Last night at the Video Music Awards, Miley Cyrus, who, much like Ke$ha, has come under some criticism for her incorporation of certain cultural affectations, including the dance style called twerking, into her recent work, gave a performance that intensified that conversation (and inspired some grade-a body shaming, concern-trolling, and slut-shaming):
The conversation-advancing charge was lead by New York‘s Jody Rosen, who writes that “For white performers, minstrelsy has always been a means to an end: a shortcut to self-actualization. The archetypal example is in The Jazz Singer (1927), in which Al Jolson’s immigrant striver puts on the blackface mask to cast off his immigrant Jewish patrimony and remake himself as an all-American pop star.” That’s indisputably true. But given the context in which Cyrus’ career is operating, it’s also not a complete explanation for what’s at work here.
A decade ago, at the same ceremony, Madonna kissed both Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the end of a performance of “Like A Virgin” that featured Spears and Christina Aguilera in wedding dress costumes, and Madonna herself in a severe black outfit and top hat that suggested a groom’s outfit:
The 2003 VMAs took place on August 28 of that year, a little less than three moths before the decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health made Massachusetts the first state in the union to grant equal marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. Given how quickly the cause of marriage equality–though not other LGBT issues, including employment non-discrimination and basic protections for transgender Americans–has advanced in the years since, it’s easy to forget how transgressive that moment was.
And it’s also easy to forget how much bisexuality was part of the narrative of late-nineties pop tarts breaking free of the labels and impresarios who steered their early careers. Spears didn’t just let Madonna plant one on her. Her first husband, Jason Alexander, alleged that she was bisexual after their divorce, and Spears herself played with the idea in “If U Seek Amy,” a song that let you see either a dirty pun, or her sexual interest in a woman, or both.
In 2002, Christina Aguilera’d become an early celebrity convert to the campaign against anti-gay bullying with her video for “Beautiful,” from her album Stripped, but that album’s more remembered as a declaration of sexual liberation, particularly in the video for “Dirrty.” The winter after her kiss with Madonna got cut for Justin Timberlake’s reaction to the Spears smooch, Aguilera said in an interview that “Two women are way sexier than two men in bed. We have a better feel for our bodies,” implying, though refusing to confirm that she had sexual relationships with women.
Pink (who was initially branded as a white R and B artist in a way that differed dramatically from the way her contemporaries like Spears, Aguilera, and Jessica Simpson were presented, a decision that both played to her considerable artistic strengths, and involved some images that were a tamer but still unfortunate version of Cyrus’ present incarnation, all the way down to the teddybears), at one point told Heat Magazine that “I’m trisexual. I’ll try anything once.” In 2009, she clarified that she was heterosexual after the News Of The World fabricated an interview with her in which she supposedly said she’d consider a relationship with a woman if her reconciliation with then-estranged husband Carey Hart didn’t take.
Bisexuality, in the late nineties and early aughts, occupied (and to a certain extent, still occupies) a very particular cultural space. For white female artists, implying you were bisexual was a career-enhancer, something that painted you as adventurous and rebellious. But bisexuality, like a willingness to hang out with strippers, still carried an implied risk that your parents would get angry, or squares would get uncomfortable. It was a concept that was perfectly situated for young women who wanted to demonstrate a certain kind of rebelliousness, while still remaining largely acceptable to a mass-market audience, and without having to grapple with the actual loss of privilege that would accompany an actual coming out.
In other words, it played a similar role in the pop narrative as the problem Dodai Stewart identified in Cyrus’ appropriation of a specific set of African American-associated cultural tropes that fall under the subheading of “ratchet” when the video for “We Can’t Stop” came out. “Miley is very privileged to be able to play dress up and adorn herself with the trappings of an oppressed/minority culture,” she wrote. “She can play at blackness without being burdened by the reality of it.” It’s worth noting that the video for “We Can’t Stop” contains many of the same kinds of indicators of bisexuality that her predecessors employed: we see her kissing a white, female doll, grinding on her female friends, touching other women’s bodies, and singing, “It’s our party, we can love who we want to,” a line that a decade earlier might have invited endless exegesis, but that today is a standard part of the pop songbook. Is it any wonder that Cyrus felt she had to up the ante? On the VMAs red carpet, she told an MTV reporter “We’ve got better in store for you guys, it’s going be even crazier than the kiss.”
I don’t mean to set up a competition here, attempting to adjudicate which of gay identity or black culture has been more aggressively appropriated by mass media. The record is bad on both counts. But for young white women whose early careers were carefully controlled by large corporations like Disney, there are some remarkable similarities about their dalliances with bisexuality and ratchet culture, which has its own crossovers with gay male culture. Eager to shake off the squeaky-clean images they believe are holding them back creatively, and often the management and creative collaborators and managers, including their parents, who they believe are standing in between them and creative freedom, these young women light out for unclaimed territory, rebellion the only compass they’ve packed for the journey.
The urges for artistic independence and self-actualization are admirable ones. But when those impulses are combined with a disinclination to take advice, bred by years in systems that have better track records of making profits than producing mentally healthy or creatively recognized artists, the result can be work that’s both artistically bankrupt and does cultural harm in many directions.
The VMAs have sparked entirely legitimate critiques of Cyrus as a cultural appropriator who doesn’t have to carry the weight of any of the tropes she flirts with. But then, there are also the suggestions that Cyrus’ performance was a failure because she doesn’t have the body to twerk–as NPR Code Switch lead blogger Gene Demby put it, “those Miley-ain’t-got-no-ass memes are kinda weird and body-shaming.” There’s Mika Brzezinski’s pearl-clutching diagnosis that “I think that was really, really disturbing. That young lady, who is 20, is obviously deeply troubled, deeply disturbed, clearly has confidence issues, probably eating disorder and I don’t think anybody should have put her on stage. That was disgusting and embarrassing,” not that she has much to say about Robin Thicke’s involvement in the spectacle. Cyrus’ performance was a bomb both in the traditional critical sense, and in the blowback it’s producing both for her and for the black women she’s emulating and appropriating. As Chloe Angyal summed it up, “That we consider Miley ‘off the rails’ when she mimics age-old, harmful stereotypes of Black women says a lot.”
No one comes out of this better for it. And there has to be a way for artists like Spears, Aguilera, Cyrus, and all the young white women who will come after them to find a path to artistic self-actualization that doesn’t involving using the backs of women of color and non-straight women as bridges on the route.