Miley Cyrus: To Twerk or Not to Twerk? – A Discourse on Female and Racial Oppression
On August 25, 2013, Miley Cyrus took the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards. The crowd expected to see nothing less than insanity, and as millions flocked to their televisions and computers after hearing about her show, it seems that insanity was exactly what they got. Cyrus entered the stage through a giant teddy bear, and proceeded to gyrate and sing off-key through most of her set (VMA 2013 Performances). Now famous for her twerking, Cyrus’ sexualized display did not fall short in the shock department. Just seconds into the performance, the web was overwhelmed with tweets, posts, comments, and budding articles about just what the world was seeing before their eyes.
After digesting the performance, many people praised Cyrus for throwing her inhibitions to the wind; others were outraged and disgusted. Nonetheless, people talked.
Whether or not you loved Miley’s antics, or found them humiliating, her performance at the VMA music awards demonstrated, and I believe, perpetuated feminist and racist oppression in our culture. This can be seen first in the way that Cyrus’ actions lead to the objectification, and thus the oppression of the female form. In addition, it can be argued that through her actions, particularly the assertion of whiteness in African-American culture, racist oppression proliferated.
Miley and Sexual Oppression
To get a better understanding of how Cyrus furthers stereotypes and the sexual oppression of women, first of all, it is important to define what we mean by sexual oppression in this context. Sexual oppression as I am using it here is defined through the lens of sexual objectification. Sandra Lee Bartky in her piece “On Psychological Oppression” notes that “A person is sexually objectified when her sexual parts or sexual functions are separated out from the rest of her personality and reduced to the status of mere instruments or else regarded as if they were capable of representing her” (28). According to this definition, Cyrus, who performed scantily clad on the VMA stage, was subjecting herself to the “cultural depreciation” and stereotyping that Bartky likens to a Playboy bunny (28).
Of course, many feminists do not see things this way, and thus there are two distinct ways of viewing Cyrus’ choices, which are both important to recognize and address. Lisa Wade sums up the two sides of this feminist issue in her article “My Two Cents on Feminism and Miley Cyrus”. After many self-proclaimed feminists commented on Cyrus’ performance, two modes of thinking emerged. First, some artists such as Amanda Palmer claim that Miley’s performance was an example of asserting herself as a female, albeit a nude one, which means that she is powerful and taking control of herself as a woman (Wade October 14, 2013).
Others, such as Sinead O’Conner, a veteran artist, criticize the business which, despite personal motives and feelings of empowerment, is patriarchal and thus always oppressing. Wade writes, “Palmer’s [opinion] is straightforwardly individualistic: each individual woman should be able to choose what she wants to do. O’Connor’s [opinion] is strongly institutional: we are all operating within a system – the music industry, in this case, or even “society” – and that system is powerfully deterministic” (Wade October 14, 2013). While it is admirable, perhaps, to see Cyrus as an assertion of femininity or artistry, the only assertion we can clearly see on stage is that of her sexuality. There do not appear to be many redeeming or noteworthy qualities that spawn from her performance. Thus, it seems that O’Connor’s opinion is more strongly evident in this case.
Marilyn Frye, in her piece “The Politics of Reality”, uses the birdcage example to shed light on this issue as well. She writes, “one can study the elements of an oppressive structure with great care and some good will without seeing the structure as a whole, and hence without seeing or being able to understand that one is looking at a cage and that there are people there who are caged, whose motion and mobility are restricted, whose lives are shaped and reduced” (5). In this way, Cyrus may not feel that she is being personally victimized by her audience, but she is perpetuating the stereotype to the rest of the male-dominated world that women are simply sexual objects.
She may not feel that she herself is confined to the birdcage, because she has the money and mobility to maintain a safe lifestyle for herself. However, women who do not have such a luxury become victims, physically and emotionally, of a system that classifies women as weak and for the liberal taking. These women cannot free themselves from the confines of the cage. In this way, Cyrus’ performance, and other ones like it, perpetuates female oppression at large.
Many would say that Cyrus’ choice of clothing was all in the name of art. Similar artists like Lady Gaga, perform in scandalou outfits. However, this would imply that the dancing or singing were to be praised as the highlight of her performance. It can be seen through her set, that the main focus was her body and sexualized dance moves. She did not have any intricately choreographed dances, and her vocal stylings were off-pitch. This led the viewer to be mostly or solely focused on her physical form. Moreover, the continuous touching of other dancers, herself, and her co-performer, Robin Thicke, ultimately led the focus away from the art of the music scene, and towards the powerless, sexualized image of a young woman.
