Miley Cyrus and the MTV World

I am not a fan of MTV and the type of culture they create for our youth.

As a middle-aged white woman who did not grow up watching MTV (it was after my time), I have barely paid any attention to it except for the few years in the 90s when my kids were teens and we had cable. And even than – I didn’t see that much.

My husband and I both thought that the way women were depicted was particularly obnoxious – mostly as sexual props for the male stars.

So when the Miley Cyrus story hit that was where I was coming from. The story being that at the MTV awards Miley Cyrus who had recently been a teen Disnyesque star (another phenomena which I missed), performed a sexualized routine where she comes out of a teddy bead with her tongue sticking out all askew. Some were appalled because the young white woman was acting sexualized. Others were angry because she was trying to ‘act black” and appropriate black culture.

This is more or less what I saw. Miley dancing with teddy bears – some of which turn around and are black women dancing / twerking (twerking meaning to move ones hips up and down – in a sexualized way).  Background vocals “twerk it out”  – Cyrus uses the mic suggestively. One of the black women makes a movement of hitting Cyrus’s ass – but does not come very close.  At one point, a somewhat large black woman in zebra pants and a teddy bear head bends over, Miley Cyrus puts her face near her behind and then slaps her rear a couple of times and she sings about “doing whatever we want”. “it’s our house we can love who we want to” “We Can’t Stop”

In the next song, Cyrus rips off her one piece (with a comic face on the front), and wearing a nude color bikini signs a duet with a while a white middle aged man in a striped black and white suit. She has a large foam hand with one finger sticking out that she is dancing with suggestively. She leans over and puts her crotch near his. He sings about her being a “good girl” while she plays with the foam finger. “I know you want it”, etc.

Then a black man comes out rapping with more black women dancing and twerking. There are few white women – more around the white man. Some of the same black women in red pants and black tops that had had the Teddy Bear heads (now – minus the heads) dance and twerk around the black man. The middle aged white man sings a little – back up. Cyrus ‘twerks’ with the foam finger. The songs turns and becomes more pop like than rap. “I got to give it to you” sings the white man.

What it seemed to me – a white woman who is trying to remake her image – going from the “Teddy Bear” stage to being an adult who is not afraid of sex – coming out of the large Teddy Bear with blinking eyes. The smaller teddy bears turn into black women who represent sexualized women. They slap her / she slaps them. It seems another message is accepting gayness – with the lines, “doing whatever we want,” “it’s our house we can love who we want to.”

To me the next song is more annoying because Cyrus is playing the exposed naked, sexualized girl to the powerful man who acts like he is aloof from it all.

The last song is more mixed – with a black man and a white man, with their separate sets of black and white women – the black man singing hip hop, the white man singing more pop. Miley is in the background.

Some of the reviewers were trying to express the problems they saw – but it didn’t really resonate with me. In one review (and these are basically all addressing and first song), the critique is that “What Miley is doing amounts to minstrelsy…”

She has been quoted as saying that she explicitly wanted “a black sound” for her new album. She is more than aware of what she’s doing, and has consciously made the choice to dabble in traditionally black aesthetics and sound in order to breakaway from her good girl image and further her career.”

For one thing, it doesn’t seem like such a big problem for someone to “dabble in black aesthetics” and to go for “a black sound.” The black sound has been a major part of the music industry for about 100 years.  So that criticism seemed rather hollow. Plus I didn’t buy it that what she was doing amounted to black face or ‘minstrelsy’.

It struck me as being a case where a white woman was trying to break into this sexualized world that is MTV – much of which has been greatly influenced by the hip hop culture. I was annoyed that so many had a problem with a white woman doing what black women, white and black men have been doing for 30 years.

But there was so much disturbance regarding the racial aspect that I had to acknowledge the problem. This writer, TressieMC, described it best – for people like me who live outside of this:

When Your (Brown) Body is a (White) Wonderland
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….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.

That may be what the writer above was thinking with the minstrelsy analogy – but I didn’t really get the picture until Tressie McMillan Cottom painted it for us.

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