Right, Internet. You have driven me to it. I am going to write a post about Miley Cyrus and I have no idea how I got here.
First off: I have literally zero fucking interest in Miley Cyrus. For a long time I did not realise that Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus were the same person, then I watched most of a Hannah Montana movie once when I was drunk. I think the screaming goat version of Party in the USA is comedy gold and there is a Miley Cyrus reference in an Amanda Palmer song I like and that was literally the extent of my knowledge of her until twenty four hours ago, when I became aware that I had missed the memo on her transformation from teeny-bopping American sweetheart into the gyrating mess of latex and lolling tongue that was jamming up my newsfeed yesterday morning.
As a piece of theatre, stripped of all social and cultural context, Miley Cyrus’s appearance at the 2013 VMA’s was abysmal. Her movements looked uncomfortable and uncoordinated, her costumes did not fit her properly, her voice sounded strained, the choreography was sloppy (I am generously assuming there was choreography involved.) Then Robin Thicke made his listless entrance and the whole thing was catapulted into the realm of the truly surreal as Miley’s cavorting became even more frantic and the presence of a much older man made her look even more like a toddler doing wobbly burlesque in Mummy’s heels and lipstick. It was awful. Nobody had a good time.
In context, it was a hot racist mess of cultural misappropriation. In both her performance and the video for We Can’t Stop, black people appear as accessories and background props, presumably to lend legitimacy to the project and achieving that end with roughly the same efficacy as the “But I have black friends!” defense against accusations of racism. Cyrus freely borrowed signifiers of ratchet culture without any acknowledgement of the relevance and context of these signifiers. To quote Dodai Stewart:
“Miley and her ilk need to be reminded that the stuff they think is cool, the accouterments they’re borrowing, have been birthed in an environment where people are underprivileged, undereducated, oppressed, underrepresented, disenfranchised, systemically discriminated against and struggling in a system set up to insure that they fail.”
Ninja Cate also summed it up fantastically in a comment on Jezebel:
“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?”
Since I found out what “ratchet” means yesterday, I am woefully unqualified to go into more depth about the race issue, so here are some articles that I found enlightening and that are essential for getting a full picture of the multiple levels of racism and intertwined misogyny going on here:
- Wilbert L. Cooper and Prof Akil Houston on VICE: Miley Cyrus needs to take an African-American studies class.
- Dodai Stewart on Jezebel: On Miley Cyrus, Ratchet Culture and Accessorizing with Black People
- Sesali Bowen on Feministing: Let’s get ratchet! Check your privilege at the door
- Jody Rosen on Vulture: The 2013 VMAs Were Dominated by Miley’s Minstrel Show
- Alyssa Rosenberg on ThinkProgress: Miley Cyrus’ Performance At The VMAs And How Ratchet Culture Became The New Implied Bisexuality
- Anne Theriault on HuffPo: What Miley Cyrus Did Was Disgusting — But Not For the Reasons You Think
So most of the world agrees that the whole thing was ludicrous, misguided and painful to watch.
But none of it was new.
The outfit, the routine, the obscenity, the raunch, the racism; nothing new and nothing shocking in context of an industry awards show where generating artificial scandal is the whole point of the enterprise. White people cherry-picking and imitating aspects of black culture for profit with colossal levels of ignorance and disrespect is nothing new. The gross sexual objectification of young female celebrities – and their enthusiastic participation in that process – is nothing new.
The only thing that is new in this situation is that all of these things have suddenly come together in a weird cultural moment in the latex-clad body of a skinny white twenty year-old former Disney poplet trying to twerk against a fully-clothed man singing about how he’s going to liberate her. Her performance was the flare that threw the entire system into stark relief. In six minutes of stunning clarity, the performance crystallised everything that is wrong with Western celebrity culture. As Emily puts it over on Rosie Says:
“It’s like a gender studies bingo card: cultural appropriation, slut-shaming, female chauvinist pigs, shock politics, objectification of self, minstrel performance…”
To which I would add: rape culture, imperialism, Othering, commodification of female sexuality, sexual liberation as co-opted by patriarchy… it’s literally ALL in there, in that one performance. It would actually be kind of impressive if it was not so deeply troubling.
We shower moderately talented teenagers with untold wealth and fame, and then we are shocked when they grow up and start behaving like obnoxious little shitheads with major entitlement issues and no grasp on reality. We tell women that their primary worth is as sexual objects and the greatest achievement they can aspire to is being super-hot, then we are horrified by latex bikinis and strip club style dancing and humping and lewdness. We fetishize youth and the beauty that comes with it, and then we are concerned when young people start earnestly participating in their own fetishization. We consume black culture in sanitized chunks, mediated with white bodies, while simultaneously denying that there is any sort of systemic privilege inherent in being white, and then we are offended that anyone might call us racist because we don’t even see race.
We clutch our pearls and wonder what the problem could possibly be and of course, it must be Miley Cyrus. It must be her, personally, because she’s a slut, she’s a whore, she’s trash, or it’s her parents, it’s their fault, how could they raise her like this, it’s such a shame, it’s such a tragedy, but whatever it is, it’s definitely an individual problem that can be blamed on an individual young woman and her immediate family.
After this post, I’m almost definitely going to go back to my blissful life of never thinking about Miley Cyrus ever again. But even though I don’t care about Miley Cyrus – as a person, as a performer, as a concept – I do care about what this performance means. If there was ever a comprehensive teachable moment on Western celebrity culture, this is it; this is the system and Miley Cyrus is a pristine product of that system, not an anomaly. The lines have never been less blurry.