woman’s sexual activity,” and that this freedom not only rests in self-possession but in self-accountability.

And this notion — that an adult is responsible for their own sex life (how they have sex, who they have sex with, when, where, and why they have sex) — portrays a sharp contrast in our culture. Where men seem to never to have to take responsibility for their actions, women always must take responsibility for not only their own actions but the actions of men.

Absconding from responsibility is the quintessential strategy of the patriarchy; it’s how men stay in control and never lose their power.

Absconding from responsibility is the quintessential strategy of the patriarchy; it’s how men stay in control and never lose their power. As Lorde wrote in “Sister Outsider,” the cost for those of us who not only have carry the responsibility of others but to educate them, too, is our own liberation, agency and self-creation: “The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future."

While men stew in their mess, women are rising. They are taking back control of their lives and their bodies and they are questioning the foundation of the patriarchy — heterosexuality — that has kept them blindly subordinate for centuries.

“A feminist critique of compulsory heterosexual orientation for women is long overdue,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her 1980 feminist classic “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.”

It looks like this critique has finally arrived in the mainstream.

Marcie Bianco

Marcie Bianco is a writer and an editor living in California. She is columnist at the Women’s Media Center, and her writing can be found both online and in print at outlets like NBC Think, Pacific Standard, Quartz, Rolling Stone, Salon, Vanity Fair, and Vox.