Monday, August 26, 2013

Miley, Madonna, Big Freedia, and Willi Ninja

In just a matter of hours, I've seen more coverage and discussion of Miley Cyrus's VMA performance than I've ever noticed before. The coverage generally seems to stem from peoples' deep discomfort with Cyrus's sexually provocative moves. I haven't watched her performance and I don't care to, although I've seen stills from it; most of them fixate on her twerking and simulated rear penetration. I have seen her rather disjointed and controversial ode to young adult (women's?) rebellion. I don't consider Cyrus particularly interesting or talented, but the attention she draws merits interest. Such attention, while clearly fed and furthered by media outlets who seek page views (i.e., ad revenue) and to line the pockets of the producers of Cyrus's videos and performances, calls attention to American society's need to continue to surveil and police women's bodies and sexuality. Regardless of the questionable aesthetic merits of Cyrus's VMA performance, video, or dancing, Cyrus is able to draw attention because she's clearly aware that women acting in highly sexual ways in public draws attention and controversy. Cyrus is no fool or dupe here; she's following in a financially proven tradition, whose more modern originators include Madonna, Cher, Janis Joplin, and others, although they did this, many would likely argue, in more daring, original, and aesthetically complex ways. (I omit women of color in these originators not to exclude them, but to highlight the tradition of white women Cyrus follows in, an important distinction.)

Clinton Yates at the Washington Post rightly calls out the pathologizing of Cyrus's overt sexuality as slut-shaming, or, in more academic terms, the social regulation of women's bodies. But then Yates goes off track, majorly. Yates want to make Cyrus a victim of racism because of her class status and Whiteness. Yates writes:

When the white, 20-year-old, former child star and daughter of a country singer goes on stage and does something that the so-called ruling classes deem unseemly, it starts a firestorm. ... By implying that Cyrus is somehow creating a minstrel act of sorts by including black dancers in her act, you are implying that there is something lesser than about such an act. As if it’s completely impossible that she simply enjoys and respects the talents of those she chooses to work with. In short, it is inherently racist to imply that there is anything wrong with anyone other than black women twerking.

Yates specifically refers to the Vulture piece on Cyrus, but would clearly also apply his thinking to this HuffPo piece. Yates's rightful assertion that Miley draws controversy because she is a White woman of a certain age and socio-economic class contorts what racism is and how it functions. Institutional and social racism demands that White women, particularly middle to upper class White women, act or be represented as virginal, pure, and innocent, but it makes those demands so that Black women can be portrayed as sexual beasts, uncontrollable in their desires. This is Patricia Hill Collins 101.

So, yes, racism, or more specifically institutional racism, makes certain demands on Cyrus's body, as does heteropatriarchy, but obviously she still benefits, at least financially, from those demands. She seems, in fact, to exploit the system for her own gain, her own attention. Black women are rarely rewarded, like Cyrus and other white women are, for performing in ways that verify or defy social images of them. Yates confuses personal racism with institutional racism, and doesn't understand either. Even within the realm of personal racism, Yates cannot possibly know the motives or thoughts of those who accuse Cyrus of racial appropriation, and doesn't write as if he cares. He seems to be employing a rhetorical strategy to simply end the discussion: call it racist and no counter-argument can be mounted, right?

Yet it is perfectly legitimate, if not out-right correct, to say that Cyrus, and other white performers, when they twerk are appropriating a dance move that originated among African-American communities. White entertainers have been doing this for decades, if not centuries, in this country. Cyrus and Yates cannot ignore this historical context and claim that it's racist to limit certain dance moves to certain racial groups.

What Yates fails to understand is that it's less about a White person dancing in an African-American style than it's about a number of things: to what end does Cyrus use this style? Does she care about twerking as an art form or does she simply seek to profit off it? Is she using the Blackness of twerking to appear edgy, dangerous, "hard"? Is she extending a commensurate amount of compensation to those who taught her to twerk or to those who originated twerking? These are just a few relevant questions and considerations. And focusing solely on twerking does not take into account Cyrus's use of other emblems of African-American rap and hip-hop culture, such as hoodies, grills, and gangster signs, all of which suggest that Cyrus is using Blackness for profit by trying to counter her innocent, young Whiteness which she built a reputation and career on during her "Hannah Montana" days. In addition to Black cultural symbols, Cyrus also fetishizes Black bodies, particularly the asses, of her VMA dancers and her video collaborators. At one point in the video, she spanks a person who presents as a Black drag queen in a kitchen. One cannot ignore the racist symbolism of a rich, White, straight, cisgender woman "punishing" a queer Black body in a place where Black people historically served.

In twerking and her video, Cyrus appropriates both Blackness and queerness. Twerking [seizure warning for link] originated in the New Orleans-based, African American Bounce and Sissy Bounce music scene, [UPDATE 10/27/15: In a televised interview in the past year or two, Big Freedia clarified that Sissy Bounce is not a thing. The correct term is Bounce.]  One of the leaders of whom is a genderqueer Black person--Big Freedia--who has received considerably less attention and money than certainly Cyrus does. Madonna did this with voguing, witch originated in the queer (predominantly) Black and Latino/Hispanic New York City Drag Ball culture. Yet, most people have never heard of Willi Ninja or other contemporaries, and those dance pioneers received considerably less (if any) remuneration for having their dance style stolen. Yates, and likely Cyrus, does not understand the history, (and I would be surprised if Cyrus cared so long as exploiting Blackness and queerness brings her plenty of attention and money) of this kind of institutional racism and heterosupremacy. Certainly Madonna wasn't the first and Cyrus isn't going to be the last White or straight and cisgender identified person to profit from the bodies and work of Black, Brown, and Queer people, but we must call them, and people like Yates, to recognition of these facts, and how the policing of Cyrus's body as a woman stems from these same systems of oppression.

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