Solidarity Is For Miley Cyrus: The Racial Implications of Her VMA Performance

Editor's Note: The response to this piece has become a little overwhelming, so I will be heavily moderating the comments of this article moving forward. If your comment includes derogatory remarks, it will be deleted. If you slut shame Miley Cyrus, your comment will be deleted. If you derail the conversation in any way, your comment will be deleted. Be forewarned.

As a black woman, I feel like I owe a debt of gratitude to Mikki Kendall, of #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen fame for managing to so perfectly encapsulate years of subjugation of black women by white women. With those five words, she was able to instantly zero in on why Intersectional Feminism is so necessary if the feminist movement is to progress. 

Because Miley's performance last night, and the subsequent ignoring of the racial implications of what she did is just the latest incident in the long line of things that shows me as a black woman, that white feminism does not want me, or care to have me.

Jezebel's piece on the performance chose to focus on the slut shaming that has been thrown Miley's way in the wake of the performance. All fine and good. Slut shaming is bad, don't do it. On that we can all agree. What it didn't acknowledge was the incredibly racist nature of that performance.

So I brought it up:


Okay.... but can we talk about the problematic and racist nature of her performance? Her literal use of people as props? Her association of her newfound sexuality with the traditional codifiers of black female culture, thereby perpetuating the Jezebel stereotype that black women are lewd, lascivious and uncontrollably sexualized? Can we talk about the straight up minstrelsy of that performance? Can we talk about how not a single black person won an award last night even though the people who did win awards have been mining black music and culture for years? No? Ok... I'll just sit at the back of the bus then. #solidarityisforwhitewomen

See the problem isn't that they talked about slut shaming. That deserves attention. The problem is that they completely sidestepped the other glaring teddy bear in the room, and that is the commodification of black female sexuality in Miley's performance. But it's not a thing that white women deal with, so it didn't warrant inclusion or discussion by the white-led mainstream feminist media.

So I'll include it here. What Miley did last night was easily one of the most racist displays I've ever seen. From her insistence on twerking, to her use of all black women as literal props (they were teddy bears) to her smacking of her dancer's ass and the simulation of rimming, it is very clear to me, that Miley thinks that black women's bodies are to be enjoyed, devalued and put on display for entertainment purposes.

Regarding the last transgression, fellow Jezzie Korra wrote a great post about why Miley's specific choice to manhandle her dancer was so problematic:


What IS my business is how you treat the people in your employ and the message that sends to black and brown women about their worth. About their "rank" in the bodily autonomy food-chain. About how they can expect to be exploited by even their supposed sisters-in-arms. You wanna be down with black folk? With black women? Start by treating us like human beings, not like fucking pokemon. 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.

Here's the thing: historically, black women have had very little agency over their bodies. From being raped by white slave masters to the ever-enduring stereotype that black women can't be raped, black women have been told over and over and over again, that their bodies are not their own. By bringing these "homegirls with the big butts" out onto the stage with her and engaging in a one-sided interaction with her ass, (not even her actual person!) Miley has contributed to that rhetoric. She made that woman's body a literal spectacle to be enjoyed by her legions of loyal fans. Not only was that the only way that Miley interacted with any of the other people onstage with her, but all of her backup dancers were "black women with big butts" as Violet_Baudelaire so astutely pointed out. So not only are black women's bodies being used as props, but they are also props that are only worthy of interaction if that interaction involves sexualization. 

Now some people have said that Miley is only 20, and she's "just a child" and that she doesn't understand what she's doing. But Miley isn't new to this. Her video for the single wasn't even the first precursor to this madness. She has been quoted as saying that she explicitly wanted "a black sound" for her new album. She is more than aware of what she's doing, and has consciously made the choice to dabble in traditionally black aesthetics and sound in order to breakaway from her good girl image and further her career.

What Miley is doing amounts to minstrelsy, as BigTittieComittee points out:


I used to like Miley until now. Like she said herself before her "change" that she didn't even know who Jay-Z was at one point, now you ratchet and wanna make "Black music" and like "Black culture?" It is blackface and minstrelsy. She can celebrate "Black" music without all the stereotypes, like how Eminem (he is problematic for other reasons, but has not been as bad lately...), Robin Thicke (before the lawsuit against Marvin Gaye's estate), Justin Timberlake (I still feel like he threw Janet under the bus during the Superbowl thing), and Mackelmore.


