Another year is creeping to an end, and as it has since 1927, Time magazine is about to name its “Person of the Year.” On Dec. 9, the “Today” show revealed the short list of those being considered, and as we were all expecting, Miley Cyrus was on it. Say what? [Editor’s Note: Pope Francis was ultimately and appropriately selected by Time, but this article’s critique of the magazine’s record on “Person of the Year” remains valid.]
Yes, that adorable tattooed vixen, who now is imposed on us at every awards show imaginable as people await her next outrageous, if absolutely meaningless, act of what? Rebellion? Well, not really. Her twerking seems more to emulate that age-old tool that some of us in PR have on occasion employed (unwillingly of course)—a publicity stunt. Cyrus was looking to stand out from a pack of female songstress contemporaries who frankly seem far more talented, including Beyoncé, Rihanna, Christina Aguilera, Shakira, Adele, etc.
Why then did Time shortlist Miley? Cynically, one might speculate it too was seeking to attract the same kind of publicity that, say, Cyrus’ original twerking episode inspired. But the editors also might have been tracking social media where one can see Cyrus has been leading the shortlist pack as a topic of conversation, save only for President Barack Obama (see Table 1). Others on the shortlist: Pope Francis; NSA leaker Edward Snowden; Tea Party favorite Senator Ted Cruz; Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos; Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; Iranian President Hassan Rouhani; and the other two women—beleaguered HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and gay rights activist Edie Windsor, who helped topple provisions in the Defense of Marriage Act.
But does social mention translate to social significance? Here is where the Time editors may want to draw insight from the public who are responsible for that social media discussion on the true meaning of the Cyrus twerk. When the “Today” show polled its viewers and social followers as to which shortlist nominee was most deserving of the Time title, overwhelmingly they selected Pope Francis (see Table 3) at 61 percent. The choice shows an appropriate recognition of how this head of the Catholic Church is a real rebel—one who has already truly changed the complexion of a ritual-bound and conservative institution and may have ensured its ability to grow in this century.
Cyrus tied for third with Cruz. Snowden, who may be the dark horse candidate given the impact of his leaks on governmental transparency, came in second.
There is, however, another disturbing aspect to Cyrus’ shortlisting that cannot go unmentioned. Why her? So few women have passed the Time test—only five out of 86 covers since 1927 have been solely dedicated to a woman or women.
Here are some women who in the past have NOT made it onto the cover:
- Eleanor Roosevelt
- Indira Gandhi
- Golda Meir
- Margaret Thatcher
- Benazir Bhutto
- Mother Teresa
- Rosa Parks
- Gertrude Stein
- Ayn Rand
- Eva Perón
- Amelia Earhart (although Charles Lindbergh did)
- Coco Chanel
- Hillary Clinton (maybe they’re waiting for 2016)
- Sarah Palin
- Jackie Kennedy
- Angela Merkel
- Princess Diana
- Rachel Carson
- Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey
And that’s just to name a few. Here are the women who have made it so far: Wallis Simpson, who almost brought down a monarchy and was a suspected Nazi sympathizer; Elizabeth II upon her coronation in 1952; Corazon Aquino upon assuming the leadership of the Philippines after overthrowing the Marcos regime; three women whistleblowers who helped bring down Enron and Worldcom and rattled the FBI; and finally U.S. women from 1975 who helped show that their gender had finally left the kitchen and were cooking elsewhere—no doubt, for a lower salary—including Betty Ford, Barbara Jordan and Billie Jean King. Melinda Gates and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek also made Time‘s annual cover, but only with their husbands.
The shortlisting of Cyrus raises troubling questions about what Time editors mean when they say they are looking for someone who is most influential in a year, for good or for bad. Even when you think of the category of singer in which the editors placed Cyrus, among those overlooked over the years: The Beatles; Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul and Mary; Ella Fitzgerald; Joan Baez; Elvis Presley; Edith Piaf; Frank Sinatra; and, for that matter, Madonna.
One might argue that Cyrus introduced twerking, which was declared the Top Teleword of the Year by Global Language Monitor, but in fact, she didn’t. The exact origins are sketchy, but it’s associated with hip-hop culture of the 1990s. Beyoncé used the term in a song in 2005; rapper Timbaland in 2006. More recently several rappers and singers, including Nicki Minaj and Robin Thicke (in front of whom Cyrus did her most notorious twerk), were talking twerk long before Cyrus was doing it.
The sad fact is that pre-twerk Cyrus didn’t garner much more social traffic than Snowden or Edie Windsor. With Cyrus’ shortlisting, despite the mentions and social buzz being generated for the media empire, Time may have unwittingly done irreparable damage to its “Person of the Year” title.
Homepage photo: WireImage (Getty Images)