Every child star seeks to indelibly mark his or her entrance into adulthood. With the release of her latest album, titled Bangerz, Miley Cyrus proves to be no exception to this rule. For five years, Cyrus served as a Disney sweetheart on the widely popular series Hannah Montana. With her southern drawl and humorous disposition, she exemplified girlhood and innocence.
At the 2013 VMAs Cyrus sought to cast off her girlhood by assuming the wilder aspects of “ratchet” culture. 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.”
In the video for “We Can’t Stop” and the subsequent VMA performance, Cyrus romps and gleefully gallops around the video “twerking” and bending at the waist with a coterie of “ratchet” groupies. As a wealthy white woman, she dons the guise of “ratchet” to announce her freedom from the confinement of girlhood, a space traditionally devoid of sexuality and impropriety. Her dance moves and grills act as visual props as Cyrus appropriates from a culture that is often marginalized. The exchange across cultural boundaries can be an enlightening exercise. However, when a dominant group appropriates and continually marginalizes another group’s culture, the exchange becomes parasitic and tainted.
In recent months, Cyrus has relegated black people in her performances to the role of 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 ongoing hypersexualization of the black female body. At one point in Cyrus’ performance she pretends to perform analingus on one of her black back up dancers, rendering the dancer the sum of her body parts rather than a human being. The audience is almost coerced into fixating on the dancers’ parts in a manner similar to the tales of Sarah Baartman, the Hottentot Venus. By proclaiming a desire to assume aspects of black culture and then proceeding in her detestable display, Cyrus seems to equate sexuality with being black, thus perpetuating hazardous stereotypes.
Her refusal to acknowledge such complicity in what essentially was a modern day minstrel show is compounded by her obvious lack of knowledge of the ongoing struggles of colored people in contemporary America. Cyrus tweeted “I know what color my skin is. You can stop with the friendly reminders…” Although she has indeed been reminded of the color of her skin, people of color are often reminded in more disheartening and pernicious ways. As shown by her aptly titled “We Can’t Stop,” Cyrus does not appear to be yielding despite high degrees of public derision. Listen to “FU” and “4×4” for other glimpses into Cyrus’ new persona.