A not-so-tiny criticism of Miley’s huge cultural appropriation problem

"Don't you wish there were some things you could just  'unsee'?"

Don’t you wish there were some things you could just ‘unsee’?

So a couple of summers ago, while visiting family in my hometown, my little sister, now grown up, decided we should go bar hopping. She and her friends took me out to one of the bars downtown, and, to my surprise, Milwaukee did have a thriving nightlife. The crowd was majority white: we intrepid gaggle of a few men and women of color peppered the massive bar space with Nelly or Kanye or Jay or Big blaring a bit too loudly through the speakers drinking out of cups swaying to music. The bros sang on beat to every Jay lyric dropped on Give It To Me.

I caught the interest of one of the bros — a white dude in a polo short — and he mirrored my movements, rocking from side to side, even swayed a little hip between the break beats in the least awkward way possible. Things were cool. Then a youngish blond woman appeared from nowhere and joined our dance. She rubbed against my side, did her best Britney body roll, a little off beat and a bit too robotic for the tempo of the music.

The dance was designed to redirect attention from me to her, or at least that’s how it felt. I get it. She had eyes for that dude. I didn’t care. I live in Brooklyn. But her movements grew aggressive, almost cartoonish, her smile a caricature of joy. Yeah. You know that girl. You think she’s having fun and she’s just begging for everyone to like her. Laughs nervously at all your unfunny jokes to break awkward tensions. I grooved along to the music. I looked over my shoulder to see my sister a few feet away, dancing with her friends, and then… the youngish blond woman slapped my breast.


It wasn’t an accident. She intentionally slapped my breast and grinned at me like that was some cool shit to do. I gave her the look: We’re not friends. My friends don’t do that. What. The. Fuck. My sister summarily escorted me away before words or a fist to a pretty face would follow. She said to me later, ‘Yeah, they’re doing that now. It’s happened to me too.’

I thought of that moment in Milwaukee bar when I watched Miley pinch the ass of her black backup dancer during her “performance” at the Video Music Awards Sunday night. There are numerous points to unpack about that spectacle, and there is some great pieces of commentary at Vulture and Think Progress, as well as this prescient piece from Sesali. I’m fuzzy on its origins, but when did black women become proxy and prop for what is ‘sexy’ or ‘cool’?

Why would this girl slap my breast while dancing? What the fuck does that communicate to the bro? That she’s wild, like me, who wasn’t, who was dancing rather conservatively in that moment. Wild, because I’m black? What is it about the black female body that frequently means that it is an object of sex? Object, really. I watched, horrified, women’s bodies, their glutes shaking, placed around Miley as props and I could only think: Hottentot. Did you know that pieces of Sarah Baartman‘s body lived in jars until the government of South Africa petitioned France to return Sarah Baartman’s remains to be buried in her homeland? When she died, they kept a cast of her glutes.

That spectacle isn’t all Miley’s fault. I blame Disney. I blame a host of handlers, marketers, managers, the production staff of the VMAs, the entertainment dream machine for that shit. That Build a Bear mirror of horrors aping the idea that sexy and ghetto and ‘ratchet’ are quintessentially black. Then selling it back to us.

Miley, the brand, is on a journey of reinvention. I get it. It’s hard out there for child stars to maintain relevance in a culture completely obsessed with youth and newness. But she hasn’t given me any comfort that she understands the complexities of black identity in white America. Hell, that she understands the depth of the political, social and cultural implications of my body in these spaces.

Yet would you believe that, while I watched that hot mess performance, I was sad? I knew that we are going to destroy her. And we will destroy her. She will be the subject of great ridicule for so many days to come. One segment of our culture wants to focus exclusively on the sanctity of young white girls. Oh, how will she ever be a model of purity, chastity and wholesome Hannah Montana goodness to young (white) girls all across America? 2008 wasn’t that long ago. Hannah Montana, the television alter ego of the real life Miley was a sold-out epic dream machine of teenie bopper kid country-pop. People lost it in 2008 trying to get tickets for that tour. And your memory can’t be so short that you didn’t see the cracks. Miley Cyrus, the real life girl fighting to become a woman? Fighting for control over her whole self from the constructed artifice of that good girl, Hannah? The first inkling of Eve descending in this magazine spread and the Mouse responded fiercely like it was God Almighty?

