Monday, September 2, 2013

What Would Melville Herskovits Think About Miley Cyrus and Twerking?

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:

Tressiemc continues:
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?


j.ottopohl said...

Herskovits still appears on a lot of syllabi here as required reading although not mine.

Black Sci-Fi said...

A few of thoughts:
1) Miley Cyrus is not important. At least she's no more important than any well publicized stripper, porn queen or any other semi-talented woman...of any race that has to use nudity to gain an audience of curious pre-teens. She, along with a long list of untalented folks in the entertainment business, show skin when they have nothing else to offer. The amount of skin they show is inversly proportional to the amount of talent they have. A singing stripper is still a stripper.The thing about Cyrus that is so woeful is that her pre-teen body is pathetic.
2) She along with her management team have gotten a trillion dollars worth of free publicity from her semi-nude exposition. Considering the real non-issue of her talent and the woeful size of her nude offering, she may as well be a ...wait for it...a smallish woman trying to get attention by using suspenders to keep her underwear up, at the mall.
3) Most of the top 10 so-called entertainers on the pop charts have nothing to offer musically that would suggest that they have ANY talent. Compared to the "musicians" of just 20 years ago, they are all just strippers, who like Marylin Monroe at JFK's birthday party, would prefer that you look at their body and orgasimic gyrations rather than listen to them sing...poorly.
4) You are too talented, Chauncey, to waste one sentance on Myley Cyrus. She is just another corporate court jester in the guise of a little lost lamb. She ain't sexy and she can't "sang". And, no amount of "Black female sexuality widow dressing" will change that. Let her die the death of so many other crude artists that are trying to hve their 5 minutes of fame. Don't enable her any further by donating validity (publicity) to her publicist's notion of P.T. Barnham's maxim.
5) It should have been clearly instructive and informative to have the equally untalented "son-of-Thicke" sharing the stage with Miley Cyrus at the VMA's. Why all the contraversy surrounding his "come to Jesus" moment regarding his theft of Marvin Gaye's song? Seems like a perfect lead-in to the VMA's in retrospect. Contraversy sells in the absence of TALENT.
6) I would not elevate either Cyrus or Thicke to be in the same sentence as the entertainers, of any ethnicity, whose fame, not talent, they would like to copy. Don't give them another mention. They are strippers trying to elevate their theft to an art form.

The Sanity Inspector said...

If a non-American, non-untalented white singer uses plump black women as a backdrop for her performance, is that also wrong? (After the advertisement FF to 1:10)

chauncey devega said...

Why is that? Do share and explain.

j.ottopohl said...

I don't assign him because I don't teach the African history courses. I don't know why the Ghanaian professors assign him so frequently. But, it is a name that pops up as assigned reading here not only in history, but anthropology and other classes.

chauncey devega said...

I misread you as saying his work was no longer considered as influential. Got you.

Miles_Ellison said...

This is a lot of intellectual ammunition wasted on a stationery target in a barrel. Miley Cyrus is a talentless whore. You can take the girl out of the trailer park, but you can't take the trailer park out of the girl.

DanF said...

The Eurythmics (a UK band) were appropriating something else from having a nearly all black band serve as their back-drop. "Would I Lie to You" is a song very much in the R&B tradition of a strong female vocalist with an up-tempo blues progression, and it is being visually asserted that they can legitimately play this music 'cause look. Black people. We don't know if it was the director's decision, the bands or the studio though, but video was king in the 80's so I guarantee you that the juxtaposition was intentional.

chauncey devega said...

There is a good amount that has been written about the idea of "blue eyed soul". Interestingly, lots of it focuses on those types of signalling by British rnb groups about authenticity and race.

Learning is Eternal... said...

CDV, they making a comeback. By comeback I mean they stealing "The Soul" again like that cat in that Stephen King film. Now I know how my grandparents & the 5 Heartbeats felt when over-rated karaoke singers like Elvis go #1.

This was the whitest MTV vma's that I've seen in a while. Mixed emotions *sarcasm* b/c I don't know none of these jokers accepting tin when WE set the tone in all arenas artistically, especially music/I'm glad WE not cooning over their @the white station. Oh wait, BET is false advertis-ment b/c it's owned by the same white guy (MTV, Viacom).

Justin has ripped off Luther with his latest single. Thick DID rip off Marvin Gaye with blurred lines.

I just hope somewhere there's not a caucanderthal studying/copying YOU w/a We Are Half-Decent White Folks site.

*Hopes audience laugh but doesn't find that shit in no way funny*.

They mocking us CDV & some of our people defend this BS. Its more than offensive. Stay 'way from our culture, vulture.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Many of the British truly resonated to soul music, much as they had to rock music in earlier generations, finding that it spoke directly to their feelings.

Drub said...

"If white folks want to twerk at will they can have it wholesale. Who cares?"
My sentiments, exactly. Most Blacks don't give a dern about the ignorances of twerking, grills, and old cars with big, shiny wheels. In my book, you cannot appropriate ignorance. It's an oxymoron.