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Feminspire | April 23, 2014

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How Do We Defend Miley Cyrus from Slut Shaming While Calling Out Her Racism?

How Do We Defend Miley Cyrus from Slut Shaming While Calling Out Her Racism?

| On 27, Aug 2013

The 2013 VMAs were Sunday night and, let’s be real, there were some unforgettable performances. The ‘90s child in me waxed nostalgic over the *NSYNC reunion, and even my 23-year-old self squealed with excitement as the beloved five broke into “Bye Bye Bye.” I also cringed as Miley Cyrus pulled a Richard Simmons in a koala(?) leotard while making her appearance on stage. My bottom jaw steadily made it’s way to my lap and I couldn’t look away. Then I rewound it, and watched it again. And again. And even still I watched the clip a few more times after.

I hated what I saw. Miley’s performance was oozing with cultural appropriation and disrespect, evident in her twerking, simulated masturbation, and slapping black female dancers’ asses mid-performance. But, even more, I hated what came after. My Facebook and Twitter accounts exploded with Miley-hate. Obviously if anyone is going to put on a show like that there is going to be criticism, no doubt, but this criticism was rife with slut-shaming, body-shaming, and woman-shaming.

Clearly the audience, both present at the show and watching from home, recognized that there were some pretty glaring issues looming unchecked onstage, but it seems to me that everyone is expressing their frustration with even more problematic ideas and language. Especially in this case, fighting problematic with problematic isn’t going to solve anything. Time and time again we see people dealing with the symptoms and not the actual problem. So let’s deal with the problem.

What’s wrong with Miley Cyrus coming onstage with an entourage of big-bootied black women, leading a dance (twerking) that is derived from age-old African dance rhythm, and then objectifying/sexualizing/fetishizing these women of the culture that invented this dance by grabbing and slapping their asses? The answer is cultural appropriationThe most basic definition of this term is essentially one cultural group taking on an element that is distinctively unique to an entirely different cultural group. The most obvious and problematic element of cultural appropriation in this situation is that Miley, who is white, used her privilege to take up aspects of a marginalized racial group for fun without examination of where the dance came from, what it can stand for, and without acknowledging that between her performances she can take off this aspect of “blackness” and go on with the privileges she possesses by being a white woman. This blatant disregard for a culture she has never lived within and could never truly understand is what should be making you sick to your stomach, not your fear of what this former Disney starlet is doing to your cookie-cutter idea of womanhood.

As an audience, many have reacted out of disgust, anger, and probably nausea. These are normal reactions to have when something diverges so far from what we wanted, expected, or needed. As humans, we’re disappointed, and these feelings of disappointment have very real, physical manifestations in our minds and bodies. The important thing is to be mindful of this connection and to remember that these exaggerated reactions are temporary. Soon the shock will wear off and we will get our composure back, and then we should use that time to examine our reactions and figure out why we felt a certain way. We should confront these issues that offended us and made us uncomfortable.

And now, here we are, two days later, just trying to make sense of everything that went wrong. I woke up to Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr continuing to blow up with statuses, Tweets, and posts lamenting the appearance of this unrecognizable Miley Cyrus stylizing her reincarnation of Britney Spears’ downward spiral. And I was made just as uncomfortable by the responses to Miley’s performance as I was by Miley’s actual performance.

We have the general hater comments:

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And more specific forms of shaming:

Body-shaming:

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Slut-shaming:

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A combination of both body-and slut-shaming, the latter of which in this case suggests that fathers are responsible for their daughters’ purity:

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Don’t get me wrong, there was certainly a great show of called-for criticism:

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However, picking on Miley’s body, how she was dressed, the style of her hair, and how she couldn’t manage to keep her tongue in her mouth just takes the focus away from the fact that she culturally appropriated millions of people, their ancestry, and how they engage their own culture within a society that has not ceased to marginalize them.

But wait, we’re not finished. Let’s not forget everyone who is talking smack in regard to Miley getting all up on a married man. Yes, Robin Thicke is married to actress Paula Patton. He was also entirely complicit in the performance, and has given interviews on multiple occasions in which he is asked about his wife’s reactions to his performances with half-naked women, and he reveals that he and his wife understand that it can be part of the job as artists, and nudity can and has been involved in both of their careers to heighten the art.

How does any of this help? I’ll let you in on a secret: It doesn’t. These non-constructive negative reactions do nothing to start a conversation. It does nothing to deal with the issues at hand. All it does is continue a vicious cycle that keeps everyone down and away from the potential to become an open, accepting, and liberated society of equals.

