Don’t call it twerking 101. Carolyn Chernoff’s summer course on Miley Cyrus is anything but a blow-off class.
The class offered by the visiting assistant professor of sociology at Skidmore College is intended to probe deeply ingrained issues of race, class, gender and media as reflected by the career of the pre-teen Disney star-turned-lurid pop icon.
The 21⁄2-hour class being offered three days per week on the Saratoga Springs campus this summer will focus on how Cyrus’ public image has been molded by pop culture and mass media; how the singer and actress has moved from a wholesome image to one that is often publicly reviled.
“From Disney tween to twerking machine, Miley Cyrus has grown up in the public eye, trying on and discarding very different identities on-screen and off,” reads Chernoff’s course description. “She provides rich examples for analyzing aspects of intersectional identities and media representation.”
Though the title — the Sociology of Miley Cyrus — may spur any host of wisecracks, Chernoff designed the class to be a serious sociological study into cultural conflict. And as a 200-level sociology course, it’s also not something for students to take if they’re hoping to watch Cyrus videos for an easy three credits.
“I created it as a creative and rigorous way of looking at what’s relevant about sociology and sociology theory,” Chernoff said Wednesday. “Miley Cyrus is a surprisingly complicated cultural moment.”
Chernoff, who came to Skidmore during the fall semester, generated the concept for the class from a discussion she had with her upper-level youth culture class shortly after Cyrus’ infamous performance during MTV’s video Music Awards last summer. Cyrus’ duet with singer Robin Thicke featured her stripping down to a skin-colored latex two-piece outfit and grinding suggestively against the married performer’s crotch.
“Sort of the ‘twerk-heard-round the world’ moment,” Chernoff said with a chuckle.
The performance was roundly criticized and threw the media into a frenzy about the drastic change in Cyrus’ public image — from being known as a wholesome teen singer to a crass hypersexual pop star. But Chernoff saw a profound cultural analysis to be derived from Cyrus’ performance: How the narrative of pop culture’s representation of women can evolve from princess to prostitute.
“All of a sudden, my students who claimed to be not that interested in Miley Cyrus had so much to say,” she said of the discussion.
Chernoff continued to watch the fallout from the notorious performance and how Cyrus continued to present herself in the media. The more she watched, the more she identified to be learned from her behavior.
Take for instance the difference between how a lurid performance by a female is interpreted differently from one by a male. Chernoff pointed to another famous moment in pop culture — the performance of singers Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake during the Super Bowl in 2004.
The moment when Timberlake exposed Jackson’s breast on live television affected their careers dynamically different. Timberlake went on to become a cultural icon, while Jackson’s career faded into obscurity.
This is the type of dichotomy Chernoff views as teaching moment. Similarly, she sees Cyrus as a case study her students can explore.
“When students have primary sources to analyze, they are able to really demonstrate the depth of their knowledge and also what they really know,” she said.
Reaction on campus hasn’t been overwhelming. Only three students are signed up for about 29 spots in the class.
But Chernoff acknowledges she hasn’t done much to promote the course. To date, she’s put up five page-sized posters around the Tisch Learning Center.
Of course, that was before word of the class hit social media. On Tuesday, a blurb about the class was posted online by Complex, the New York City-based bi-monthly magazine with a circulation of more than 500,000 readers.
The media storm was joined by Time Magazine on Wednesday, which suggested jokingly that students shouldn’t forget to do their “home-twerk.” The popular website Buzzfeed followed suit a few hours later, suggesting there is “a very good chance that college students will have to write the word ‘twerk’ in their serious academic papers.”
Ribbing aside, Chernoff said students taking the course lightly will be unpleasantly surprised. She said those enrolling should have at least an introductory background in sociology and be prepared to write, since there are no multiple choice exams in the class.
“They’re either going to have to drop the course or get up to speed quickly,” she said.
The reaction from Cyrus to the class? Chernoff isn’t sure she even knows; a publicist for her didn’t respond to an email for comment Wednesday.
“She may well find out. We’ll see what happens,” Chernoff said.