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By Hope Wabuke
I swore I wasn’t going to write about Miley Cyrus. Enough people have already done it. Enough good ink has been spilled over our celebrity culture, impressionable youth and twerking—over Miley’s tongue and Miley’s big foam finger and Miley’s possible teddy bear fetish. But because no one else has said it, and if no one else has said it by now they’re not going to say it at all, I just have to ask: What if Miley Cyrus had been a boy?
What if Miley Cyrus had been just another boy prancing around (and because he is a boy he would get to be fully clothed) singing and grabbing his crotch and humping his female singing partner (who would, of course be wearing next to nothing) and his back up dancers (who would of course be wearing even less)?
Because this, of course, is accepted as normal. Sadly, this is what we have come to expect. Female soloists are only allowed to be passive—to display their bodies passively and dance in a sexually inviting manner. They are not allowed the active agency of male singers that Miley Cyrus claimed on Sunday night. But there are a few female artists who manage to reclaim a bit of agency within the mandated and expected objectification of self in pop music—to subvert the trope and show female control and agency within it. This is what Madonna and Lady Gaga, and now Janelle Monae have done. This is what Miley Cyrus is doing, and it is Miley Cyrus’s choice how her body is viewed. It is up to her to believe that this is the level of objectification she has to subject herself to…all because she is a woman who wants to be successful in her field.
But when in a position of power—both over her employees and the public, she needs to be held accountable for the latent racism in her worldview that informs her artistic and business choices. Because the personal is political and Miley Cyrus is influencing people. She is showing them how to see black women and what black women are good for. And this is how those people who believe what Miley Cyrus shows them will think of me—of all black women. And we do not want that. No we do not. We do not accept her stereotype, or her making money off of making fun of us.
That Miley Cyrus is brilliant is a given. She is all anyone has been talking and writing about for three straight days. Is her act racist? Of course it is racist. Can she build a career this way? Yes, many people have. Will it last? That depends on her. In any case, she is certainly off to a good start; she is certainly getting the attention she wanted.
Most mainstream white media spent the last two days talking about Cyrus. True, it has been mostly slut-shaming, wondering why Cyrus, a girl with close to $150 million dollars already cannot be content to achieve more fame and fortune without doing something so drastic to attract sudden, wide-spreading fame. But they are talking. Cyrus’ plan worked: in the past two days she’s been mentioned on twitter over 4.5 million times. There have been some excellent pieces written about this. And, in response, there have been other excellent pieces talking about the myopia of slut-shaming—such as Kate Dries’ piece in Jezebel– calling for an end to Miley’s persecution that, as is often the case, said nothing about the operation and meaning of racism in the piece. Even this otherwise excellent gender analysis by Salon, which acknowledged that Miley’s dancers were all black, did not begin to talk about what that meant—because talking about racism–the racism in Cyrus’ performance–was not important.
And this is exactly why Cyrus felt she could do what she did. Because Cyrus lives in a white world where it is common to erase the feelings and presence of people of color. This is the history America was founded on and still believes is right today.
And no, what Miley Cyrus did at the VMA’s is not the same as what Madonna did with her “like a virgin” video, playing with and subverting tropes of the Catholic religion she was born and raised into. Or what Lady Gaga did, owning her blurred sexuality, deep political convictions and experimental avant garde art tradition. Lady Gaga affiliates herself with the LGBT community—she came up out of that community and gives back to it through her nonprofit foundation and other efforts.
Miley Cyrus has done none of that. She decided she wanted a new thing, a “black sound,” she says, and so she found some gold teeth, some linked rings, learned some new dance moves and thought she could hire some “slave girls” whose big black butts she could rim with her tongue and slap with her hand. All she needed was a whip. Because Cyrus’ performance depended upon a use of stereotypes—an understanding that black women are only props and objects, slaves on the auction block under the control of Miley Cyrus, the new slave master.
Agrees Jezebel community member @ninjacate in this excellent article on Jezebel’s groupthink in response to Jezebel (and Salon’s) myopic analysis:
Okay…. but can we talk about the problematic and racist nature of her performance? Her literal use of people as props? Her association of her newfound sexuality with the traditional codifiers of black female culture, thereby perpetuating the Jezebel stereotype that black women are lewd, lascivious and uncontrollably sexualized? Can we talk about the straight up minstrelsy of that performance? Can we talk about how not a single black person won an award last night even though the people who did win awards have been mining black music and culture for years? No? Ok… I’ll just sit at the back of the bus then. solidarityisforwhitewomen.
Because over and over, black women talk about how the legacy of American slavery and apartheid exist today in how white men and women still feel they can touch us without our consent. And I’m not even talking about rape. I’m talking about people reaching out to touch our braids, our hair; white men reaching out in public to slap or grab our butts, as also detailed here in on Jezebel’s groupthink by @Korra. Wrote @Korra:
I have had white people I barely know feel like they can do what they please with my body. I have had my ass slapped in: gym class, the lunch line, at work (by both coworkers and by a gang of white children I was supposed to be in charge of at the time). I have had people make unsolicited comments about my ass, rate my ass, and once my supervisors at a camp I was working at took a picture of my ass in a bathing suit and then showed that picture during the big end-of-summer slideshow. All of the white counselors had multiple pictures of them hanging with the kids, or doing fun/funny things. I, one of the very few WoC counselors, got a picture of my ass on the big screen. It was mortifying.