It pisses me off to no end that I have to defend Miley Cyrus for some of her artistic choices while calling her out on others, but if this is indicative of anything, it is that we have so much farther to go. Until we can stop shaming one another and begin to honestly confront the uncomfortable truths before us, we’re always going to be stuck in a rut where no one makes it out alive. And, even more than that, I’m going to be stuck defending Miley Cyrus once again, and, let’s be real, no one wants that.

Written by Emily Vrotsos
Follow her musings on having a trans sibling, books she’s reading, and how she does feminism at Bend it. Break it. All of it. and her gardening and sustainability endeavors at The Outdoor Amateur. She also has fun on Twitter and is a little bit obsessed with Pinterest.

  • Inlustris

    I completely agree with this article.

    I found Miley Cyrus’s performance to be crude and I was frustrated at myself for feeling that way, because I know it only came from feelings of body shaming and slut shaming. Plus, I knew if a man were to act that crudely and that aggressively, he would not be called out on it (as indicated with Robin Thicke’s complacency in the performance). People are defending him saying that no one knew how outrageous Miley would become. I had issue with all of this and it frustrated me because I do not want to be disgusted by a woman doing what she wants with her body and her image.

    However, I knew that something felt wrong about Miley slapping that colored woman’s butt and the appearance of largely colored women. The same is present in her music video. I hate that she is taking up black culture as her own. Trying to act as if they are her community, when they are not. It is the same as Lady Gaga donning a Burqa. They have NO RIGHT.

    It makes me so mad at myself that my first reaction is to be disgusted by her crudeness and not at this cultural appropriate.

    Thank you for this article. Thank you for helping me give a voice to my concerns with her behavior. Thank you for checking sexism at the door. I hate how internalized sexism is still in myself–even after all these years of trying to change my internal dialogue. I am afraid I will never be a fully recovered misogynist. I wish my prerogative wasn’t to hate my gender and to hate the parts of myself because of it.

    Clearly, I–and our culture–has much farther to go in terms of women’s rights and people of color’s rights.

    • Emily Vrotsos

      Thank you for your feedback! Your worries and self-critiques are the same that I work with everyday. I think we will always be a work-in-progress because we can never completely undo what we’ve learned over our years in this society. We can’t unring a bell, but we can be watchful and critical of the next bell that rings and be proactive in our dealing with the consequences.

  • Lauren

    this was seriously the best article i’ve read about the entire situation. thank you!

  • Annoyed

    You should probably wait till next February, then brush up on your black history and what “black culture” really is, then completely reevaluate what you think Miley Cyrus is appropriating here, because what she is doing is definitely not “black culture.” Try not compartmentalizing all black people as identifying “black culture” with twerkin’, mainstream rap and hip hop, “gangsta” style, weed, etc. because I’m fairly certain if you actually took the time and asked a variety of black people what they thought black culture really is, they would tell you something completely different from that. At the minimum, what she is appropriating is some inauthentic, bullshit rapper subculture of the fucking 2000s. Although I’d have to say her use of black women as props in her videos and on stage undermines the level of worth and intelligibility that black women have. No we are not your sex toys or your chalkboard Miley.

    • Emily Vrotsos

      Thank you for your criticism. You said a lot of valid things. You’ve shown me how prevalent my white privilege is still in my writing, even when I actively try to acknowledge it. The intention of my article was not to lump all people of color together, but to make an effort to properly criticize Miley’s performance. I will do my best to learn from your criticism. If you have a response you’d rather see concerning Miley’s performance, you might consider writing a piece and sending it in to Feminspire. New perspectives are always welcome!

  • 3000

    wait, twerking is part of black culture in america? since when? cause shaking someone’s butt is part of…. well… everyone. just so you know, caribeans have been doing that for about a couple of centuries. does that mean that black people appropiated shaking ass from us? (i am caribbean not caribbean american, just plain caribbean and just so you know, we have nooooooothing to do with african americans.) i think you are just having a bout of white guilt. which is fine. you are nice white lady. you are prone to bouts of white guilt.

    but i agree with her descicions.

    and no one talks about robin thicke’s rape culture anthem. or how he is a hero while miley is evil.

    • Joy

      “we have nothing to do with african americans”

    • Emily Vrotsos

      Hi 3000. I understand that being Caribbean, Caribbean-American, and African American, are recognized as distinct populations from one another. In reference to having white guilt, this article was not meant to alleviate myself of racial accountability, but was acknowledging that, in regard to Miley’s performance at the VMAs, the conversation that needs to take place concerning cultural appropriation in the U.S. must have the active participation of white people. Considering our American society puts a premium on whiteness to this day, and other racial and ethnic groups are consistently left marginalized because of it, the oppressors must participate in the dismantling of the oppression in order to put an end to it.

