Miley Cyrus: The Socio-Political Implications of her VMA performance

By now, the images from Miley Cyrus’ performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards (hey, remember when MTV used to play music videos?) have been seared into the retinas of just about every living soul with access to the internet and an hour or two to kill since Sunday. Stripping down to her undies, rubbing her ass on Robin Thicke, and “twerking”, all with an improbably large, wildly flailing tongue protruding from her face, Cyrus’ performance has somehow managed to spark discussions of real socio-political importance.

Designed (I’m assuming) to court controversy and sell records, the contentious performance has been successful in its intent, at least with regards to that first part. For the past few days, it’s been virtually impossible to browse social media websites; alleged news sites; legitimate news sites; forums and/or blogs without being exposed to myriad reminders of the performance’s existence. Given what’s going on in Syria right now, the attention being lavished upon the latest pop-star-publicity-stunt-gone-viral might initially seem churlish and inappropriate, but confoundingly enough, something of some worth might yet come of this mess.

If nothing else, a dialogue has been kicked wide open, between people of all sexes, races and backgrounds with opinions on matters that warrant discussion. The discussion so far has revolved around three key issues: cultural appropriation and implied racism; the over-reliance on public figures as positive role models for children; and the phenomena of “slut-shaming” and how it pertains to female sexuality and society’s far-too-often misogynist views on womenfolk.

One would think and hope that by now, society would be hip to the idea that allowing and actively participating in a form of social control designed specifically to shame women into hiding their sexuality behind closed doors 24/7 is a bad thing. A quick trawl through social media sites on Monday morning however, would have quickly confirmed that such optimism is at best misguided, and at worst crazy and delusional.

Twitter is currently ablaze with poorly worded tweets espousing the belief that Cyrus stripping down to her underwear and shaking her ass is something to be derided and condemned. One such tweet read: “Hear that #SlaneGirl is challenging #Miley Cyrus to a #wh*re off… Come on Ireland”. It would be nigh on impossible to find a more perfect, concise encapsulation of 21st century misogynist attitudes towards female sexuality and the resultant need for far-reaching discussion on the subject than the above comment. The tweet refers to a recent Eminem gig at Slane Castle in Ireland, at which a seventeen year old girl was photographed administering head to a fellow concert-goer. The images quickly circulated around the internet, with the female being widely mocked and shamed for publicly engaging in a sexual act while the male was rewarded with scores of virtual bro-fives for publicly engaging in the very same sexual act. These wrong-headed societal attitudes need to be addressed and if a by-product of the VMA fallout is discussions along those lines, then that has to be seen as a good thing.

“But Miley Cyrus is a role model to young people. She should be held to a higher standard than people not in the public eye”. Or so sayeth a lot of people on the internet. And not just on the internet either. While wacky sentiments such as this one are commonplace on the world wide web, they’re now pervading (allegedly) serious morning talk shows like Morning Joe. Show host, Mika Brzezinski said of Miley’s VMA performance: “I think that was really, really disturbing…That was disgusting and embarrassing … That was not attractive… That was really, really bad for anybody who’s younger and impressionable and she’s really messed up”.

The implication here is that an adult woman who used to star in a television show aimed at young girls shouldn’t now be allowed to express her sexuality on television, just in case any “young and impressionable” children are watching (that and the fact that it’s “really messed up“). This line of thinking assumes two things: firstly, that sex and sexuality are fundamentally bad things and that young people are better served by not being exposed to them at all than they are by being educated about them in a fashion that instils in them a realistic and healthy understanding of what sex actually is. And secondly, it assumes that parents of children too young or not yet mature enough to be able to process the implications of a performance such as Miley’s are incapable of distracting their child from the television set long enough to prevent them from being exposed to all that evil sex stuff. And to be fair, if the Parent’s Television Council’s reaction following Sunday’s broadcast is anything to go by, that latter assumption might not be too far wide of the mark.

But if there are any lesson to be learnt by parents of impressionable children after this year’s Video Music Awards and the ensuing discussions, it’s that celebrities can not and should not be relied upon to act as de facto role models to somebody else’s kids. To quote the late, great George Carlin: “If your kid needs a role model and you ain’t it, you’re both f*cked”.

The trickiest issues to navigate though (at least to my mind) – and therefore the issues that society can benefit the most from talking about – are those of cultural appropriation and implied racism. More so the former than the latter. It’s relatively easy to see why Cyrus’ performance might be deemed racist. Women, and especially black women, haven’t always and don’t always have the agency over their bodies that they should. By choosing to make use of exclusively black, female dancers, and bring them out on stage for the sole purpose of having their asses slapped by a white person – essentially objectifying them and reducing them to mere props in the process – Cyrus (or whoever made the call to use only black lady dancers and fixate purely on their “black lady behinds”) has (perhaps unwittingly, likely unwittingly, hopefully unwittingly) contributed to that lack of agency, as well as the notion that a butt-load of black people pale in significance to one white person (two, if we count Thicke in all of this).

The cultural appropriation angle is a little harder to get a handle on if you’re not directly effected by it. Being a white male, it’s only been through reading the words and opinions of those who are effected by cultural appropriation (and who are much smarter and more articulate than I am) that I’ve started to look at things from a vantage point that isn’t my own. Had I been writing this article two days ago, this would have likely been the paragraph where I argued that honing in on Cyrus’ “ratchet” persona – in particular her fondness of twerking (or at least attempting to twerk) – and presenting it as an example of cultural appropriation, exposes a reductive idea of black culture and only serves to reinforce the notion that black people and white people are to be treated differently.

While I still believe some of that to be at least partially true, I’ve also come to realise that Miley’s twerking is symptomatic of a far larger issue. The issue is not one of white people using a dance that “belongs” to a black culture; it’s one of a wealthy, white woman exploiting carefully selected facets of black culture for monetary gain, and crucially being able to do so in light of the mainstream’s reluctance to embrace black culture until it’s been filtered through a white performer. There are countless examples of this throughout the history of music, from Elvis Presley to the Rolling Stones to Vanilla Ice to Miley Cyrus. It’s not difficult to see why this might become disheartening for minorities whose culture is routinely and cynically mined for profit.

None of this is intended to serve as a critique of Miley Cyrus’ performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards; nor is it a defence or a condemnation of said performance. It’s merely intended to highlight the surprising socio-political discussions it has inspired. As bad, misguided, and plain awkward as the performance may have been (and it really was all of those things), it has at least opened a dialogue that needed to be opened.

Bob Russell

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