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Monthly Archives: August 2013

This summer, I’ve invited my graduate students to submit blog posts to tellingtheflesh.com. Luckily, they’ve almost all expressed an interest. They’re a highly diverse bunch and I’m really looking forward to reading and posting their thoughts.

The second of these comes from Sarah McQuarrie, a Master of Gender Studies student at  MUN. Sarah brings a background in sexuality studies and has research interests in queer identity and performance.

Performing Racism, Cultural Appropriation and Rape Culture: Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke at the VMA’s

by Sarah McQuarrie

This blog post likely comes as no surprise after Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke’s performance at the MTV’s Video Music Awards (VMA’s) last Sunday night.  While the media and internet world exploded with commentary geared at and critiquing young Miley for her uncomfortable and highly sexual performance, less attention has been paid to the blatant cultural appropriation she engaged in and, more importantly, the ever-growing trend within the music and entertainment industries that allows celebrities to perform narratives of racism, appropriation, and rape culture without much thought or consideration.  Furthermore, while celebrities engage in these practices, critics also fail to adequately address how these messages are becoming naturalized and accepted by audiences.

To recap the performance: Cyrus performed her new single “We Can’t Stop” by wearing a metallic swimsuit-type apparatus and emerging from a giant monkey. This was followed by awkward dancing and unsupported, breathy vocals.  The performance really heated up, however, when Cyrus stripped down to a nude two-piece and was joined by summer superstar Robin Thicke to perform a collaboration of Thicke’s recent hit, “Blurred Lines” (another controversial song).

In response to her performance Cyrus has been criticized (and slut-shamed) for her moves, use of props, facial expressions, and revealing attire.  ABC News, for example, states, “Cyrus bent down in front of Thicke and gave him the mother of all twerks,” while MTV reports, “Miley gave him [Thicke] an up close and personal private twerk show as the song climaxed,” and finally JuliaE who comments to an article on perezhilton.com (comment #27):

she is disgusting, skanky, and out of control.  How any man would want to put anything in her twerking idiot is beyond me.  She’s a train wreck and I hope the entire world just lets her know that there is nothing sexy or remotely interesting about her tongue or stick body.  No more Miley. Yuk!

Less attention however, has been paid to the blatant appropriation of black culture and utilization black women’s literal body parts (specifically butts) as props.  Throughout the performance, Cyrus performed a style of African-American hip-hop dance known as “Twerking”.  Twerking requires a dancer to shake their hips up-and-down in a bouncing motion in order to embody a kind of sexualized “jiggle”.  It was originally made popular in the New Orleans’ hip-hop scene in the early to mid-90s, but has since seen renewed popularity.

Cyrus’ desire to “black-up” and “urbanize” her music and recent VMA performance by twerking and sporting a gold grill (video) illustrates a misguided attempt at being fresh and current and instead paints her as a bit of a racist.

Blogger Ninjacate from groupthink.jezebel.com writes,

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 black women’s bodies are to be enjoyed, devalued and put on displayed for entertainment purposes (Web).

And while other critics have argued Cyrus’ performance is merely a reflection of a larger cultural trend that has incorporated aspects of black culture into mainstream music and entertainment, I don’t buy it.

Blogger Anne Theriault from The Huffington Post writes,

What Miley is doing is cultural appropriation. She’s 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 (Web).

What is critical to Theriault’s comments is her understanding of Cyrus’ embodiment of extreme cultural capital and privilege. It is because of this that she is able to disseminate information (appropriation) rapidly and on a very large scale.  To simply argue that Cyrus is reflecting on existing trends is a cop out that places zero responsibility on those with power to examine their privilege.

A similar critique can also be applied to Robin Thicke’s recent song “Blurred Lines” (and, indeed, his VMA performance) wherein he depicts aspects of rape culture in his lyrics. These lyrics include:

I know you want it
You’re a good girl
Can’t let it get past me
You’re far from plastic
Talk about getting blasted
I hate those blurred lines

And:

Ok now he was too close, tried to domesticate you
But you’re an animal, baby, it’s in your nature
Just let me liberate you

And finally: I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in to [or two]”

Both Cyrus and Thicke fail to account for the immense amount of power they hold and ignore how their actions and words function to naturalize messages of racism, appropriation, and rape culture.

As I currently work on my thesis proposal and think through ideas on the subversive and transformative potentiality of queer performance and embodiment, I sometimes forget the flip side of performing in front of audiences offers, which is that individuals with significant cultural capital are given opportunity to spread messages and ideas in very public and pervasive ways, even when they are as problematic as Cyrus’ and Thicke’s recent hits.

And while I am frustrated by their racist and problematic performances (and the subsequent messages that emerge from them) I also think their performances perhaps urge us (as feminists, scholars, and so forth) to think more critically about how these trends oppress, appropriate, and shame, and further, how they might also encourage counter productions of resistance and/or subversion.

I have included J. Mary Burnet and Kaleigh Trace’s recent parody of Thicke’s video, which I think beautifully illustrates one way in which individuals can queer and reclaim narratives of oppression through art and queer performance.

text copyright Sarah McQuarrie, 2013.

