In case you have been living under a rock for the last week: there is this girl named Miley Cyrus. Back in the day, she was doing this.
On Sunday, at the MTV VMA Awards, she did this.
Predictably, the Internets blew up.
Yesterday, we’ve seen several memes and quite a bit of conservative finger-wagging (which, in feminist circles, is known as slut-shaming). There has been the predictable admonishments of Cyrus’ risque, sexualized behaviour and the predictable response from White feminists defending her right to be as slutty as she wants to be.
But, very few commented on the racial overtones of Cyrus’ performance. I read a great post this morning by Anne Theriault on Huffington Post Canada (there’s a Huffington Post Canada?) detailing the racial appropriation of Cyrus and calling White feminists out on their familiar to address this aspect of the performance in their fervor to defend her.
What Miley is doing is cultural appropriation. She, a wealthy white woman, is taking elements from black culture in order to achieve a specific image. Her status as a member of a traditionally oppressive race and class means that she is able to pick and choose what parts of black culture she wants to embrace without having to deal with the racism and racialization that black women live with every day. In short, she can imagine that she is being “ghetto” without having any concept of what living in a ghetto would really mean.
Miley is doing her best to promote herself as a part of rachet culture, which Jody Rosen describes as “the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies,” while simultaneously treating the black women in her videos and performances as props. She is taking elements of black culture and using them to give her the patina of street cred that she wants so badly. She is playing at being black without even trying to understand what the lived experience of being black really is. She is appropriating cultural elements without taking any time to reflect on her position of privilege and how her use of the term “ratchet” or her twerking are contributing to the oppression of black people.
Even worse, in her performance last night Miley used black women as props — like, literal props — and barely anyone said anything. I saw very few people displaying any outrage over the fact that Miley was, at one point, slapping a faceless black woman on the ass as if she was nothing more than a thing for Miley to dominate and humiliate. I saw barely anyone discussing the fact that Miley’s sexual empowerment, or whatever you want to call it, should not come at the cost of degrading black women. I saw a whole lot of people giving Miley a pass for her behaviour because she’s young and naive and sheltered.
I couldn’t agree more with Theriault on the subject. I find the issues of Cyrus’ cultural appropriation particularly galling given that she is routinely crowned as the “Queen of Twerk”. It’s kind of like when David Carradine is America’s kung fu master.
As I posted on Facebook yesterday, I really don’t understand the recent fascination with twerking over the last few months, popularized in large part by Miley Cyrus. Yesterday, I asked on Facebook — isn’t twerking something we’ve been doing for decades now? Sure, “twerking” is a relatively obscure name (James tells me it originates out of reggae) but the actual dance move is familiar to those of us who have ever hit the dance floor in the last three decades. As long as we were listening to music that originated out of hip hop culture.
Look, I’m not claiming I’m a part of hip hop culture, or that I have any particularly expertise in it. But I am at least aware that twerking, or grinding, or booty clapping, or whatever you want to call it has existed for a long time. It’s as if White America suddenly discovered a thing that has been part of Black culture forever.
The YouTubes are full of White girls twerking, as if it’s the new hot thing. The conservative pundits are up in arms about how it’s shameful and slutty and shouldn’t be done.
But, it’s as if now that they know about it, now it’s legitimate thing.
Now we should care that the White MTV generation thinks this is a thing they should aspire to do (which by the way, for all you tweens reading this blog, you shouldn’t) and that the White conservative pundits should freak out about. Now twerking is a thing that Rush Limbaugh thinks signals the decline of American culture.
Now America is both shocked and fascinated by twerking. Now we should be concerned about how this form of dance is potentially sexist, or femininely empowering.
Where were you folks fifteen years ago? Where were you when Beyonce grinded her booty on Jay-Z’s ambivalent leg? Where were you when Nelly did this?
It bothers me that Miley Cyrus is labelled the “Queen of Twerk” because it only perpetuates this notion that twerking is legitimate only so long as a White girl does it. Miley Cyrus is not the “Queen of Twerk” (and to be fair, she rejects the title although not for racially appropriating reasons), she’s just the latest White girl to have appropriated something from hip hop culture to distinguish herself from her squeaky-clean Disney days.
Because, y’know, the farthest thing from “family-friendly” is… Blackness? ‘Cuz that’s not racist…
I’m also a little bothered by the notion that Miley Cyrus, who is basically the textbook definition of conventionally pretty, is being heralded as the Queen of a dance that has traditionally emphasized the sexuality of full-figured Black women as a method of directly challenging the “Thin is In” mentality of mainstream American beauty.
Either way, my reaction to Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance wasn’t shock. It wasn’t disgust. For an awards ceremony that once featured a woman wearing meat, I found Cyrus’ performance relatively tame as far as shock value is concerned. I guess I’m just not puritanical enough to be offended by a girl grinding on a man to music.
Instead, I just found Cyrus’ performance sad. Cyrus has every right to prance around on stage in nude coloured underwear and a foam finger, but one must still question why she wants so desperately to distinguish herself from her Hannah Montana phase. Why is she looking to shock? Why does she need America to see her as sexual and cool and all the other things that only a twerk-y bonanza can accomplish on a stage?
To me, Cyrus’ performance was kind of like watching the really, really, really drunk girl at the party. Y’know who I’m talking about – the girl who is doing all the things that might be sexy, if she weren’t kinda also kinda uncoordinated and also so desperately uninhibited.
I wasn’t shocked or appalled or whatever Rush Limbaugh is. I was just really sad that there’s no one in Miley’s world there to take her quietly by the hand to the bathroom, hold her hair back as she pukes, and give her water.