A few posts ago I defended Miley Cyrus’ right to perform in any way she chooses, and folks shouldn’t indulge in slut-shaming. Well, my earlier post deserves a huge “that being said” because it’s important to note that while Cyrus’ desire to define her own sexuality is valid, her desire to appropriate, manipulate, and distort black female sexuality is not only invalid, but insensitive and narrow-minded.
The performance has been described and shared ad nauseam, but the low-hanging fruit of offensiveness included Cyrus twerking (more on that in a second), and grinding with Robin Thicke (who wandered in late into the performance, warbled a few lines of his hit “Blurred Lines” and was dutifully overshadowed and eclipsed by Cyrus) and gyrating with a crew of black female dancers, before smacking one of them on the backside and simulating rimming.
The placement of Cyrus in this tableaux vivant is purposeful – her thin, white young body barely clothed, moving on a stage with her backup dancers – one of whom plays the role of Cyrus’ personal Hottentot Venus.
All of this isn’t new – Cyrus isn’t the first white pop star to try to ape black tropes to appear transgressive. That sin isn’t what’s so terrible – the Beatles, Dusty Springfield, Adele all have used sounds traditionally used by black performers to creat their sounds, but have remained gratefully free of the offensive minstrel act that Cyrus revealed last Sunday at the VMAs. In his questionably complimentary article, “Miley Cyrus triumphed at the VMAs — but where does she go from here?” Entertainment Weekly writer Nick Calucci rightly points out that “As for Miley herself twerking: How different is this from Madonna voguing? Madge borrowed that style from New York City’s multiracial drag ball scene, and used dancers to help represent it. Twerking’s a much more explicitly sexual dance, and it comes from more strictly African-American sources.”
Calucci is right – Madonna’s thievery of voguing is similar to Cyrus’ tweaking, but he’s wrong if he thinks that no one has raised an eyebrow over Madonna’s appropriation of black gay culture (Calucci should check out bell hooks’ work on Madonna). But aside from that, there’s more to Cyrus’ “race” problem than simple posturing – because, after all, Cyrus isn’t the first in line of white people pretending to be a media-concocted version of black people.
The issue is that Cyrus is the latest in a long line of whites who exploit and otherize black women and their sexuality for audiences in hopes of creating a sexual stir. In an attempt to look sexually transgressive, Cyrus adopted faux bisexuality and markers of what people think of as black culture to impress her audiences.
In her excellent article “When Your (Brown) Body is a (White) Wonderland,” blogger tressiemc writes of this fetishicizing of black female sexuality by sharing her own experiences of being objectified because of perceived exoticism. She writes of white people – both men and women who sexualize black women in places like dance clubs, reveling in the supposed transgressive act of bumping and grinding up against a black woman.
And she’s right – moving away from Cyrus’ vulgar act of racial appropriation, our culture is positively fascinated with black women’s buttocks – again, a harmful throwback to the offensive image of the Hottentot Venus – a sexual side-show of stereotypes and exotic othering.
Many defend Cyrus’ racial blind spot, arguing that she’s not sophisticated or introspective enough to participate knowingly in racially offensive discourse. And those supporters are probably right, but her inability to read what she’s doing doesn’t ameliorate the situation – if Cyrus’ racial insensitivity is a result of ignorance , then she merely represents the sort of banality of malevolence that normalizes this kind of behavior.
What we’re talking about is more than just treating black women’s bodies are our personal playgrounds of sexual experimentation – a practice that has been an issue in this country throughout its whole history. While Cyrus shouldn’t be ashamed for celebrating or flaunting her sexuality, she should be ashamed for celebrating or flaunting her racial insensitivity.