thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Why We Should All Be Making a Fuss about Miley’s VMA Moves

In activism, gender, race on August 27, 2013 at 3:03 pm

Phoebe B.

Since the infamous Miley twerking incident at the VMAs, I’ve spent the last couple days following Facebook conversations—mostly by white liberals, of which I am one myself—on Miley’s performance. For the most part, white liberals have spent these threads arguing over whether or not to pay attention to this particular media event and if it really even matters. A few comments have suggested that “well-intentioned white liberals” are overreacting to Miley’s appropriation of black ratchet culture. This brand of dismissal is not only wrong on many counts, but also, I think, a big part of the problem.

Many of the conversations I have been following miss several truly important points about the history of white appropriation of black culture—and erase the participation of black voices from the discussion to boot.



As Dodai Stewart writes on Jezebel,

“basically, she, as a rich white woman, is “playing” at being a minority specifically from a lower socio-economic level. Along with the gold grill and some hand gestures, Miley straight-up appropriates the accoutrements associated with certain black people on the fringes of society.”

Miley is just one in a long line of stars who have appropriated parts of black culture for their own financial and image-remaking advantage. Indeed, Miley adopts this persona for power and profit, both of which are her reward for said appropriation. In her re-making of herself from Hannah Montana to … well, something else, she unapologetically uses black culture—and a specific vision and part of black culture—as a way to make her appear cool, hard-core, and badass. This brand of appropriation reinforces problematic and harmful stereotypes about black culture and reiterates that it is a-okay for a rich white girl to steal, use, and abuse any part of black culture that she sees fit (as she also de-historicizes and de-politicizes ratchet culture).

Ninjacate’s response on Groupthink sums this all up awesomely in “Solidarity is for Mliey Cyrus:”

“What Miley did last night was easily one of the most racist displays I’ve ever seen. From her insistence on twerking, to her use of all black women as literal props (they were teddy bears) to her smacking of her dancer’s ass and the simulation of rimming, it is very clear to me, that Miley thinks that black women’s bodies are to be enjoyed, devalued and put on display for entertainment purposes.”

To those white liberals complaining that this is not something to talk about or spend time on, you are wrong. Because, as Ninjacate says,

 “Miley sticks middle finger up in pics, smokes & wears grills = just her being a kid. Trayvon does it = hes a thug #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen.”  

Really, just read the whole thing because she is spot on: “Solidarity is For Miley.”

And! There is a long history of this kind of appropriation in US culture, wherein whites take and appropriate minority cultures for their own (white) benefit. That is all to say, the exchange of cultures here is unequal because the power dynamic is unequal and so Miley, for example, taking on ratchet culture can only be exploitive (For other examples, see Adrienne K at Native Appropriations here and watch Melissa Harris Perry break down the Harlem Shake and be amazing here).

Miley is a part a much larger problem, and the reaction to her horrifying VMA performance goes beyond the slut-shaming that defined at least part of the public response (which of course is also a big problem). This is all to say that this white liberal feminist is thinking that others who identify the same way should start listening to the very real criticisms of Miley’s performance. I realize I’m a little late to the game in this conversation—I’m without TV these days, and teaching is just starting up again. But as #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen so powerfully showed, far too many white feminists forget intersectionality in political and cultural conversations about women and feminism. Safe to say (and as you might have already guessed), I think it would be yet another failure to ignore Miley’s VMA moves.

PS for some awesome pre-VMA discussion of Miley’s Twerking, check out Sesali Bowen’s “Let’s Get Ratchet” over at Feministing.

  1. […] Why We Should All Be Making a Fuss about Miley’s VMA Moves […]

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