Back in October, singer and actress Selena Gomez gave an in-depth interview with the website refinery29.com. She talked at length about transitioning from what the magazine describes as her “safely PG” Disney days to a young adult artist who’s now shedding the restrictions and prohibitions that come along with the Mouse House mantle.
Selena’s latest album, Revival, features the 23-year-old posing completely nude. Regarding her unapologetically sensual presentation of herself, both visually and in many lyrics on the album’s songs, Gomez said, “I think I have a very healthy perspective on my sexuality.”
Selena Gomez is hardly the first young star to go from talking about her faith in Jesus and wanting to be a role model as a teen to stripping off all her clothes in the name of adulthood, independence and putting her “authentic” twentysomething identity on full display. Her peers Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus have done exactly the same thing.
I was thinking about how Selena has taken this road more traveled when I came across this quote in the article insisting that she, Demi and Miley had actually taken very different paths.
Everyone has found their identity in a really interesting way. We didn’t come out as these robots that looked and dressed the same,” she said. “We had to go through our own s—. At the end of the day, it’s respecting every female artist’s choice in how she expresses herself, because that’s what she wants.
I’m saddened by the choices that Selena, Demi and Miley have made as they’ve majored on presenting their sexuality as a key component in their public identity. But I found myself even more discouraged by what this quote unintentionally reveals about Selena Gomez’s understanding—or lack thereof—of the entertainment culture she participates in and represents.
It’s true that she, Demi and Miley have taken different paths. They’re not exactly the same.
And yet …
They’ve all ended up reaching exactly the same conclusion at more or less the same time: The only way to be “authentic” and “adult” is to be … naked. Selena seems genuinely unable to recognize that troubling similarity, which has practically become a stereotype.
Which leads me to my primary point in this blog: When female stars grow up in the entertainment business, the vast majority of the time they’re eventually assimilated into that business’s worldview. They start out starry-eyed, innocent, earnest and determined to be positive role models for their throngs of young fans. With rare exceptions, they usually end up talking about how empowered and adult and healthy they feel about exploiting their own bodies for financial gain.
As if it were their idea instead of the industry’s.
So not only does the entertainment industry exploit these young women, along the way it executes a breathtakingly clever triple con wherein these girls believe that a) they’re not being exploited, b) they’re the ones making the choices to take their clothes off and c) doing so is a statement of personal empowerment rather than conformity to an industry that’s predetermined to reduce them to this lowest common denominator.
Sometimes stars come out the other side with some perspective. Alanis Morissette seems to have done that, trading sexualized self-objectification for deeper musings about motherhood and marriage. More often though, performers get stuck in this sexualized trap, and that identity becomes the only one they know how to project. (Fifty-seven-year-old Madonna comes to mind here).
And what makes the trap most pernicious is the way these stars eventually insist that it’s what they’ve chosen. They’re unable to see how they’ve conformed to Hollywood’s ironclad insistence that a woman’s primary worth is how she looks. It reminds me very much of the alien enemy known as the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation, who utterly assimilate everything in their path: “We are the sexy Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”
If we hope to help young fans of these stars veer away from imitating this self-destructive sexual objectification, we’ve got to help them conform to a different ideal. The Apostle Paul puts it this way in Romans 12:1-2: “And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”
I especially like the way Eugene Petersen paraphrases this passage in The Message:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
Did you catch that phrase right in the middle? Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. That’s the key to what I’m talking about here. I suspect some may think I’m scolding or even shaming Selena Gomez here. I’m not. I’m actually rooting for her to clearly see what’s happening to her. Because conformity is what happens almost automatically when we’re not thoughtfully, intentionally scrutinizing the values of our world and seeking to sift out those that are in conflict with what Scripture reveals as truth.
And in this case, the truth is this: What we do with our bodies matters. It’s a key component of our discipleship and our growth toward God-pleasing spiritual maturity.
That’s why when young stars shed their clothes and insist that it’s a positive, healthy expression of their independent, grown-up sexuality, we have to help young fans understand and internalize the truth that there’s so much more to their identity and their worth than trying to please others by getting naked.