Now, many bloggers have left comments saying that Miley can do what she wants and as long as personally, she doesn’t care about people lusting after her or commenting on her sexualized appearance, then no issues have arisen in terms of female objectification. Here, we must then delve into the area of motive. Is it sexual objectification or oppression if the woman is not opposed to being ridiculed or seen simply as a sexual object? While motive may determine the way we as women personally feel about the reactions we get from our culture, I do believe that what marks sexual objectification is less the female motive behind the expression, and more the inescapable cultural labels and oppression that come about as a result of this expression.
In terms of motive, it appears that Cyrus did not put on her performance in order to sexualize herself or to purposefully warrant being oppressed. She discusses the reason for her performance in a recent interview with CNN saying, “You are thinking about it more than I thought about it when I did it…I didn’t even think about it when I did it because that’s just me” (France September 4, 2013). This reminds us again of Frye’s image of the birdcage. While Cyrus’ performance was a small incident in a larger cultural shift towards sexually charged musical performances, we cannot allow ourselves to believe it occurred inside a vacuum. Frye writes, “the oppressiveness of the situations in which women live our various and different lives is a macroscopic phenomenon” (7). Thus, although Cyrus plays it off saying she was just being herself, the broader implications for women being taken seriously in the music industry, or in society in general, are great.
Another reason why I believe that Miley Cyrus’ performance demonstrates female oppression, and furthers the stereotype of women as less powerful than men, is seen through the juxtaposition of the way she was viewed by the media, compared to her co-performer Robin Thicke. Christian Piatt, in his article “Miley Cyrus’ Contribution to Feminism” notes that “the criticisms of Miley online have far outweighed those of Robin Thicke, the married man in question who participated in said grinding” (Piatt September 26, 2013). Cyrus herself even expressed to Billboard that “No one is talking about the man behind the ass…It was a lot of ‘Miley twerks on Robin Thicke,’ but never, ‘Robin Thicke grinds up on Miley.’ They’re only talking about the one that bent over. So obviously there’s a double standard” (Lewis September 25, 2013).
Miley is just right here, arguing about this double standard. The fact that Robin Thicke received significantly less negative attention than Cyrus reminds us of this culture of male domination in our society. Despite the fact that Thicke, a married man, was gyrating on Cyrus as well, the minimal negative attention he received shows that he was more than likely viewed by the masses as being a “ladies man” versus a grotesque sexual object. Piatt goes on to say, “it tells us more about ourselves when we obsess about the shenanigans of the young woman far more than the borderline adulterous displays of a much older man” (Piatt September 26, 2013).
In an interview with Oprah, where she hit upon this cultural double standard, Thicke said, “This is funny to me, it’s silly…to me, I’m walking out toward Miley, I’m not thinking sex, I’m thinking fun. …I’m singing my butt off. I’m singing and I’m looking at the sky and I’m singing and I’m not really paying attention to all that. That’s on her” (Chen October 10, 2013). His nonchalance, and ease to pin the sexual deviance on Cyrus, demonstrates his male privilege, a common cultural thread in our society. His comment, “That’s on her”, denotes that he has no issue with Cyrus being labeled as a Jezebel, while he, the man who is married and still participating in the sexually laden innuendo, is just simply a bystander.
Miley and Racial Oppression
In addition to promoting the sexually objectified stereotypes of women, Cyrus also overstepped various boundaries concerning racial oppression. At the beginning of her performance, it was evident that she had hired exclusively black back-up dancers. The dance moves she performed, particularly twerking, all come from black culture. Overall, the juxtaposition of the dancer’s more natural moves with hers, represent what Bartky would refer to as an example of “cultural domination” (Bartky 25).
The fact that we live in a society where slapping someone in the rear, whether they are male female or otherwise, is acceptable, is already a problem. However, the fact that Cyrus felt so comfortable slapping one of her African American dancer’s rears, repeatedly, on stage really taps into some very racist oppressive ideologies. I do not feel that it in some way it shows that we’ve moved on from the oppressive white dominated system of slavery. It doesn’t scream “Look! I’m white and she’s black and I’m slapping her rear and not hurting her- it’s funny now!” If anything, it shows that white domination is still alive and prevalent.
