In the overblown bluster about Miley Cyrus's VMA performance, we neglected a crucial discussion about growing up female in our culture.
CNN highlighted the point Cyrus was trying to make, declaring that "she is, after all, no longer the teen Disney star she once was." Her performance was a public pronouncement of her coming-of-age. We've seen this before: A young, seemingly innocent star throws off the yoke of childhood naiveté and announces her adult identity in a display of sex appeal and ebullient debauchery. It's become a predictable script.
That's why this article is not about Miley Cyrus, Lindsey Lohan, Britney Spears, or any ingénue du jour. I'm interested instead in what leads Miley Cyrus or the midriff-baring girl up the street to believe that in order to prove her adulthood, she must become an object of male sexual consumption. And I'm interested in how the church can offer her an alternative.
The widespread agreement that Cyrus's willingness to be objectified marks her attempt to assume the mantle of womanhood indicates a deep problem with the way we define female adulthood.
Obviously and unavoidably, part of becoming an adult woman has to do with female embodiment and sexuality. We gain the ability to reproduce with all the excitement, responsibility, and monthly annoyance that entails. But biology is not enough to indicate adulthood in our culture. Miley Cyrus had a post-pubescent body long before the VMAs.
In order to be seen as an empowered adult in our contemporary society, we can't just be mature sexual beings; we must be sexually available. As females, we often demonstrate adulthood by using our sexuality in ways that invite, in fact that practically beg for, the male gaze. It is a sort of post-sexual revolution version of the debutante coming out. Some factions in feminism even point to this kind of overt rejection of sexual boundaries or morals as an act of empowerment. I am woman, watch me twerk.
Unfortunately, defining adulthood through sex or sexual activity is not limited to secular culture but has also affected the church. We imbibe these broader messages about how girls come of age, but if our church culture does not provide an alternative way to come of age outside of marriage, young women who remain celibate and unmarried struggle to understand themselves and be understood as fully women and fully adult.
Young women in our culture use overt sexual allure and sexuality to show that we aren't kids anymore. The church instead must offer another way to attest to our adult womanhood. If we do not, when we encourage young women to remain chaste and value modesty, it will inadvertently be a message of juvenilization--to remain good "little girls." In order for celibate adults to be acknowledged as adults in evangelical churches, our understanding of adulthood needs to be clarified and decoupled from sexual activity or marital status.
Right after I graduated from college, a much-trusted older single woman said to me, "You keep referring to yourself as a girl. You need to refer to yourself, and anyone else your age, as a woman." (I'm still amazed how often women in church, particularly women in their 20s, are referred to as "girls.") Soon after that, another older friend approached me worried that a middle-aged man in our church was flirting with me. I was floored. It never occurred to me that this man might be romantically interested. He was clearly a grown-up, and I didn't think of myself as one. I didn't exactly think of myself as a youth anymore, but neither did I see myself as a proper, official "Adult Woman." I told her as much, and she replied that I was in fact an adult and that it was high time I owned that identity.
She was right. I was 22 and clearly an adult. But I had grown up in an evangelical culture that closely associates being an adult with being married. I was at that point an unmarried virgin, so through the eyes of both pop culture and evangelical culture, I saw myself as somehow less than a fully adult woman.
Thankfully, I had these individual conversations that challenged me to inhabit an adult identity. But for those who don't, we have no ecclesial, communal way to initiate single Christian young people into adulthood. Consequently, I know single women in their 30s who feel marginalized by the narratives of Christian womanhood. They don't fit in with amped up, youth-group-like singles groups, but they feel alienated by their adulthood-as-marriage church culture.
To some extent, in liturgical traditions like mine, the historic practice of confirmation might serve in part as a coming of age celebration, affirming that a child has grown into his or her own person of faith and commissioning the young into a life of mature discipleship. However, in order for confirmation to actually be significant as a rite of passage, we must recover a theological and communal vision for the practice. Perhaps we evangelicals need to consider making this tradition a bigger deal, a significant celebration and achievement.
I have a priest friend who leads confirmation and often finds the ritual can be rote and meaningless for families, even a sort of "graduation" from church. Lower church traditions don't have any practice wherein young adults publicly appropriate the Christian faith as their own (outside of baptism, which even in Baptist circles many do as young children).
To truly initiate the young into adulthood in the church, we need a practice that's rigorous and profound, that calls people to be mature, articulate, faithful believers in Christ, that challenges them to take on the responsibility and joy of being adult leaders and culture shapers, and that is a real communal celebration (with good food and champagne toasts.)
Historically, confirmation provides space for people to own the faith for themselves and to more fully walk in the Holy Spirit as they commit themselves to serve the church. After our eldest daughter was baptized, we had a big party. Our friend who is an organic caterer and another friend who was a pastry chef pitched in to make it one of the happiest, most beautiful days of my life (with some of the best food). A friend in attendance said, "Man, this is better than a wedding."
Unlike baptism, confirmation is not a sacrament and does not have the theological import thereof. But if we want our young women to feel valued, welcomed into adulthood, and affirmed as strong, independent women without having to reject modesty and chastity or twerk with Robin Thicke, then we need meaningful, communal rites of passage. Maybe celebrating confirmation like we mean it is a step in that direction.
When my daughters come of age, I want them to refer to themselves and to truly know themselves no longer as girls but as women, not because they've achieved the male gaze or even because they're married, but because the people of God, as a community, have called them women. And not just women, but women of the church, sealed in the Holy Spirit, with gifts, strength, and worth as members of and contributors to the bride and body of Christ.
Tish Harrison Warren is a transitional deacon in the Anglican Church in North America. She and her husband work with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries at The University of Texas at Austin and have two young daughters. She writes for The Well, InterVarsity's online magazine for women.