Miley Cyrus, Feminism and The Struggle for Black Recognition

by Guest Contributor Jacqui Germain

[Video NSFW]

On Sunday night, four of my friends and I—all people of color—watched a YouTube clip of Miley Cyrus’ performance completely prepared to laugh and joke about it by its conclusion. We were expecting something that would fit neatly in the long line of ridiculous and yet mostly entertaining awards show performances. Instead, as the YouTube clip reached its end, the room fell completely silent. Even as a writer, I don’t quite have words to describe what that moment felt like. Using academic lingo to explain why cultural appropriation is problematic is one thing; the feeling in your gut when you actually watch parts of your identity being used as props is another. As is true with so many shockingly specific traumatic black experiences, this is a feeling we all recognize immediately, and a feeling we all have no words to describe. In the hours and days following, the critical feminist response was, yet again, a reminder of the ways in which my blackness—even as it exists in concurrence with my femininity—is still actively being othered.

A few weeks have passed since the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag first surfaced on Twitter. The subsequent conversation about the lack of representation and further marginalization of women of color by white women in the feminist movement (not at all a new conversation) seemed suddenly reenergized. Women of color have always talked about the subtle racism that happens within the feminist movement; just because you haven’t heard it, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been said—especially considering which narratives are allowed space and which ones aren’t. But with this hashtag, their voices suddenly had a stage. And some white women listened. Some critiqued their own privilege and pointed out the ways the feminist movement has historically dismissed women of color and their experiences. But now, it seems that even those well-meaning white feminists have yet to turn their articles into actual actions.

Most of the responses following Cyrus’ performance have been a conversation of the unconventional way in which she expressed her sexuality on the VMAs stage and the slut-shaming that ensued. Many feminists have since rushed to her defense and appropriately prompted us all to question our immediate negative response to Cyrus’ choice sexual presentation. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a valid stance—in the sense that slut-shaming is certainly a habit that supports rape culture and demanding that society recognizes a woman’s sexual autonomy is hard and necessary work. Back when Cyrus was being sexual without involving the appropriation of my blackness, I was totally on board. Now? Not so much.

Here’s where the racial fissures in feminism come out: by all means, defend a woman’s right to govern her own body; it’s great that white feminists have that goal at the top of their lists. But meanwhile, as a woman of color, I’m still defending my right to actually be considered a body at all and not decoration. Expressing your sexuality at my expense isn’t okay. You don’t get to claim sexual freedom while simultaneously perpetuating the oppression of another body. When you feel the need to express your sexuality by turning my body into an accessory, the black feminist in me—two identities which I refuse to separate—can’t have your back anymore. The feminist struggle is a struggle for autonomy. It’s a fight for recognition and full-body respect. But in Cyrus’ search for and exploration of her sexual identity, she limits my autonomy as a woman of color. She appropriates it. She cheapens it. She effectively uses the identity and lived experiences of so many women of color as a crutch for her career.

For the women in her “We Can’t Stop” video apparently used to give her “credibility”;
for the (mis)use of our slang and our language—which, since the time of the transatlantic slave trade, we’ve been fighting to keep ownership of;
for the (mis)use of our style, the particular way we decorate our bodies;
for the black woman Cyrus smacked on the bottom during her VMAs performance and then casually dismissed—quite literally reduced to a faceless, body-less prop;

I state this truth: we are entire bodies. I am an entire body. We are not bracelets or stage props or trendy hobbies or cute decorations for your career. I am breathing and moving and living and even if I wasn’t, do not disrespect the energy it took to create me and keep me alive in that way. As a black feminist, this is what I’m fighting against.

But in the middle of all of this, in the middle of this display of entire disrespect for my black femininity, I’m hearing very little to nothing at all from mainstream white feminists. And while it’s certainly frustrating and worth criticizing, I understand where the disconnect comes from; we come from an entirely different history of experiences and legacy of oppression. For white women, Slut Walks are a demonstration in favor of women permitting themselves and demanding the room to be more sexual than their predecessors. Meanwhile, black women have spent the past few centuries struggling to do the opposite. Historically, black women are actively being hyper-sexualized; the black feminist struggle, then, is a fight to remove that hyper-sexual assumption from our bodies. Note, though, in light of the contrast, that both movements are indeed a struggle for all women to be allowed to express the full range of their sexuality.

