Singer Miley Cyrus performs "Blurred Lines" during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards in New York
Type
Reflection
Category
Culture

What Miley did right

Too slutty? A modern-day minstrel show? A sad commodification of an urban subculture? In truth, the most offensive thing about Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMA awards is that she is simply not very good at twerking. Watching it, one is mortified not by the hyper-sexuality on display but by how horribly incompetent it all is, how awkwardly put-on Miley’s new identity is. But the responses to the performance at the VMAs deserve close inspection because they illustrate a range of familiar ideological procedures, each pointing to the limits of leftist politics today.

The first response was the standard feminist defence of Miley’s ‘self-expression.’ Feminist commentators attacked the inherent misogyny of those disgusted at Miley’s overt sexuality and they were correct to do so. But as Rosemary Overell at the Conversation notes, such familiar feminist manoeuvres fail to locate such performances within an industrial model that demands ever more precocious forms of sexuality as a matter of course. In this sense, there is nothing ‘radical’ about Miley’s performance – it is, rather, perfectly symptomatic of the dynamic of eternal reinvention, which is the heart of capitalism.

But the critique of the commodification of sex can easily develop its own kind of conservatism. To associate twerking with capitalism’s acceleration, proliferation and commodification of sexual forms is to cast a certain moral aspersion on the black culture that developed twerking. The answer? We should definitely avoid any kind of sexual moralism. What should be critiqued is the way capitalism in its accelerated dissemination of sexual imagery ends up alienating sex: what is disturbing about MTV is its manner of ripping cultural practices from their contexts and transforming them into empty signifiers to be sold on the market and shared ad nauseam on the internet. Miley Cyrus gave us the ‘sex appeal’ of twerking but not its ‘world’. As Big Freedia, the self-proclaimed (with full justification) ‘Queen of Twerking’ put it:

She’s trying to twerk, but don’t know how to twerk. It’s become offensive to a lot of people who’ve been twerking and shaking their asses for years, especially in the black culture… When something get hot, everybody want to jump on the bandwagon and act like they created it. That’s totally understandable but they have to give credit where credit is due.

A second response was to charge Miley’s performance with racism. This response contains several varying claims, for example, that Miley treated her black back-up dancers as props, that a white performer has no place appropriating black culture or that the performance stereotyped black women as being ‘wanton and lascivious’. The complaint that Miley objectified her black, female back-up dancers is a curious one, understandable though it may be given the historical lack of agency black women have had over their bodies. But such a complaint also illustrates the problem of historical perspective for oppressed groups. It is clear that to fight existing oppression one must understand the history of that oppression. But the importance accorded to ‘historical understanding’ can itself be constricting. In this instance, the complaint of black female objectification is difficult to apply in the context of a kind of dance where agency lies precisely in joyously transforming one’s self into a sexual object. The complaints about the objectification of black bodies ironically imply moral judgement of twerking itself. The aim of any radical project cannot lie in letting history be the dictator of political action. The foremost goal is to attain freedom now and to abolish the constraints history has imposed on us.

No matter the merits of the particular complaints lobbed Miley’s way they can’t help but feed into a very predictable procedure of impotent outrage. It is now painfully accurate to skewer leftist politics as a series of gestures expressing outrage but achieving nothing. And concomitant to that, today’s public finds their power to appreciate art diminishing; this, I think, indicates one of the major problems with the left today. The ease with which we find fault with culture and the difficulty with which we recognise things of value indicate that, collectively, we have neglected our duty to develop a utopian vision in our political consciousness. With that in mind, I want to ask a different question about Miley’s performance. Instead of offering yet another stunning critique of the political incorrectness of Miley’s performance, I want to ask: what, if anything, did she do right at the VMAs? In spite of all the vulgarity and our instinctual distaste for it, what might we take away from the VMAs that is worthy of celebration?

Anyone who has attended a Big Freedia performance or one of her bounce classes is struck by the egalitarian nature of it. Women, men, black, Asian, white – all are encouraged to reach for the ground and wobble their glutes in the air.

I definitely push that at a Big Freedia show and I have a lot of white fans who get up there and really twerk. I have some amazing white dancers who would get up there and shut Miley down. They could’ve used girls from New Orleans, even if they were not black, who knew what they’re doing.

Leaving aside the fact that the VMA sidelined actual (and predominantly black) practitioners of twerking, we can rejoice in the fact that Miley maintained this element of egalitarianism in her performance. Miley was criticised for ‘manhandling’ one of her black female back-up dancers. But that was only after the white pop star had herself been slapped on the arse by one of the black dancers and before she stuck an over-sized glove between the legs of Robin Thicke, a white male. The logic here is not racist. Rather, the interesting point is that objectification has become universalised: equality means that everyone is up for grabs, literally. Ironically, in such a context ‘respecting’ the black woman’s body would be politically much worse. If only Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke were objectified, and the black dancers were instead respected from a safe distance, this would further inscribe the black body as different, sacred and exotic.

