Miley Cyrus Can’t Stop but Should Stop
Despite Miley Cyrus’s appropriation of the phrase “we can’t stop, and we won’t stop” in her new single . . . I’m REALLY gonna need her to stop. Seriously, Miley, Put your tongue back in your mouth and JUST STOP.
Most of us have seen Cyrus making the media rounds displaying her newfound love of “twerking.” (I use the scare quotes because we all know that awkward thing she keeps doing with her butt isn’t twerking. It’s more, you know, “twerking.”) She’s been spotted “twerking” on stage with Juicy J and is now working on her new album BANGERZ (yeah, let that soak in for a minute) which features Cyrus rapping as well as collaborations with Wiz Khalifa, Big Sean, Future, French Montana, Nelly, and Ludacris. The video for her single “We Can’t Stop” features Cyrus “twerking” while surrounded by voluptuous Black women who serve as props for Cyrus to periodically grope. (For some great analysis of Cyrus’s antics read here and here.)
In addition to simply being cringe-inducing, the racially problematic aspects of Cyrus’s new persona aren’t random. She’s working at the intersection of two very long, well-established traditions of racial appropriation and oppression – the use of “Blackness” by white youth as a means of performing “coolness” and “rebelliousness” and the objectification and exoticization of Black women that reduces them into curiosities to be displayed for eager white eyes.
White youth have been appropriating (what they perceive as) Black cultures for centuries. Hip hop and rock-n-roll are the examples that immediately spring to mind. But, the practice actually dates back to nineteenth century bohemians. The social construction of people of African descent as primitive not only gave moral justification for slavery and colonialism; it also resulted in a conceptualization of “Blackness” as unbridled, uninhibited, and hyper-sexual. Antebellum whites used blackface minstrelsy to indulge in a sense of freedom and play that stood in stark contrast to Victorian bourgeoisie norms (Lott 1995). Basically, they mimicked their idea of Black culture as a way to rebel and piss off their parents. There is a direct line from blackface to the “white Negros” of the beatnik movement to Elvis Presley and the appropriation of rock-n-roll (and, arguably, to the mainstreaming of Hip hop culture today). Cyrus is merely the most recent iteration in several centuries of white kids reaching into the grab-bag of Black racial stereotypes to find fashions and behaviors they can use to show everyone how cool and edgy they are.
But, Cyrus isn’t satisfied with rapping, donning gold fronts, or even “twerking.” It seems she can only shed her Hannah Montana good-girl image by combining appropriation with the objectification of Black women. And, I don’t mean just your run of the mill, treating-someone-like-they-are-a-thing-instead-of-a-person objectification. I mean a full-on, hardcore spectacle of the Other. In her VMA performance, she reiterates her use of Black female bodies as props, just like her “We Can’t Stop” video. But the real moment of horror came a little less than two minutes into the performance, when this happened –
Cyrus walked up behind this woman, grabbed her butt and pretended to rub her face in it. She then, of course, spanked the woman a bit before the dancer left the stage and Cyrus continued showing us how edgy she is. Sexual objectification of women’s bodies, especially women of color, in media spaces like MTV is pretty much standard practice. But this dancer gets treated with even less dignity than a sexual object. Her body is on display as a curiosity. The cameras filming for broadcast never actual show the woman’s face. Her head is out of the shot during Cyrus’s “interaction” with her, visually reducing her just one body part. The whole scene is eerily reminiscent of Saartje Baartman, the South African woman who was exhibited across Europe in the nineteenth century so that white Europeans could marvel at her large buttocks and extended labia.
And whether Cyrus or her fans and collaborators want to recognize it or not, this is the ideological and cultural tradition she is working within. It’s the reduction of Black women to female bodies to physical anomalies to be treated as novelties in a spectacle of difference for the white viewing public.
So yeah, Miley, not only can you stop, you should stop.
Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.