Autonomy is everything. It is one of, if the not the, ultimate freedom. But at the end of the day, the feminist movement is itself weakened by excluding the needs and concerns of women of color.

Black women, in particular, are charged with fighting against a system of assumptions that has affected us for generations, and frequently it feels like we are fighting it alone. It’s important that feminists said something in the aftermath of Cyrus’ VMAs performance, but for black women to not be considered in their critique yet again—intentionally or not—is disheartening. At some point, the movement has to decide to recognize its own examples of privilege, as well as the unique experiences and sufferings of all marginalized women in the community. Zora Neale Hurston tells us, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” It is our responsibility to ourselves and the generations after us to not remain silent about our pain. We are charged with constantly speaking our truths, and as uncomfortable as this may be for some non-black people, we certainly will.

  • Miche

    Here is a webpage from one of the dancer’s in Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance stating the humiliation she felt performing onstage with Miley and why she decided not to take a job on Miley’s tour.

    http://music.yahoo.com/blogs/stop-the-presses/miley-cyrus-s-backup-dancer-hollis-jane-calls-gig–degrading—left-in-tears-001615380.html

  • disqus_oixqUcp1p2

    “Back when Cyrus was being sexual without involving the appropriation of my blackness, I was totally on board”.

    What is your blackness…twerking? I keep hearing black women espouse this sentiment. If Miley appropriated “your blackness” by twerking, this is sad. I mean did you really see her dancing on Robin Thicke and truly have feelings over it? Like, “I can’t believe she is taking what’s mine!” I guess, fortunately for me, the black women I deal with do not align their blackness and/or femininity with twerking.

    • Libra_Lady

      And we have respectability politics!

  • Pingback: Think Twice Before Telling People to “Shut Up About Miley Cyrus” | Opine Season

  • Evan Lehmann

    so so important. Thank you

  • Alyson_M

    This is a great post. I didn’t watch the VMAs but I’ve seen enough of the Cyrus/Thicke performance to know it was all kinds of wrong, and not because it was too sexy. I’m also dismayed at all the posts in my Facebook feed about how Miley is just growing up and expressing sexuality in the way of all female pop stars and we should respect her right to express herself and blah blah blah. *tired sigh* Do I have Ms. Germain’s permission to quote her post on my blog?

  • nim

    This is a great post, it has help understand cultural appropriation within American society. I was wondering whether if might be able to refer some more sources on the issue of cultural appropriation, to help me further my knowledge on the issue? I know it’s not your responsibility, and I’ll seek the knowledge independently either way, but any help you could give me would be greatly appreciated. Again, thanks for the great post.

  • Elizabeth MB Downs

    All this talk about what Miley did but few mention how the male rapper was both accomplice and enabler of the appropriation and hyper sexuality.

  • Trudy

    Genuinely exquisite essay. Thank you for voicing what so many Black women (literally ALL of the ones I personally know also) everywhere have discussed and felt. This felt like a pinnacle moment of the conveyance of how despite facing sexism as well, White women are OPPRESSORS of Black women and it cannot be ignored. In fact, I believe that some of them are purposely using the anti-slut shaming argument to obscure and distance what really happened here in terms of race.
    Your statement here explains this clearly “Back when Cyrus was being sexual without involving the appropriation of my blackness, I was totally on board. Now? Not so much.” In fact, she was slut shamed then as well, yet the outcry seemed minimal. Why is that? Purposeful obscuring of her racism by focusing on her gender and sexism. Common tactic amidst mainstream White feminists. Same thing that Eve Ensler and Kim Foster did in regards to Trayvon Martin essays. Same thing White feminists do in regards to Lena Dunham. This is what they do.
    Further, if they really wanted to examine slut shaming, they would have to consider the racial factor here. She is being slut shamed specifically BECAUSE she is appropriating Black women’s culture which is always reduced to just sexuality, removing what sexual autonomy (which is powerful for Black women often denied this), cultural nuance and cultural significance lies in what we do and create.
    The VMAs felt like an ASSAULT on Black culture and Black people. It genuinely felt like an attack.

    Again, I appreciate this essay.

