Monday, September 9, 2013

Some Thoughts on Miley Cyrus's VMAs Performance

I know that this topic has been talked to death already by people who are much, much smarter, and probably much, much more qualified to discuss this than I am.  However, I wanted to talk about Miley Cyrus’s incredibly, fascinatingly horrible performance at the VMAs. There are so many things going on there.

There's a term that gets tossed around on Tumblr for people who worry about racism, misogyny, sizeism, ageism, homophobia, and other social issues and how they present themselves in popular culture.  They call them "social justice warriors."  It's supposed to be used in a mocking way by people who feel that these folks are overly sensitive, that they're the PC police coming to ruin everyone's fun.  However, I wanted to talk about this because, as I become more aware of various social problems in our world today, I wanted to give you an example of what it's like to be inside my head.  I am still learning, growing, changing, deciding how I feel and where I fall on these issues, and it seemed like an interesting way to show you how complicated these things can be at times.

Original image from: West Midlands Police
One thing about being interested in the sociological implications of various things in pop culture is that you often find issues overlapping like a pulsing, writhing orgie of horrible. There’s actually a term for this in the “social justice” community. It’s called “intersectionality.”  Like it sounds, it means that one event or situation can involve several different causes.  Miley Cyrus's performance is fascinating because she somehow managed to waltz into nearly a thousand different issues with one booty-shaking dance step.

First, let’s talk about the body shaming that occured. Miley Cyrus is a young woman, and young women are expected to be sexy, but not too sexy. They’re expected to be attractive, but they can’t flaunt it. They have to be shy, but not so shy that they don’t talk to anybody or they’ll be considered a snob. If they stand up for themselves, they’re headstrong, angry bitches, but if they don’t then they deserved what happened to them because they didn’t stand up for themselves. Being a woman in today’s society is a conundrum wrapped in a paradox slathered in a juicy glaze of contradictions.

Miley Cyrus’ performance was immediately slammed for being “too sexy.” Gentlemanly fellows had their monocles fall neglected from their eyes, whilst ladies in flowery wide-brimmed hats swooned and wilted at the unchecked display of debauchery and sexuality on stage. Miley Cyrus let her freak flag fly, shaking her rump, sticking her tongue out, and letting everyone know that this is who she is. She’s the kind of girl that wants to party hard and have casual sex with people and fuck you if you judge her.

And you know what? There shouldn’t be anything wrong with that to a point. Women should be allowed to have sex with whomever and whenever they want without a bunch of dudes saying, “Yes, but only I’M allowed to do that.” Remember: When bros sleep with tons of chicks, he’s a playa, he’s making conquests. When a lady does it, she’s a slut, a hoebag, a whore. See the double standard?

And Miley’s performance wasn’t exactly the most shocking thing ever. I mean, why are people decrying Miley’s performance. She was clothed wasn’t she? She gyrated all over the stage, but she had the “essential bits” covered, right? Where was the outrage over the degradation of America’s moral fortitude over Robin Thicke’s blurred lines video.

However, there’s more to this issue. The fact is, when Disney genetically engineers their child stars, none are held to a higher standard than their little pop princesses. Vanessa Hutchins sent a naked pic to Zac Efron. Was Efron decried as a good boy gone bad for indulging in the type of relationship that would result in naked pictures? Nope. But Vanessa Hutchins, oh, people would click their tongues and shake their heads and say, “she used to be such a nice girl.” Because ladies can’t have sex. It’s not allowed. Only men.

So how do Disney pop princesses break away from their sweet, good girl persona that has been carefully crafted and hand brewed by the finest Disney PR people? Making people realize that you are a sexual person and acting out against the pristine image you’ve been associated with for so long is pretty much the only option given to women in the music industry. Think about the women who are successful right now. Think about the way Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Rhianna, Beyonce, Ke$ha, ad nauseum all dress and act when they perform --various states of undress, rump shaking, showing off sexy legs, back, cleavage. Why do you think they do that? How many options do you think are afforded to them in their careers? The only notable exception that comes immediately to mind is Adele.

But when they play the game, and they get sexed up in order to make a point, people shake their heads and mutter about our moral decay.

The issue gets even more complicated because women being in various states of undress honestly shouldn’t be scandalous. Bodies are beautiful things, and showing yours off shouldn’t be a crime. God knows, nobody bursts a blood vessel whenever Matthew McConahey goes shirtless. Nobody’s been grumbling about the downfall of society over Taylor Lautner or Robert Pattinson being shirtless in Twilight.

