She’s Just Being Miley

LAUREN CHAPLIN rebuts the ‘racist’ arguments surrounding Miley Cyrus’ off-beat and out-of-tune appearance at the VMAs.

So, Miley Cyrus at the VMAs. We’ve all seen the video by now – but to remind you, it’s a smorgasbord of lycra, twerking, duff notes, and teddy bears.

The media response to it has been unprecedented, with discussion turning swiftly toward topics of feminism and race, abundant slut shaming and accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’ flooding the Internet. One particular article triggering debate is ‘Solidarity is for Miley Cyrus: The Racial Implications of her VMA Performance’,  which came to my attention after being retweeted by both Lena Dunham, of Girls fame, and journalist Caitlin Moran. Whilst my admiration for these two women is great, the blog post itself is highly problematic, the author condemning Miley for performing “easily one of the most racist displays I’ve ever seen”.

The article attacks the pop star for her association of “burgeoning sexuality with black female bodies”, which, by extension, thereby demonstrates that “black women cannot exist without sexuality and vice versa”. Now, I’m not denying that this is not a problem, especially when we take into account Sara Ditum’s piece for the New Statesman. Ditum describes Cyrus as looking “wildly awkward”, concluding that “Rihanna knows sexy, and this isn’t it.” The connotation here is that Rihanna, as a black woman, has some innate ability to be sexy. Also present, however, is the suggestion that as a white girl with a Disney background, Miley is intrinsically excluded from the realms of ‘sexy’ performance, which forces us to view ‘black’ and ‘white’ culture as dichotomies, rather than two cohesive entities.

Over at the Huffington Post, Annie Theriault describes her as being “a wealthy white woman” who can take elements of black culture and “imagine she is being ‘ghetto’ without having any concept of what living in a ghetto would really mean.” Let’s think about that for a moment. The implication is that, in order to appropriate any aspects of foreign culture for performance purposes, one must first experience the struggle of said culture. Apply this maxim to the rest of Hollywood however, and we’re left with quite a conundrum. Consider, for instance, the comedians who favour a dark comic style, synonymous with the work of Jewish comics such as Woody Allen. Do we accuse them of inappropriate cultural appropriation simply because they’ve never experienced anti-Semitism?

Can’t we just twerk our problems out?

‘Solidarity is for Miley Cyrus’ also attacks Miley for choosing ‘urban music’ as her ‘black sound’, instead of channelling the musical styles of Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong, an artistic choice which must surely indicate that the celebrity believes urban music represents “the entirety of black culture… regardless of individual experience.” Yet again, the logic behind this is fallible; it seems more likely that urban black culture was channeled because Miley is trying to reinvent herself as an R&B performer, not a jazz musician. In selecting one cultural aspect of ‘black’ music, she has not denied the existence of other genres, much in the same way that the profusion of jerk chicken and Red Stripe at Notting Hill Carnival this weekend didn’t systematically deny the existence of any other types of ethnic food, even though, for many, it was a chance to commodify a certain lifestyle and make a profit.

Finally, the blogger also endorses the comment of a certain ‘Jhumpa 21’, who writes “I think it’s safe to say Miley did not grow up in a particular culture or environment where twerking was common. I also think it’s safe to say that she is putting on this ‘twerking persona’… as a way to make money.” What is ridiculous here is the attempt to claim a monopoly over a certain style of dancing. Behind it is the assumption that, as a rich white girl, Miley should be confined to her own ‘white’ culture, and that twerking is a definitive ‘black’ dance. Surely though, this creates a rigid definition of what it means to be black, which is just what the blogger was just paragraphs earlier complaining about? The hypocrisy is startling.

There’s no denying that certain elements of her performance were tasteless, but, as Hannah Montana taught us, nobody’s perfect. Her saccharine Disney history was inevitably going to lead to intense scrutiny as she reinvents herself, but the politicisation of her dancing has been undeniably excessive.

Shocking it may have been, but it seems unlikely that her routine was vindictive; to quote the girl herself, she’s just being Miley.