This problem of ‘respecting the other’ also underlines the complaint of cultural appropriation. As Richard Seymour observes,

Since few want to explicitly buy into a racial metaphysics, and no one wants to believe that culture is neatly segregated according to ‘race’, nationality, etc., the claim of ‘appropriation’ cannot be sustained.  Culture is an open-ended process of cooperative creation, not a thing with definite, imporous boundaries.

The radical disintegration of racial categories in practice always involves some kind of ‘crossover’ moment when a member of one group encounters or interacts with the world of another social group. Such crossovers are never entirely innocent. White performers drawing on black musical traditions will always be open to accusations of cultural appropriation. Black performers drawing on white musical traditions will always be open to accusations of diluting their sound. The choice posed by such moments is whether to accept the crossover in spite of its political problems or to insist on the opposite: to enjoy the ethical purity of cultural segregation.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Brad Nguyen is a co-editor of the online magazine of film criticism Screen Machine (www.screenmachine.tv). He is a former film critic for the Melbourne community radio station Triple R.

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Comments

  1. Asking what Miley did right is a pertinent question. Is that VMA performance so fundamentally different to the countless performances of female pop stars loosening up their buttons and showing what they’ve got. No. What differs is the tone, Miley arrives dressed as a teddy bear, has her tongue constantly out and it’s hard to know who or what she is laughing at/with. That is what has created the uncertainty and supposed shock of the industry – hilarious, when you consider Rhianna etc are just as prone to displays of lascivious sexual status and power. But typically the tone is more comfortable and complicit with the engine that promotes and contains it. Miley – by accident or design – has engineered a strangely brutal performance that does indeed expose the alienation of sex. It was the teddy bear’s picnic, but Miley was the only one who got fed.

  2. I like this argument a lot, that mainstream entertainment is more interesting when its excesses become apparent. Tasteful and accomplished art is more dangerous for concealing its ideological content, making it more acceptable.

  3. Hi Brad,

    I really appreciated reading your article here, particularly in your explicit naming of the lack of utopian visioning present in the current political Left (likely a cultural vestige of healthy suspicion of early Communist regimes).

    I appreciate your critique of the ways in which the creation of media, and the culture of entertainment consumption, are overly wedded to and are undergirded by an under-critiqued capitalist logic (including within the late postmodern Left).

    I am curious about moving beyond critique and into the liberatory potential of identifying with the creative impulse itself, which, as you suggest, even as it should hold itself continually accountable (to the historical implications of content creation), is never entirely innocent of history either.

    • “I am curious about moving beyond critique and into the liberatory potential of identifying with the creative impulse itself…” Exactly! Perfectly articulated! But I also think criticism can itself be a creative gesture. The question I like to ask is: does the critique pose its own utopian idea or does it remain mired in the deadlock of political correctness?

      • “I also think criticism can itself be a creative gesture.”

        Great point! I was thinking that soon after I’d sent off my previous response. My exhortation is to be mindful of the ways in which, in the formation and articulation of critiques, we are implicitly participating in creating gestures and creative gesturing…

        “The question I like to ask is: does the critique pose its own utopian idea or does it remain mired in the deadlock of political correctness?”

        To think of myself as a creator of something new (in critique), or at least as a participant in a creative process, temporarily enacted through critique, can liberate me to be intentional about adopting a posture of responsibility for what is being created in the wake of what it is that I am tearing apart.

        Reflecting that I can disaffect myself of any attachments to a purity of creative practice, and to delve honestly into the realm of possibilities, limitations, accountabilities, and ongoing inquiries… :)

        Thank you for triggering this exploration for me… I really appreciate your writing!

  4. Nice post – this was one of the most insightful things I’ve read about the VMAs story.

    I think it’s worth noting that a profit motive dictated that Cyrus’s performance be seen to transgress and was calculated to do so.

    It was arguably coordinated by her and her management to invite criticism on many possible grounds based on the principle that all publicity is good publicity.

    The motives of critics themselves are called into question since journalism about awards ceremonies (and music in general) feeds with equal ravenousness on controversy – whether it be racial, sexual, based on issues of consent, appropriation, good taste, whatever. This article has to be included in that, despite how good it is!

    One subnarrative about this affair that’s seems to align with this is the tabloid report (unsubstantiated) that Robin Thicke is “hurt” that his big moment performing his hit was so comprehensively upstaged by his co-performer. If that’s so, I think it indicates the centrality of the publicity aspects on all sides.

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