    • Ms. Pixologist

      Hi there – I am a white feminist and I agree with this article. I just wanted to say that not all white feminists who use the slut shaming outcry are using it on purpose to obscure racism. Never ascribe to malice what can chalked up to ignorance – i.e. don’t necessarily assume that all white feminists are conscious of obscuring racism – they may just be ignorant. Which is where people like you and this author come in to let us all know what’s up. Anyway, I mean no disrespect – obviously Miley is following in Gwen Stefani’s footsteps in her use of borrowing others’ ethnicity as an image to appear “edgy” (i.e. other), which is totally not okay. I just wanted to discuss that sometimes people are unschooled (and need some education) rather than consciously oppressing others on purpose.

      • hallelujah_hippo

        Unconscious racism and erasure is still a problem and still needs to be called out when it happens. This is not an article about ‘all white feminists’ and it does not accuse white feminists of purposefully obscuring racism. But the fact remains that there has been a very marked silence from white feminists on the racial and appropriative aspects of this performance.

        Whether that silence is malice or ignorance is irrelevant. It is harmful and needs to be called out. Folks that are genuinely committed to being better will accept the harm they have done, own it, LISTEN to the criticism, learn from their mistakes, and then work on not doing it again. Why they did it this time (again) isn’t really important.

        • Ms. Pixologist

          You’re right of course. I didn’t mean to be apologist, but it still came off that way. I am listening to the criticism and will try to learn. Trying to not be part of the problem is something I aspire to if not actually do all that well.

        • Carrie

          “Folks that are genuinely committed to being better will accept the harm they have done, own it, LISTEN to the criticism, learn from their mistakes, and then work on not doing it again.”

          Yes, this is what I think Ms. Pixologist is attempting to do. Look, I’m a white woman, and I have no idea other than what I read and hear from black women what it’s like to be used, appropriated, objectified, and otherwise hurt as a black woman. What I hear and read of the degradation disgusts me. All I know is I just want it to stop, I want NO ONE to ever feel degraded ever. And there’s essentially no way for a white woman to write this in a public forum without getting sneered at for being privileged and ignorant, in spite of the fact that many (most?) of us hate the divisions, the degradation AND the privilege. Can we just stand up for each other? Listen to each other and love each other? Women for women?

          • jonk

            Carrie, look at Trudy’s comment above regarding white women choosing to ignore racism by focusing on sexism. It’s great that you want no one to feel degraded ever, but it’s kind of a given in a space like this that NO ONE wants anyone to feel degraded ever. Think of how you would feel if you wrote a piece about how something in pop culture made you feel degraded as a women and represents a larger cultural problem and some white men jumped in immediately to comment “Not all us dudes are bad! I personally hate degradation! Some of us just need education, and that’s where you come in.” This wouldn’t really add anything to the discussion and changes the focus to them and their feelings and insecurities instead of what the article was actually about.

          • Ms. Pixologist

            Okay, I understand now I regret posting. I can see why I got that reaction now. Not proud but I did learn something – listen and learn (me, not you).

      • Jane Laplain

        Dear White Feminist. Thank you for agreeing with the article! (So good to have your cosign, the author’s own opinion was clearly nothing without it!) Did you really just come to a blog specifically dedicated to deconstructing racism in media from the perspective of black and brown people’s lived experience just to tell black people what not to do, what not to think and how not to react when deconstructing racism in media from our own lived experiences? Being “unschooled” is no excuse for being presumptuous as hell. Being ignorant of the impact you have on others is no excuse for being an oppressor. (Even in traffic school they teach you that ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it, so I’m sure you weren’t completely unfamiliar with the concept when you logged in) How dare you police our thoughts, our tone, or anything else on our own damn blog! How VERY dare you!

        • Ms. Pixologist

          I simply wanted to note that I learned something and that sometimes some of us feminists can be ignorant instead of evil. I didn’t mean to tell anyone else how to react to something that affects them and angers them. I apologize if what I wrote offended you – I’m not that great at expressing thought eloquently and I probably have some dumbness problems as well – but I’m trying to listen and learn. I certainly did NOT want to imply that I know how you should feel. I’m learning all the time and simply wanted say the article taught me something valuable (but again I didn’t express that very well). I probably should not have joined the discussion.