This type of relationship shows the psychologically oppressed aspect of Bartky’s argument. She writes, “the psychologically oppressed may come to believe that they lack the capacity to be autonomous whatever their position” (Bartky 31). I see this situation as an example of such. Of course there was money to be gained by the African American woman who allowed Cyrus to slap her rear on national television. However, the benefits to Cyrus were much greater, and the dancer put herself in a situation to be oppressed by physical white domination, seemingly without thinking of the cultural implications it had.
It is clear that Cyrus did not see anything controversial about her move, saying in an interview “I would never think about the color of my dancers, like, ‘Ooh, that might be controversial’ ” (Lewis September 25, 2013). Nonetheless, ultimately, the slap demonstrates the contradiction that Bartky discusses of feeling both equal and oppressed (Bartky 32). It can be understood by the viewer that the black dancer, by allowing herself to be in such a compromising position, was demonstrating her connection with the white Cyrus. Her actions could demonstrate friendship, perhaps, and some form of equality. On the other hand, the aggressive nature of the act and the racial makeup of the situation still demonstrate a semblance of domination, white over black.
In terms of the twerking, Cyrus has faced great criticism for her moves. This past year, she gained fame through her YouTube videos and other performances. Twerking is a dance that has roots in the African-American culture of New Orleans, and potentially African tribal dances (Newman August 28, 2013). Many see her white imposition on this dance to be an example of exploitation.
According to Big Freedia, a culture icon on the twerk scene, Miley Cyrus went too far with her choice of moves. Freedia writes, “for her to just come out of the blue and just start twerking, a lot of people are very offended by it, especially in New Orleans. When something get hot, everybody want to jump on the bandwagon and act like they created it. That’s totally understandable but they have to give credit where credit is due” (Newman August 28, 2013). Therefore, Cyrus’ assertion of herself in black culture, without any reference to where she got her moves from, can be seen as degrading.
Bartky notes that “black men and women of all races have been victims of sexual stereotyping (25). She sees this in the way that society views black culture as being overtly sexual, particularly through different forms of dance or music. Cyrus not only furthers the stereotyping that black dances like twerking are explicitly sexual by dancing half naked, but by placing herself at the center of the dance, surrounded by African-American back-up dancers, she also asserts herself as an expert in a field that she neither created nor understands fully.
Cyrus’ assertion into this culture threatens the sense of self-actualization true members of the group deserve to feel. Bartky speaks of the way that is difficult for African-Americans to feel that they have a solid role in society that is not threatened or oppressed (26). When Cyrus asked for a single from producers Rock City, she explicitly requested that they give her a song that “sounded black” (Platton June 12, 2013). Although Cyrus clearly defines herself as a white woman, it is unclear why she would be interested in performing music that makes her seem like something she is not. This is an assertion of her white privilege; it doesn’t really work the other way around i.e. imagine if Beyoncé asked for a song that made her sound “white”. What would that even mean? But through Cyrus’ request, and her comments on her musical preference, it is clear that she wanted something “ratchet”, or sexualized, bumping, and therefore “black” (Platton June 12, 2013). This demonstrates Bartky’s ideas that white cultural assertion into black culture threatens self-actualization and the possibility of maintaining a solid role or sacred culture for African-Americans.
After the award show, there has still been internet fodder focused on Cyrus’ antics. Blogger Mikki Kendall, writing about an unrelated issue, began using the hash tag #solidarityisforwhitewomen (Gay September 29, 2013). Forums have been abuzz discussing how Cyrus’ performance can be perfectly encapsulated in this hash tag, particularly as some white feminists argue that what she did was liberating. The issue still stands that if Miley Cyrus did something liberating by dancing naked and perpetuating the sexually charged Jezebel stereotype of the black woman by inappropriately touching and using her dancers like props, then yes, this solidarity is particularly for white women.
Ultimately, the issue isn’t whether or not Cyrus brought the sexual oppression onto herself willingly, or even if she was being racist herself by attacking the form of another. Truly, the situation revolves around our patriarchal cultural system, which oppressively rewards women more often than not through sexual exploitation.
It is clear through her actions, that Miley Cyrus is unaware of this system, or not particularly concerned with her perpetuation of it through the way she presents herself. She doesn’t have to be a role model, but must be more cognizant of the way she is perceived, understanding the stereotypes and cultural inequalities she is furthering. Despite the cries of feminists who may say that individualistically, Cyrus made a powerful choice as a woman, and therefore asserted her femininity instead of having it objectified, I do believe that in the end, her actions and nonchalant view of the system hinders women’s freedom by perpetuating stereotypes and white male-dominated cultural norms.
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