The Miseducation of Miley Cyrus

Every child star seeks to dramatically mark his or her entrance into adulthood. With the release of her latest album, the unfortunately-titled Bangerz, Miley Cyrus proves to be no exception to this rule. 

For five years, Miley Cyrus served as the quintessential Disney sweetheart on the widely popular show Hannah Montana. With her blonde hair and Southern drawl, she was a symbol of girlhood and innocence.

At her VMA performance, Cyrus sought to cast this image aside by assuming the wilder aspects of ratchet culture. She not only wanted to make good on her publicly expressed desire to “sound black” - now she wanted to “look black.” In the words of bell hooks, “within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.”

“Ratchet” is a term that evolved from the hip-hop scene of New Orleans. Although it may have become the butt of many jokes in the black community and larger American culture, “ratchet” also describes a reality of a sub-set of Americans, many of whom happen to black and come from low-income communities. 

In the video for “Can’t Stop” and the subsequent VMA performance, Cyrus romps around the video set and stage gleefully twerking, shaking her bottom, and bending at the waist with a coterie of ratchet groupies. As a wealthy white woman, she dons the costume of the ratchet to announce her emancipation from the trappings of white girlhood - an intellectual space traditionally devoid of sexuality and impropriety. Her tight pants, grills, and new dance moves become visual props as Cyrus appropriates cultural elements of people who are largely marginalized from mainstream society. 

The exchange of cultures is a fruitful and enlightening exercise. However, when a dominant group finds some aspect of another group’s culture to be exotic and appropriates it while simultaneously marginalizing the latter group’s culture, the exchange becomes tainted and parasitic.  

In recent months, Miley Cyrus has regulated black people in her performances to mere props. This imagery evokes the painful reality that in popular culture and, indeed, in most social settings, white women take center stage while women of color are off to the side. These are the types of observations that sparked this summer’s popular hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, which addressed the mainstream feminist movement’s lack of attention to the struggles of women of color. 

Cyrus’ VMA performance also highlights the ongoing hypersexualization of the black female body. At one point, Cyrus pretends to perform anilingus on one of her black back-up dancers. This treatment indicates that the dancer should be considered the sum of her body parts rather than a complete human being. The audience is invited to fixate on the dancer’s bottom in a way that bears an eerie resemblance to the stories of Sarah Baartman, the Hottentot Venus.

By openly proclaiming her desire to adopt aspects of black culture into her music and then proceeding with such an abhorrent performance, Cyrus seems to equate sexuality with being black, thereby contributing the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes. 

It is time to stop mimicking people of color for the sake of a joke and some cash.

Through a tweet in August, Cyrus chaffed at the accusation of cultural appropriation by inelegantly tweeting, “I know what color my skin is. You can stop with the friendly reminders b**ch.” Her refusal to acknowledge her complicity in what essentially amounts to a modern-day minstrel show is compounded by an obvious lack of knowledge of black culture and the ongoing struggles of people of color in contemporary America. Yes, Miley, although you have been repeatedly reminded of the color of your skin, Latino and black Americans are reminded every day of the color of their skin in particularly pernicious and disheartening ways.

Miley Cyrus could certainly use some African-American studies courses. However, as shown by the aptly-titled, “Can’t Stop,” she appears to be determined to adopt this course despite high degrees of public derision. Listen to “FU” and “"4x4” for other glimpses into Miley’s new persona.

Bangerz is in stores today.

Akinyi OchiengComment