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.

Syreeta McFadden is a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and an editor of Union Station Magazine.

Read more about Syreeta

Join the Conversation