MTV's Video Music Awards ceased to be relevant more than a decade ago. As a child of the hip hop generation, I count myself lucky to remember watching MTV's first televised broadcast and how its programming was central to global youth culture during my teen years.
With the beginning of the academic year and all of the mess and stress it brings, I had little to no interest in the faux controversy about Miley Cyrus's efforts at "twerking", i.e. bending over and demonstrating her rather limited gluteal control, during the 2013 VMA's.
However, given that at some point a student will ask what I think about Miley Cyrus's failed efforts to shake her butt on TV given that I am supposed to have some type of informed opinion on race and the politics of popular culture, I decided to click on the tempting link at the Washington Post's website about the relationship between black women, Miley Cyrus, and cultural appropriation.
I am glad that I made that choice. Tressiemc's intervention on the subject is worth reading--especially these five paragraphs:
I am not beautiful. I phenotypically exist in a space where I am not usually offensive looking enough to have it be an issue for my mobility but neither am I a threat to anyone’s beauty market. There is no reason for me to assume this pattern of behavior is a compliment. What I saw in Cyrus’ performance was not just a clueless, culturally insensitive attempt to assert her sexuality or a simple act of cultural appropriation at the expense of black bodies. Instead I saw what kinds of black bodies were on that stage with Cyrus.
Cyrus’ dancers look more like me than they do Rihanna or Beyonce or Halle Berry. The difference is instructive.
Fat non-normative black female bodies are kith and kin with historical caricatures of black women as work sites, production units, subjects of victimless sexual crimes, and embodied deviance. As I said in my analysis of hip-hop and country music cross-overs, playing the desirability of black female bodies as a “wink-wink” joke is a way of lifting up our deviant sexuality without lifting up black women as equally desirable to white women.
Cyrus did not just have black women gyrating behind her. She had particularly rotund black women. She gleefully slaps the ass of one dancer like she intends to eat it on a cracker. She is playing a type of black female body as a joke to challenge her audience’s perceptions of herself while leaving their perceptions of black women’s bodies firmly intact. It’s a dance between performing sexual freedom and maintaining a hierarchy of female bodies from which white women benefit materially.
The performance works as spectacle precisely because the background dancers embody a specific kind of black female body. That spectacle unfolds against a long history of how capitalism is a gendered enterprise and subsequently how gendered beauty norms are resisted and embraced to protect the dominant beauty ideal of a certain type of white female beauty.Miley Cyrus's performance is a great example of how questions of race and representation are often best illuminated by "deep viewing". Here, by looking at the background, as opposed to the foreground of a visual text, its full meaning is revealed.
This is one of the most difficult things to teach those initially curious about aesthetics, semiotics, film, TV, art, and related (visual) topics, because very often, "the real action" is not in front of you, obvious, and direct. It is hiding in the background, the periphery, or in the unstated assumptions that a given cultural worker makes about how to present their work, and the context within which, it will be depicted.
For example, Blade Runner, Dredd 3D, Prometheus, Metropolis, Brazil, and Children of Men are films that reward deep viewing.
Cyrus's "twerking" is less noteworthy for her failed effort to channel some crude understanding of "blackness" as libidinous sexuality that allows white former child stars to be transgressive, than the choices made in terms of the grotesque and carnivalesque depictions of black women on stage who gave context to her performance:
Black feminists have critiqued the material advantage that accrues to white women as a function of their elevated status as the normative cultural beauty ideal. As far as privileges go it is certainly a complicated one but that does not negate its utility. Being suitably marriageable privileges white women’s relation to white male wealth and power.
The cultural dominance of a few acceptable brown female beauty ideals is a threat to that privilege. Cyrus acts out her faux bisexual performance for the white male gaze against a backdrop of dark, fat black female bodies and not slightly more normative cafe au lait slim bodies because the juxtaposition of her sexuality with theirs is meant to highlight Cyrus, not challenge her supremacy. Consider it the racialized pop culture version of a bride insisting that all of her bridesmaids be hideously clothed as to enhance the bride’s supremacy on her wedding day.
Only, rather than an ugly dress, fat black female bodies are wedded to their flesh. We cannot take it off when we desire the spotlight for ourselves or when we’d rather not be in the spotlight at all.
This political economy of specific types of black female bodies as a white amusement park was ignored by many, mostly because to critique it we have to critique ourselves.I doubt that Miley Cyrus knows about the tragic story of Sarah Baartman. Regardless, the latter is now part of American (and world) cultural memory, as such, global-billions across the color line identify the large and exaggerated posterior of Sarah Baartman (renamed and globally marketed as the "Hottenton Venus" in European human zoos) as being quintessentially "black" and "female".
Sarah Baartman was a black woman; Sarah Baartman is not all black women...despite how she is taken as a stand-in for some type of idealized black female sexuality at the site of the body as viewed and caricaturized by the White Gaze.
As suggested here in the NY Times, the dance style know as "twerking" apparently has "African" roots. And like the Harlem Shake, another dance that has supposed "African" antecedents, my response to how strip club dances popularized by black women in Atlanta and elsewhere are now framed as "authentically" part of the "motherland's" influence on the Black Atlantic, is one of both confusion and concern.
Are all things done by black people now made into examples of Black Culture? I shutter at the thought of such a rubric.
What would Melville Herskovits think about twerking? Is twerking some type of Africanism that survived the Middle Passage, and was thus processed and translated through "creolization" in the New World and the Black Atlantic, and exists in the present as a type of "popular" black dance?
Much, if not all of, what counts as "black popular culture" is a presentation of "blackness" through and by companies largely owned by white people. This dynamic and set of arrangements has been described as "the Black Culture Industry".
The dilemma for people of color is as follows: so much of what they take to be "black" and "authentic" is a grotesque version of black and brown humanity that has been presented to them by people who are profit driven, and not at all interested in the authenticity, reality, or consequences of, what they are selling back to the very communities from whom they have "culturally borrowed".
In the West, black cultural authenticity has long been mediated by the White Gaze, Whiteness as a social construct, and White media elites who decide--in conjunction with those people of color they can cooptate--what "blackness" means in youth culture.
Where does authentic black youth and popular culture lie? Moreover, why do you think that the twin social disease that is twerking and Miley Cyrus has distracted the public as an object lesson about how "black culture" must be defended against "white" theft.
If white folks want to twerk at will they can have it wholesale. Who cares?