This, however, appears to be perfectly acceptable. Carry on, gentlemen.
And the issue gets even more complicated because women being in various states of undress is also an all too common thing. If a woman is in a movie, music video, billboard, poster, etc, she’s probably in her undies and twisted around in a ridiculous, rubber spined manner. Just look at comic books. Or hell, look at the new Star Trek narrative, that shoe-horned in a woman in her underwear for literally no reason, just so they could say they had tits and ass in the movie.

But, that’s not to say that Miley Cyrus should escape criticism. After all, she totally hijacked an entire cultural expression. It’s taken me a lot of time to more fully understand why Miley’s music video and song recently was SO racist. I mean, it was obvious it was; cultural appropriation is a thing I’m still learning about, so it’s a bit confusing to me.

But holy shit I think I get it now. Let’s look at Miley’s outfit from her video.

Found from: Jezebel
That’s Miley Cyrus with gold teeth, big rings, chains, a do-rag, etc. She’s emulating a type of culture called ratchet culture. Ratchet culture is a type of impoverished African-American culture that, from what I’ve read, originates in southern Louisiana. It’s basically emulating the actions and dress of poor, mostly undereducated people.

When Miley Cyrus dresses the way she does, sings the way she does--adopting a sort of quasi-”black” accent at times--and generally plays around with that image, it’s on the same level as watching a Larry the Cable Guy show. Ol’ Larry plays himself as a good-ol-boy from the Southern United States, but all of his “aw shucks” simpleton demeanor is a farce. “Larry” is actually Daniel Lawrence Whitney of Pawnee City, Nebraska.

While all small, poor, farming communities have things in common, the South has particular aspects to its culture that are pretty well known. It is the subject of constant mockery. Hell, I remember I stopped watching All That when I was in middle school because during a skit entitled “The Chef and the Hillbilly,” the hillbillly belted out “I’M FROM AWR-KAN-SASS!” It was exploiting and mocking a culture that I was a part of and had grown up in for profit. When cultures are emulated for profit, it doesn’t feel like an homage or an honor, it feels disingenuous and sleezy. It’s not a respect of the culture, it’s just using a particular culture (and/or mocking said culture) to make money.

That makes money, I don't care who y'are.
Miley is doing the exact same thing with ratchet culture, but the issue is even more multi-layered because black people have had their culture stolen and extorted to make a profit over and over and over again. Jazz, rock, hip-hop, and R&B all originated from black culture. They were only made mainstream and acceptable when white people began participating. Even now, black artists have a struggle reaching the same level of success that Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, and Eminem reached.

You could even make the argument that Miley is exploiting the lesbian/bisexual culture by engaging in mock-sexualized acts with other women on stage to shock the more conservative crowd. As far as I know, Miley is not bisexual. Pretending to stick her tongue in another woman’s asshole was purely for shock value, because she likes the attention it gets her.

“Social justice warriors” as they’re mockingly called, have a sort of warped view of the world. They’re often thought of as humorless, but maybe now you can see a little of why these issues are so complicated.

  • Miley being mocked because “she doesn’t have the ass to twerk” is body shaming, as if you have to have a certain body type to enjoy dancing a certain way.
  • And people who bitch about Miley’s hyper-sexual performance are honestly just scared of ladies being sexy, exhibiting symptoms of our sexually repressed society.
  • And yet, Miley’s usage of ratchet culture in order to make a bunch of money is surely cultural appropriation--she can switch that persona off and on whenever she likes. She’s not like those poor women living in that culture with no other choice.
  • Plus, Miley’s white, and she gets all of the benefits inherit of being white--being successful at a style of music that white people took from black people, but that black people can never seem to match that same success in.
  • Plus, Miley’s sexual performances and twerking with a bunch of women--and pretending to eat a woman’s asshole--is appropriating the culture of the lesbian/bisexual crowd.

Man, being a decent human being is hard. I feel like I should take the last piece of cake a child’s birthday party to make up for all of this. But I won’t, because I would feel bad. DAMMIT!


  1. you know, when i first watched the video of her performance, i expected it to be some horrible thing, but really, the only thing that made me bat an eye and go "ew" was the fact that her bikini was nude colored latex, and the way she stuck out her tongue. everything else about the performance is old hat for the VMAs and for most pop music videos.

    1. I think part of the shock came from the fact that she was such a hugely successful pop princess--not unlike Brittany Spears. We tend to have short memories regarding these things.


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