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
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.