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.