Race, class, gender and the VMAs: On the outrage over Miley Cyrus

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The outrage over Miley Cyrus's VMA appearance on Saturday night has consumed Twitter, Youtube, and many major news stations. At a time when yet another war is about to be launched in the Middle East, flesh coloured bikinis and corporate dance shows are top of the headlines. And yet there are many important issues encapsulated in those 6 minutes of footage. Issues of racism, class and gender that need to be jointly considered rather than treated as separate issues.

The controversial VMA performance began with Miley Cyrus performing her hit single 'We Can't Stop.' This video has been widely critiqued for its cultural appropriation of a particular strand of hip-hop: Southern crunk with its impoverished roots and a lyrical focus on strip clubs amongst other things. In particular, Cyrus has been called out for her portrayal of 'twerking,' an erotic dance associated with strip-clubs, and for misappropriating the term 'ratchet,' once a term of abuse now a descriptive term (still often abusive) for people or situations that are 'ghetto, real gutter, nasty.' 

 'Something that just feels Black'

 This has been a deliberate move by the artist formerly known as Hannah Montana. Cyrus told producers, Rock City and Mike WiLL Made It, that for her next track: 'I want urban, I just want something that just feels Black.' They sold her 'We Can't Stop,' a song originally penned for Rihanna.

In trying to find a 'black sound,' Cyrus has also taken to wearing bandanas, bareing her grills and swearing. As Jezebel pointed out, she has also taken to using black women as props in her videos, continuing the racist practice popularised by the fashion and music industry of creating an ‘exotic’ showcase for white women using the lives and bodies of real people.

Cyrus has also wholeheartedly embraced twerking. Vulture described Cyrus's twerking as giving 'minstrelsy a postmodern careerist spin.' In playing at being a stripper, 'Cyrus is annexing working-class black "ratchet" culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies, to the cause of her reinvention.' The point of which is to sustain her pop career and keep the millions rolling into the coffers. Unfortunate then that a repeat line in the song is We don't take nothing from nobody.'

Poverty of pop

Should there be any doubt that Cyrus has nothing in common with the poverty stricken culture that she is impersonating, consider the fact that she allegedly has a net worth of $150 million. According to Forbes, her 2010 tour averaged a nightly gross box office of $1.2 million across 57 tour dates. She was also born into extreme wealth as a result of the fortune amassed by her father: country and western singer Billy Ray Cyrus.

This colossal fortune means that Cyrus is completely and utterly cushioned from the lived-experiences she is impersonating. Cyrus and other popstars like Justin B and Justin T, will never be shot dead for wearing a hoody or a grill. They will never be battered, raped or murdered without recourse to justice because they dance and take their clothes off for a living. They just playfully glorify such scenarios. They have the most expensive chefs, psychologists, personal trainers, chauffers, maids, lawyers, PR teams, and estate agents at their beck and call.

There is another essay needed from someone on how to avoid the segregation of cultural expression. How to avoid sectioning off culture as either black or white and to discuss what makes it appropriate for any artist in a more privileged position to use or imitate the culture of those in a less privileged position. Certainly however the only time when this would be completely unproblematic is when society is completely equal and free from racism and class. When some people are not in a position to profit from cultural practises that evoke scorn and censure when enacted by the originators.

This means ending a class based society as well as ending racism. Cyrus' minstrelsy is not just an impersonation of race but one of class as well. If this video had been performed, as intended by Rihanna, it would still have been problematic. Rihanna is also worth tens of millions of dollars and is in a position to play with identities without bearing the weight of their reality. When Beyonce does 'trailer park chic' music videos it is also a case of an astronomically rich woman exploiting images of the poor for her reinvention and profit.

Shutting down self-definition

Cultural appropriation in the music industry was not invented by Miley Cyrus. As Mos Def recalls in 'Rock N Roll': 'You may dig on the Rolling Stones; But they ain't come up with that style on they own.' Black culture has been appropriated ever since the wives of slave owners started wrapping their hair as an 'island fashion.'

Today the mixing of cultures is unavoidable and a lot of the time it is beautiful and important. Few people can help but find inspiration and joy in cultures other than their own, and no one in their right mind would want to see an end to this. What is problematic, however, is when appropriation replicates colonial relationships -- when it is done by the powerful to the powerless. Then it is appropriation without benefit to those it steals from.