      • lulz

        lol I’m sorry you had an okay idea but the fact is people are picking on Miley simply because shes she’s a young woman. I notice in article below chat about her dancing up on a married man? It’s from my understanding she has talk about marrying her bf so she is in fact taken. Question is why was a married man getting that close to a younger women? lol in end its just part of the job but yea, no one questions the man. as per usual.

  • Icouldbeanyone

    This “cultural appropriation” thing made me curious, then your explanation (and the explanation of another article that you reference in your own) made me frustrated enough to go off an a rant.

    There is a two-way street to this “cultural appropriation”. Perfect example, I believe: the popularization in the past ten years of line lancing music in “Black Culture” (the Cupid Shuffle, Soulja Boy, etc). While African and African American cultures may have historically had forms of line (or otherwise synchronized) dancing, these specific dance styles are a pretty direct “cultural appropriation” of country western line dancing — a very “White”, very “Hetero” phenomenon, which is mocked and derided by many “other cultures” (European American and otherwise) in the United States. Yet, this new generation of line dancing is praised and revered by non-whites, who have no cultural acknowledgement of the origins of the dance style. Although I have seen all colors of people line dancing to these songs at public festivals, the majority of people dancing and being entertained are middle-class black Americans, alongside and intermixed among the minority of white (and other) people dancing.

    I think one of the main problems with race issues that remains is this compulsion to find this idea of a racial identity and “own” it ( – “This is a part of my culture, and you can’t have it”), which inherently creates a segregation in itself, something that society has been _claiming_ to try to avoid, on all sides of the race (and gender) equality movements for YEARS.

    Yet here we have an example of a “white” cultural phenomenon of line dancing, that has been “culturally appropriated” by non-whites, yet I have seen people of all races and gender identities come together, dance next to each other, and enjoy each others’ company in several cities of the bigoted, Bible-Belt, South-Eastern United States.

    Personally, I’m not into twerking (I’m still not even sure what it is), or line dancing of any kind, but I think if one group of people sees something that another group of people is doing, likes it, and wants to imitate it, there does not necessarily have to be a “cultural understanding” from the imitators. There can, however, be a cultural bonding, if people let go of what’s “white”, “black”, “latino”, “asian”, “gay”,
    “straight”, or whatever.

    Now, all that being said… I do very much appreciate what i see as your main points in the article – that the criticisms of her sexuality are out of line, and that there was an exploitation of black women (the backup dancers) in the performance. My feed has been blown up by all of this as well, and I followed this link to your article because it brought up these perspectives that I have not seen anybody else comment on. Thank you for that.

    • RED4283

      I AGREE! What, because I’m white and from Irish lineage I’m only allowed to ever learn Irish step-dancing? I’m not allowed to tango, dance salsa, or heck even listen to Mariachi music because- gasp!!– I’m not of the culture that originated the music/dance? Come on now.

      • Emily B

        Cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation are not the same thing -_-

    • Penny_Jenny_79

      The issue isn’t “we own this you can’t have it”. The issue is plucking something out of a cultural context and presenting it in a fashion that ignores the majority of the original cultural that it came from. Culture as throw away fashion. When celebrities do this it reflects how the wider public view cultures they are unfamiliar with. Does anyone genuinely think Miley Cyrus has a serious interest in the hip hop culture that twerking is part of? Or is this just a fashion thing, that she will change the next time her management team decide she needs to “up date her look” She is presenting a dance from a specific urban cultural completely divorced from that culture, because she wants to appear edgy and get media attention. And by doing so she is sending the message that this is fine, you can pluck cultural elements out of the wider cultural movements because you want to look edgy or different for a bit, you don’t have to actually care about the culture or those genuinely immersed in the culture.

      This goes even more so for someone like Selena Gomez who continues to present religious symbols and imagery from India culture without any apparent appreciation for the cultural context that these symbols exist in. When her next single or album comes out Gomez will have moved on to what ever next, and all the India outfits and religious symbols will be tossed aside.

      Being Irish I personally experienced the annoyance this brings during the Riverdance phenomena during the 1990s. Just in case anyone doesn’t know Riverdance and particularly the stuff that came afterwards done by Michael Flattley is NOT Irish dancing. It is a extremely altered form of Irish dancing with a host of other dance styles mashed into it. Which is fine, I’ve no issue with the evolution of culture. The issue I and a lot of Irish people took with Riverdance was the it wasn’t presented as a new mash up of cultures, it was sold in non-Irish territories as “Irish dancing”. People who had no clue what real Irish dancing was and real Irish culture context that it fits into were taking this show as an authentic representation of traditional Irish culture. That annoyed me because I felt it was disrespectful to the artists who were actually working in the tradition, and disrespectful to the culture itself.