A segment of our culture will stay mired in slut-shaming Miley for asserting a sexuality that is her right. We stay teaching girls to deny that part of themselves. And you know what all flowers do: they bloom. Girls grow up to be sexual beings. But I’m living in the part of our culture that is exhausted with the entertainment dream complex’s skewed perception of the complexities of black identity in American life. Chagrined that my big black butt is spread out on display on the world’s stage dehumanized and mocked, lining mad pockets green.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/gemski/ QuantumInc

    Ironically slapping a breast seems to be the same gesture as pointing at it. I’m not sure of the full history, but I think hardcore pornography was the first to introduce slapping as a way to point out sexual features. Slapping simultaneously emphasized the man’s dominance and violence making it all the more “hardcore”. Of course pornography of this kind is now ubiquitous. What was once a kinky act is now vanilla, and of course women do it too. Women objectifying each other seems to be an inevitable result of our toxic sexual culture, where a sexy woman loses part of her humanity but also gains a lot of recognition.

    To take a gander, it seems Miley is gluing symbols of wholesome childhood innocence, symbols unwholesome adult sexuality, and a fair bit of techno flash together for her performance, loudly emphasizing the irony of Miley Cyrus trying to become a sex symbol. She’s poking fun at what she represents, but also reinforcing some terrible stereotypes along the way.

    Teddy Bears for the wholesome, but for the unwholesome part…sexy black women, with all of the same features as a rap video. (Those specific women have probably been in plenty of rap videos) Black bodies are shorthand for sex nowadays apparently. Not only that, but a particularly tacky form of sex. Black women are being presented as symbols of whatever chastity isn’t. I don’t need to explain why that is a bad thing, other than to note that this isn’t the first time somebody made this association, Miley Cryrus’ handlers learned it from somewhere. I feel I might cringe to death.

    Syreeta is spot on in her analysis, I’m mostly just rephrasing. Full disclosure: I am an autistic white male and I have no idea what “ratchet” refers to.

  • http://feministing.com/members/shasty/ emmie

    All I can really say is “yuck!” That is terrible that that has happened to you Syreeta. I can’t imagine what my reaction would have been if some stranger tried that crap on me. I have actually not watched the Miley Cyrus performance because I know it will just be extremely uncomfortable to watch. Especially with how people are treating her right now. But her treating women of color as props in her show is also another MAJOR turn off from ever wanting to watch that. Gross!

    But was mentioning the woman’s hair color necessary? I’ve noticed that when anyone has blonde hair, in any story, it’s like it just HAS to be mentioned. Which I’ve always thought was kind of weird. People hardly do that with brunettes or red-heads, etc. This issue seems to be a problem among some white women in general anyway with women of color.

    But I agree, this behavior is absolutely inappropriate and it needs to end. And of course it’s our crap media that is to blame. Telling people (especially women) how we “have” to act in order to be liked and accepted.

  • http://feministing.com/members/mrerikj/ Erik

    I think your analysis is spot on, Syreeta. You bring up one of the most important, but overlooked, points of objectification in that performance. Everyone focused on Miley, obviously, but it’s important that we draw attention to the supporting cast that were both props and fetish objects.

    However, I dissent in one area. I do agree with you that people will focus an irrational amount of energy on slut-shaming Miley. You are correct that she is a woman expressing her sexuality, as she has a right to. And, I respect her right to express or objectify herself however she wants.

    With that said, I think her actions promote a confusing and negative message to young women bridging the adolescence/adult gap. Miley (along with Britney, Christina, Jessica Simpson etc) all reached a point in their career where they went for a provocative image, claiming that they were “expressing their sexuality/womanhood etc.”

    While confidence in your body is an important aspect of sexual expression, I’m not sure “I’m a Slave for U” did much more than further objectify and fetishize a young Britney Spears. Same goes for Christina Aguilera’s “Dirty”, and Miley’s VMA performance. Most worrisome, it further reinforces the idea that to be confident, sexual women, you must debase and objectify yourself. While I am not judging nude models or pornographic actress, I find it interesting and worrisome that so many say they feel “empowered” from posing nude. There is nothing wrong with that, inherently, but given the context (objectifying oneself for an anonymous population’s pleasure) I that we’re continuing to tell women that empowerment is still found in the lust of a man.

    Ultimately, I worry about the consequences of teen pop icons/role models setting the example that “this” is how you express your sexuality and “this” is how you act when you are finally…a woman. It might be novel and admirable if it wasn’t the only example of “strong female sexuality.”

  • http://feministing.com/members/olivehoney/ Emmanuela

    Okay, really? We’re still on this child stars have to learn how to be grown women and deal with how they are portrayed sexually?
    There are many things at play here but I think Miley understands the real world. Real world women do not dress and act this way – so this whole idea of her figuring out herself as a woman is bull. She has no one telling her no and many choices and for the vmas – a scandal is more important than anything else. everyone forgot about the good performances, everyone is talking about one thing – Miley Cyrus. We have allowed her to be engulfed in our consciousness. She is a puppet. I don’t understand feminism and I never will if such blatant disregard for oneself and other women is accepted and acceptable b/c it is just an expression of one’s sexuality and it’s ok.