On Twitter, cultural commentator Bevy Smith wryly questioned whether Miley's 'muses' would be 'monetized' by her passion for black fashion. The short answer is no. This VMA display will do nothing to benefit working class black women in the poorest neighbourhoods of the US. There exists a disparity between 'how black culture is consumed versus how black people are treated.' Even if twerking becomes accepted in white suburban neighbourhoods, it doesn't mean that black families will too. It is currently the case that dominant societies want a minority's culture but not the immigration of its people.

It is also the case that Cyrus and her ilk are closing down the space for black people to define themselves. As one blogger describes: 'While ratchet culture is a valid expression of black culture, it is not the expression of black culture, and there are millions of black people for whom this particular expression of culture does not resonate.' This is also true of the shutting down of working-class culture: why should millionaires and music executives get to define what working class culture looks like?

Sexist dance, sexist response

Just when it seemed like a pop concert had thrown up enough issues, then came second half of Cyrus' VMA performance. Enter Robin Thicke and his rape-appologist anthem 'Blurred Lines.' MTV described the duet: 'With Thicke clad in a black-and-white-striped suit, Miley gave him an up close and personal private twerk show as the song climaxed.'

That the focus of the controversy has been Cyrus and not Thicke is testimony to the level of sexism still contained in society. The dance routine was sexist, but so was much of the response to it. Cyrus has been censured and parodied for her outfits, her hair and her body. Close up shots of various parts of her anatomy have gone viral, she has been routinely denounced as a 'slut.'

But what of Thicke. What of the man who glamourises violence against women and reinforces rape myths about women 'wanting it.' Where is the anger against him as a man willing to degrade women as 'animals' needing to be 'domesticated'? Where is the censure of him for participating in a performance where a young woman impersonates pleasuring him for money? Where is the outrage at him making a profit from Cyrus' body and from his own appropriation of R'n'B?

And what of the music industry? Cyrus may be painful to watch, but the space for her to do anything other than shock with overtly sexual dance routines is narrowing by the day. Earlier in the evening Lady Gaga also gave a practically naked performance and theme of the VMA's was rightly described by the New Statesman as: 'white men run the show, black men play support, all the women get mostly naked, and black women get to hold up the bottom of the objectification pile.'

Cyrus's hit single is supposed to encapsulate rebellion, to state her independence and ability to do whatever she wants. Yet this display was anything but a display of female empowerment. The fact that all the men were fully clothed while all the women were baring their bodies should be a sign that female autonomy was absent. Again what is happening here is a narrowing down of the space in which women can explore and define their sexuality. As Ariel Levy has written: 'A tawdry, tarty, cartoon like version of female sexuality has become so ubiquitous [that] it no longer seems particular. What we once regarded as a kind of sexual expression we now view as sexuality.' Just as twerking does not equal black culture, nor does stripping equal sex.

No excuse

But while Cyrus was being oppressed she was also acting in an oppressive manner. The fact that Cyrus is a woman is not any kind of excuse for the way she treated the black female dancers who accompanied her on stage. Firstly they were props down to the fact that they were dressed as teddy bears, secondly Cyrus mauled their bodies as if she owned them. Being a woman does not give you the right to enact the centuries of oppression metered out to black women and their bodies. 'You wanna be down with black folk? With black women? Start by treating us like human beings, not like fucking pokemon,' blogged Korra. 'Learn more about the history of the people you borrow from, so you can avoid that Sarah Baartman shit. And, for God's sake, keep your fucking hands to yourself.'

The VMAs, like the Disney Channel that made Cyrus famous, is targeted at children. This vision is the opposite of what we should be teaching our daughters and sons. It gives the impression that women's bodies are to be commodified and sold. It gives the impression that Black culture can be defined as a single dance and that black bodies can be used for titillation at will.

The VMAs happened because we live in a racist, sexist, class based society founded on the continual need to accumulate profit. As one commentator has written on the issue: it 'takes a village to raise and protect our babies, and we have to stop letting the village idiots run the show.'


Tansy Hoskins is the author of Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion. She has worked for the Stop the War Coalition, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Islam Channel and appeared as a political commentator on the BBC, Sky News, Al Jazeera and Channel 4's Ten O'Clock Live.

This article was originally published in Counterfire and is reprinted here with permission. 

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