This shit has never been more dead on right than at this very moment, watching this awards show (Lil Kim had to be 'recognized' by a white, blonde rapper; Macklemore beat out everyone to win 'best Rap,' lots of other *sigh* moments)

But Vulture's Jody Rosen says it best in his VMA recap:


A doctoral dissertation could (and will) be written on the racial, class, and gender dynamics of Cyrus’s shtick. I’ll make just one historical note. For white performers, minstrelsy has always been a means to an end: a shortcut to self-actualization. The archetypal example is in The Jazz Singer (1927), in which Al Jolson’s immigrant striver puts on the blackface mask to cast off his immigrant Jewish patrimony and remake himself as an all-American pop star.

And Miley's career has never been better. Means to an end indeed.

The other major problem with Miley's performance is the association with her burgeoning sexuality with black female bodies. I touched on this a little in the first quote above, and it ties into black women not having agency over their bodies and their sexuality. Essentially, what Miley has done here is indicate that:

1. She wants to be sexual 

2. She needs to associate herself with black bodies to do it.

By doing this, she in inexplicably intertwining the idea of sexuality as part and parcel of black womanhood; that is, that black women cannot exist without sexuality and vice versa, and that the only acceptable way to be sexual, is to "be black". That idea plays into deeply racist ideas about black womanhood, the idea being that black women are wanton and lascivious, and cannot control their expressions of sexuality. 

Yet another issue with Miley's portrayal is that it presents "ratchet culture" as synonymous for "black". As Phylecia2 pointed out, black people are not a monolith, and neither is black culture. 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. However, due the racial realities of the world we live in, Oprah will be expected to know about twerking because black = twerking.

By expressing her desire for a black sound, then turning up with this mess, she is playing into the stereotype that this is all black people are. To her, and anyone else who's frame of reference does not extend beyond her, this is what it means to be black. It is reductive and racist to present one subset of black culture as indicative as the whole, especially when there is a purposeful choice to choose the specific subset of culture that plays into existing white supremacist narratives about the stereotype of what it means to be black. Notice for instance, that Miley did not say "I want a black sound" and then head for the Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong, or remake herself in the image of Janelle Monae and dabble in Afrofuturism (not that this too wouldn't have been without its problems). Nope. Instead she headed straight for the "urban" music, because that is, apparently, the entirety of black culture, and it represents all black people everywhere, regardless of individual experience. And this all circles back to the idea that black culture can only be consumed if it is first made palatable by a white body. 


Jhumpa21 explains why this particular practice is steeped in so much racial privilege:


[...] 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" (for lack of a better phrase) as a way to make money. It's part of her schtick now, and it wasn't before. That is why it is offensive, because this is a portrayal she has the privilege of putting on and taking off; that, as a white woman, it is celebrated when she puts it on, and she does nothing to acknowledge this; and that she is harnessing pieces of an oppressed and stigmatized culture in order to make money for herself and feed her own ego. What she's doing is the definition of exploitation.

And if you think that I'm grasping at straws, just look at the way that the media treats Miley and juxtapose it against how it treats Rihanna. This comparison is made often, and it continues to be relevant. It can be argued that Miley has almost literally remade herself in Rihanna's image, and yet Rihanna continues to be attacked in the media for expressions of her lived culture, while Miley, who dresses up in black codifiers for profit, skates by. Miley is very literally trying on something that Rihanna has been doing for the better part of three years, and yet it only becomes acceptable when presented on a white body, playing into the long tradition of white artists stealing and/or appropriating from black artists and reaping the benefits. (See also, Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake.) And I haven't even touched on her obsession with twerking, and the subsequent mainstream appeal. 

Now, a favourite derail of this discussion is that culture doesn't belong to anyone, and it's here for us to share and no one OWNS twerking. But those discussions always happen outside the context of cultural imperialism, and the colonial history that minorities face. It's more or less the same reason why it's not okay to wear an Indian headdress if you are not Native American. It's not that we can't share. It's that until such time as black people are not ridiculed and debased for the styles and music and lifestyle that they create, live and breathe, hands off. Until such time as black fashion, art and music can become mainstream without having to be passed through a white filter, hands off. Until such time as being black is no longer seen as something less than, hands off. That's it. 

Now I don't know if Miley identifies as a feminist. I doubt it, but that isn't the issue. The issue is that in the last few months, she has prioritized her own agency and independence over the dignity of black women and black culture. And THAT is not okay. The fact that so many white women who proclaim to be feminists do not acknowledge or discuss this transgression is even less so.