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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Miley Cyrus flashpoint for St. Norbert lecture

Pop culture met a scholarly approach in a new center for gender studies.

PHOTO: Kurt Voss holds a photograph of his daughter, Cassandra Voss, as he stands with Karlyn Crowley, director of the Cassandra Voss Center at St. Norbert College in De Pere. St. Norbert College photo

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – All sorts of wags had a field day with Miley Cyrus’ bad girl performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards last August. Monday, March 17, the conversation widened as the episode became the stirring point for a collegiate lecture, “Who Cares About Miley Cyrus? Gender Goes Pop Culture.”

St. Norbert College has a new center devoted to women’s and gender studies, and the scholarly Enrichment Series lecture by Karlyn Crowley of the college’s English faculty and director of the Cassandra Voss Center fit right in.

Miley Cyrus did not attend – not that she was aware of the event, much less invited. Her salacious performance was, however, the “object lesson” for people who “might take issue with the Princess Culture,” Karlyn Crowley said.

Karlyn Crowley is well aware of the Princess Culture. She said her 2-year-old daughter is into it. So is one of my granddaughters. It’s princess this, princess that – books, toys, dresses, conversation, picture-drawing. An aura. Eating, sleeping, dreaming – it’s the whole shebang.

Seems innocent enough. For little girls, there’s “an illusion of safety… a pristine world they can enter into,” Karlyn Crowley said.

Tick tock. Things change.

Americans well know the culture through Disney. One of Disney’s main images is the Fantasyland castle. And then there are the princesses: Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida and Elsa.

From 2006 to 2011, Miley Cyrus starred as a Disney princess of sorts in the TV series “Hanna Montana.” With that came what Karlyn Crowley called the Disney Kids Complex – sweet while it’s happening, and then time marches on. The choices are just two in the pop culture realm. Her Disney days over, Miley Cyrus took the provocative route. One result was the performance of her song, “We Can’t Stop,” becoming a medley and display of raunch with Robin Thicke, Kendrick Lamar and 2 Chainz. The performance was seen live by MTV viewers and then amplified to oversized proportions on the Internet.

Karlyn Crowley invited reaction from her audience members. One person was “shocked by the switch” in Miley Cyrus’ personality. Comments from others were “a lot to handle,” “took it too far,” “everything quirky” and “brat.” You may become engaged, too, and share a thought at karlyn.crowley@snc.edu.

Karlyn Crowley’s talk also covered the male participation in the episode, “racial appropriation” by Miley Cyrus with the women performers and how Miley Cyrus benefited in music sales from sensation-seeking performance.

The topic is full of paradoxes and dilemmas. Plus, seeming role models have a tendency to unravel in front of our eyes.

Also, Karlyn Crowley pointed out a common behavior. Meeting/greeting a little girl, many times there’s comment on her appearance – “Oh, you look cute,” “That’s a nice dress,” etc. “That tells them looks are more important than anything,” she said.

Karlyn Crowley is author of the book, “Feminism’s New Age: Gender, Appropriation, and the Afterlife of Essentialism.”

VENUE: The Cassandra Voss Center was dedicated in September 2013 in a renovated building that originally was St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, built in 1883. More recently, the building housed the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps and the Residence Life offices of St. Norbert College. The exterior is brick with such distinguishing features as Gothic arch windows and a tower base from the former church steeple. The interior is modernized while retaining some original features, including some stained glass windows. Most prominent in the central area are the original wood floor (remarkably without a knothole) and huge, exposed ceiling supports with wooden beams that run the length (about 50 feet) of the space. More about the facility is at www.snc.edu/cvc/.

THE PERSON: Cassandra Voss was on track to be the first St. Norbert College student to complete an individualized major in women’s and gender studies. She was an intern at the Joan P. Schaupp Women’s Center. Cassandra Voss was known for possessing a joyful, welcoming and infectious spirit. She was actively involved in promoting gender justice at the college. She died at age 21 in May 2007 as the result of an automobile accident in Nebraska. Kurt Voss, her father, was instrumental in the building being converted for its present uses. More is at www.snc.edu/cvc/.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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