      This type of cultural appropriation presents a false commercialised representation of the the culture, used to sell albums or tickets or outfits or what ever else someone wants you to buy because Miley did it or because Selena did it or because you saw a show once that had it in it. And this ultimately is the issue with this style of cultural appropriation. It is hugely disrespectful to those in the original cultural who are doing these things precisely because it is part of their culture and for the love of their culture. It is culture as disposable fashion, devoid of any genuinely respect or even awareness of the origins of the culture.

      I should point out this is completely different to someone taking a genuine interest in a culture they are initially unfamiliar with and genuinely immersing themselves in that culture because they find it interesting or appealing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with an non-Irish person wanting to learn actual Irish dancing, a non-Hindu wanting to learn and convert to Hindu culture, or a non-black person wanting to get into hip hop culture (which obviously is no longer exclusively black or American culture any more).

      But this is not what the VMAs were. The VMAs were Miley putting on an outfit like any other outfit that she will take off when she goes home, or in a week or in a month when someone tells her to update her image.

      Like it or not how these celebrities present these cultural elements effects how the wider public view them and shapes how the wider public appreciates them. If these cultures are just fashion accessories to be put on for a few months to sell albums or tickets or clothes and then discarded for something new, why would the public take them any more seriously than these celebrities do?

    • Emily B

      Cultural appropriation is about power. Black people have never been in a position of historical power and therefore have not appropriated line dancing. Stuff that’s traditionally from white culture is typically considered part of pop culture because the White Experience is considered the norm. Same reason an Indian kid wearing Nikes (for example) isn’t appropriation but Lady Gaga singing about a burqa just to make herself look edgy is.

  • 4649

    I hate to lose sight of the forest because of a single tree, but why do you have to pull the white anthropologist card and connect twerking to “age old” dance? It’s a part of modern hip hop culture – is that not legitimate enough? Things don’t have to be steeped in ages of ~PEOPLE OF COLOR~ tradition to be appropriated and misused, and this article could have done without that comment, which gives off the faint and awkward scent of othering.

    • Emily Vrotsos

      That’s a good point. Thanks for the feedback!

    • Emily Vrotsos

      You make a great point. Thank you for sharing. I will definitely keep this in mind as I continue to examine this issue.

  • Angelica

    Next May 5th, I’ll be super excited to read your article on cultural appropiation of Mexican culture. Might as well apologize for Taco Bell and burritos while you’re at it working on your white guilt. In the mean time: Welcome to the multicultural world you live in now.

  • Nick

    The black women were the same dancers from Robin Thicke’s new music video “Give It 2 U”. They had nothing to do with Miley. Yes her performance was “shocking” and trashy, but aren’t the VMA’s known for that? Why isn’t Robin Thicke taking ANYTHING for this, when the staging, costumes, dancers, props, choreography, etc. were ALL his idea and taken from his music video? Maybe fact-check before you blast someone….

  • Billfred
  • Emily B

    Most of you are missing the point here.
    Twerking originated in the black community. When black women twerk, they are called ghetto hoes and the like. When Miley twerks, her fans think she’s cute. THAT’S the point- she is using a part of the culture to further her career and acting like she invented twerking (which is not just “shaking your butt”).

    Also, cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation are not the same thing. Look this stuff up before crying all your White Tears.

  • Dorian Douma

    No way, racism is when you call something “their thing” and being afraid to do it. Go ahead and twerk all you want, white girls! Next I shall have guys twerking and stuff… it’s sexist to just leave it to the ladies :D

  • JamesFaction

    WOW. This is exactly what I thought when I saw this video.

    That she is wearing skimpy ridiculous PVC bikini and shaking her skinny ass didn’t really strike me as anything at all other than business as usual. This kind of thing has been going on in music videos for a couple of decades now! Not surprising in the least.

    But the colour of her dancers, the way she treated them, the deferential way they treated her, how she and also white Robin Thicke took centre stage where Miley subjugated herself to Thicke while he stands there singing a vaguely sexist song and black rappers in the shadows on the sidelines contribute more “black cred” to the white people in the limelight… this made me furious. It occurred to me how little culture has moved forward since the civil rights revolution in the 60s. Not much.

    So I 100% agree with you. Does that make me a feminist? D:

  • regimeoftruth

    I’m offended that you were offended by the butt-slap. It was clearly consensual.