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consumption, loss of seminal liquid, infertility, lascivious or obscene dreams, weakness of breath, fevers, death, paleness, effeminacy, madness, imbecility, weight loss, disordered digestion, liver problems, bodily incapacity, paralysis, laziness, loss of intellectual capacities, palsy, nervous disorders, fainting, epilepsy, lethargy, blindness, tremors, spasms, gonorrhea, dropsy, gangrene, memory loss, disturbing dreams, pain, blindness, hearing loss, hoarseness of voice, excessive weeping, weak pulse, red face, tumours, deformity, convulsions, headaches, difficulty walking, numbness, loss of hearing, feverishness, excessive sexual desires, excessive circulation, vertigo, nightmares, insomnia, drowsiness, hypochondria, melancholy, palpitations, coughing, chest pains, intestinal problems, pox, facial disfigurement, loss of erectile function, premature ejaculation, urinary tract problems, testicular and penile tumours, hysteria, constipation, hemorrhoids, ulcers, fainting, diarrhea.

And death.

Just a few of the disastrous health effects that were believed to follow excessive engagement in the pleasures of the flesh.

Are you scared yet?

 

Pop over to the Wonders and Marvels blog for a short introduction to the art of faking virginity in early modern Europe.

Here’s what Elizabeth Goldsmith writes:

On what basis, I thought, do we continue to assume that Marie remained a virgin until her wedding night? Was it possible that young women of her time knew how to convincingly fake it? A little more research led me to Ambroise Paré, whose 1573 treatise on “monsters and marvels” includes the description of popular techniques, known since the time of Galen, for creating false evidence of virginity by inserting a fish bladder filled with blood into the vagina , so that the sheets on the wedding bed would be stained with the necessary proof. Paré further argues that the very existence of the hymen in the female anatomy is at best questionable, and possibly simply a myth.

Seems simpler than today’s vaginal rejuvenation surgeries (which, when done in micro-form post-childbirth, were just referred to as the “husband stitch”).

Simpler still would be just doing away with the virginity crap altogether.

Who needs fish bladders or hymens, anyway?

wild blueberries from our secret patch...

wild blueberries from our secret patch…

It’s full on foraging season here and I’ve spent many hours berry picking over the past few days. And as I’ve been enjoying nature’s bounty, I’ve also been thinking about food, taste, berry picking practices, place and identity.

It occurred to me, as I picked saskatoons (known locally as Chuckley Pears), that berry picking practices can be read as markers for regional identity.

You see, nobody picks saskatoons here.

Well, nobody except for people from away – mainlanders, if you will.  And yet, saskatoon bushes laden with fruit line many of the local trails. Picking, usually a quiet, contemplative activity (except for when you reach higher and higher for the juiciest berries that are always just slightly beyond your reach…), becomes a social activity. People stop. They ask questions. They nod. They taste. And then they walk on. And in that conversation, boundaries are marked and boundaries are broken. We are separated by my picking and by their questions, but we come together in our shared interest in wild berries (or, perhaps more prosaically, free food….)

On Facebook, however, saskatoons are a common currency. I mention the word and my community rejoices. Many people, it seems, have good memories of picking and eating saskatoons. Saskatoon pie. Saskatoon crumble. Saskatoon jam. Stewed up berries over yogurt. The possibilities – and the memories – are endless.

saskatoons from Kent's Pond, St. John's.

saskatoons from Kent’s Pond, St. John’s.

My memories of saskatoons are mixed. I loved eating them. But I didn’t love picking them. They grew along the riverbanks in our hometown, a mosquito-infested hell that we had to brave in order to secure our treasured fruit. Picking berries was a complex process that involved not only tubs and berries, but also bug spray, long sleeves, careful breathing, and arm flailing.

Saskatoon picking is much easier here, largely because there are so few bugs.

But saskatoons aren’t part of local identity. Here, identity is measured in blueberries, bakeapples and partridgeberries. People have their coveted berry picking spots. They measure the weather. They keep their eyes peeled. And once it’s berry picking season, everyone’s out.

And nobody is allowed home until their buckets are full.

Well, that’s not true.

But I have been amazed at the sheer volume of berries that people can pick here. Salt beef buckets. Lots of them. Or laundry detergent pails. Also lots of them. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are determined pickers. Perhaps it’s because the berries are plentiful. Perhaps it’s because it’s hard to grow so many other things. Perhaps it’s because they just taste so darn good.

Well, except for bakeapples, which have never really grown on me.

Bakeapples (also known in other parts of the world as cloudberries) are a unique fruit. Bright orange. A bit like raspberries, at least to look at. But completely different in flavour. Juicy. Somewhat sour. Yogurty in texture. Each plant produces only a single berry. And while you would think that picking them would be impractical, you’d be amazed at how many plants can congregate in a single small area.

a bakeapple, just outside the old Templeman cemetery, near Newtown, Newfoundland and Labrador

a bakeapple, just outside the old Templeman cemetery, near Newtown, Newfoundland and Labrador

In Central Newfoundland, you can buy bakeapple jam by the side of the highway. Big jars stacked on the hood of a car. I always wonder how many hours of picking went into them. Later in the summer, those same hoods will hold buckets of blueberries, and, early in the fall, buckets of partridgeberries.

Partridgeberries (or lingonberries) are my favourite, but I’ve never really figured out when, exactly, I’m supposed to pick them. Do I pick them before it freezes? Or after the first frost as local lore would have it? The very fact that I need to ask this question is, in itself, also a marker of identity.

Mainlander. It’s a word that whispers through my ears, settling itself on my body, my taste buds, my identity.

What do your berry practices tell you about who you are?

more goodness from the secret blueberry patch!

more goodness from the secret blueberry patch!