This has happened to me at least five times in my lifetime—and I’m not even counting the constant stares as if looking through your clothes and undressing you.
I know it’s considered cool and hip and edgy for young women to adopt “male” attitudes and signifiers to appear empowered and in control. But I would argue that that is the least control one can have. Because you are aspiring to become part of the system that oppresses you and your sisters rather than advocating for systems of equality that do not oppress anyone. You are making yourself into the image of someone else instead of discovering the shape of who you are supposed to be.
Up until a couple of months ago, Cyrus confessed, she did not know who Jay Z was. And yet she now thinks she knows enough about black culture to reduce it to six things: gold teeth, blinged out gold knuckle rings, sexy dancing, big butts, doing drugs, and wild, kinky sexual behavior.
In her privilege, in her inexcusable ignorance, Miley Cyrus put on what the New York Magazine’s music critic Jody Rosen called a “minstrel show” throwing back to the times of Al Jolson and other white actors who would paint their faces black and perform stereotypes of African Americans—usually making monkey noises or butt slapping as well. And I agree. Put some black paint on Miley Cyrus and that is pretty much what you had last night. What if Cyrus used Jewish culture and signifiers? What if Cyrus used Native American signifiers—worn a headdress and sexy Indian girl outfit and had sexy Indian back-up dancers in headdresses and fur itsy bitsy bikinis? What if Cyrus had done a fake war or rain dance ending with scalping one of the Native American girls? Would the latent racism still have gone ignored then and still be excused now? Because blackness is much more than the stereotypes Miley Cyrus presented us with. Black women are much more than the stereotypes Miley Cyrus presented us with. And I wonder, how in 2013 in America, can someone not know this? How can we let someone not know this?
And now twerking, two days after Cyrus’s stunt, has been added to the English dictionary. And race matters her too becausetwerking, a form of dance that has been around for hundreds of years in Africa and among African Americans, and “it is not,” Roxane Gay explains, “what Miley Cyrus did last night.” And yet, now, her colonization of a thing has been put in the dictionary as her definition of it; it has been defined by and only becomes socially accepted, as with many things, when a white person does it, and this double standard is getting old.
Miley has every right to imitate and be inspired by black culture. To say that only whiteness can be aspired to, can inspire and be drawn from is a dangerous way of thinking. But it is how you imitate a culture–whether you do it respectfully or not, whether you are aware of the relationship of cultures to each other and within history. And how, when you add identity and power and our nation’s history of white supremacy, of making money off the work of black bodies that begun with slavery and continues today with Cyrus’ costar Thicke suing Marvin gay’s family after borrowing from his music just like Elvis did to more black people, this issue of representation becomes much more complex and loaded.
And it gets worse. Not one article in the media thus far has talked about how Miley Cyrus’ act was not just a black minstrel show, but a gay minstrel show—how Cyrus ended her performance simulating anallingus—and other lesbian sex acts—upon her blackest “biggest booty” female back-up dancer. Because Cyrus is not gay nor an LBGTQ ally like Lady Gaga; Cyrus identifies a heterosexual. “Appropriation,” says Courtnee C. Howard, implies a general marginalization of a culture as a whole, while selectively exploiting random elements of said culture.” Engaged, planning a wedding to her movie star fiancé , Miley Cyrus has no understanding of the oppression gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people have faced throughout history—that they still face today. Nor does she have any understanding of the oppression LBGT people of color face in this country and around the world–of places like Barbados and Jamaica and Uganda that have laws against gays, that allow legal violence and oppression against gays. Not to mention Russia’s recent and embarrassing acts of discrimination against gays in the Olympics. The oppression of homosexuals is something very real, very present. Something that people are dying for at this very moment. It is not something “hip” and “edgy” to try on for shock value to sell records and make money. And I wonder, how in 2013 in America, can someone not know this? How can we let someone not know this?
And so back to wondering too, what if Miley Cyrus was a white man instead of a white woman.
A white man emerging as if on an ecstasy trip to a dream of masturbating to his finger and Teddy Bear and imagined character from favorite kiddie movie as envisioned by Miley Cyrus Sunday night? To sing and grab his crotch and hump his back up dancers—all dark-skinned black women with very large butts? To slap their asses and sing about how much fun it is to have sex with black women he had bought just for sex—given the very loaded history of race in American where, even though slavery ended in 1865, from 1619 to the 1970’s any white man could rape any black girl or woman and get away with it pretty much?
Would this latent racism still be excused then?
Miley’s big foam finger is pointing at us and saying we have some serious work to do with regards to how race and respect of personhood are understood in America. What’s the obligation when representing another culture? How can we do this respectfully?
And I wonder if Miley—and also Robin Thicke with his theft of Marvin Gaye’s music—has forgotten that there are also black people in the room. Lady Gaga worked with Beyonce, Justin Timberlake worked with Janet Jackson. After last Sunday’s brilliant ugliness, what self-respecting black artist will work with Miley Cyrus? But then again, there are always people who will do anything for money, as we saw Sunday night.