The transition from your teen years to adulthood is difficult enough for ordinary people who are not under public scrutiny. What happens, then, when one’s transition takes places under everyone’s prying eyes?
Let’s take Miley Cyrus’ infamous performance at the MTV Video Music Awards last August as a case in point. Miley has been slowly trying to change her image from that of a teen pop star to a more grown-up one. After roughly three years of absence from the music scene, she finally unveiled her new image in front of a live audience. The long hiatus led to a radically new Miley, and some unsavory methods for revealing the change.
The show that Miley put on during the MTV VMA was built to launch controversies in the air. With the inclusion of several risqué actions during her performance, including grinding on a foam finger and grinding against a guy while wearing almost nothing, she got everyone talking about her. Her performance buzzed in all kinds of media for weeks, and she single-handedly put the limelight back on her with one attempt.
Much of the talk generated by Miley’s performance was out of slut-shaming. While this might be expected from a normative public, there is one aspect of the performance that is of interest to sociologists and anthropologists. This, of course, would be the cultural appropriation that occurred during the show.
Cultural appropriation might not seem negative at all at first glance, especially because one may confuse it for assimilation. However, it is important to note that assimilation is very different from appropriation – cultural assimilation pertains to a minority group adapting to the culture of the majority, whereas cultural appropriation is the taking of elements from one culture by a different cultural group, regardless of what these elements might mean for those who practice them. Assimilation might be without negative intent, but appropriation has the tendency to be the exact opposite, because once an element is taken away from its original setting, the meaning could completely change.
The conflict perspective comes into play here – two groups of people appeared prominently in the performance – ‘white’ and ‘black’. And it is apparent who holds the power. ‘Ethnic’ inequalities presented themselves in Miley Cyrus’ performance in several ways: her literal use of black people as props by making them dress as giant teddy bears, slapping the butt of one of her black dancers and miming the action of orally pleasuring it, and her attempt at “twerking”.
Twerking is a dance that originated in West Africa, and was performed in certain social settings by specific subcultures. When ‘twerking’ first found itself in mainstream media, it was then exclusive to black people. Prior to Miley’s show, whites largely ignored this kind of dance. After Miley’s performance, however, they immediately took to labelling her trashy and disgusting because she had done the twerk – a nod perhaps, to the putative ‘lowly’ origins of twerking and its association with a black subculture. The irony is that when a black person twerks, whites do not see anything wrong with it. This indicates a kind of double standard for the dance. It illustrates the assumption that whites are of a higher status, and Miley’s attempt to appropriate elements from subordinate subcultures makes her inferior (“trashy”) to whites “decent” enough to avoid such.
This can be a dangerous commentary. On the one hand, calling Miley trashy because of twerking, and leaving twerking to blacks, is not a critique of cultural appropriation. It only sends out the message that twerking does not suit white people. It is an element of a lesser culture and should remain within those subordinate peoples, where its practice actually makes them look good.
On the other hand, talking about how inappropriate twerking is to whites also indirectly tolerates cultural appropriation. It allows whites to associate with black culture without bearing the consequences of actually being black. Yes, Miley was called trashy, but it is as much a comment on the origins of the dance as it is to Miley’s radical new image. Furthermore, her inclusion in the ‘ruling’ class allows her to do other acts associated with black culture, such as wearing grills or smoking weed, without bearing the marginalization that people in such culture would normally face.
Going back to the performance, we can see that the dancers, being women and black, were clearly disadvantaged. Miley only used them to authenticate a particular “black” image. Despite the performance being heavily influenced by black subculture, these black women disappeared once Miley took the stage.
Cyrus’ performance reminds us that the battle for equality is hard-fought, and this is only the beginning. The struggle for it could get worse.