As I sat 8035 miles away from Brooklyn, New York Barclay’s Center in my living room in Shenzhen, China, for a moment social media sucked me back into the pop culture chaos that seems to pump the heartbeat of America to other countries across the globe. The main picture on my Instagram news feed, Miley Cyrus (more specifically shots of her bending over with her tongue out in front of R&B singer Robin Thicke ). To be even more specific and “urbanly” correct, pictures of Miley Cyrus “twerking” filled my entire timeline.
Besides the evidently tasteless costume, facial expression and lack of rhythm or movement by Miley, I saw something else. The blatant commodification of black women as well as white cultural appropriation. I wasn’t quite concerned with calling her names that suggested sexual deviance or promiscuity for her attempt at pelvic thrusting and booty popping, to me this MTV VMA performance was a little deeper.
To start with the term “twerking” that Miley Cyrus has now coined as her own which began with her releasing a YouTube video a few months back, is just a strain of this issue. If we take it back a little further than the emergence of YouTube, technology or the United States of America for that matter, this type of dance has been apart of black culture for eons and has not been limited to only associations to rap music or comprised of any sexual innuendoes.
In Complex Magazine’s article titled, “Good Job, Miley: Twerking Added to the Oxford Dictionary” they include the definition as:
“Pronunciation: /twəːk/ verb [no object] informal dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance”
This “meaning” completely takes away the facets of a movement that has only been popularized for a mainstream audience by a white artist and only deemed appropriate as a result of the race of the doer. When I was growing up, during family parties it was a sort of routine for us little girls to get in a the middle of circle and dance in a “low squatting position”. With our tongues out while wearing flesh tone booty shorts, of course not because we weren’t seeking the type of response or reaction. I learned these movements from the women around me, constantly twisting and swaying their hips while closing their eyes and falling into a rhythm simply because it felt good. Not to gain the attention of a larger audience or to prove a point that they were liberated. The unconsciousness in their actions displayed that liberty more than anything. These gyrations did not make them women. Instead, it was more about a holistic experience that did not include any forced energy.
Now Miley? Well, she intentionally had her big behind black “girlfriends” (puppets) on the stage with her just as they were in her “We Can’t Stop” video in order to validate what blackness she thought she was portraying. When in reality, there is no define image of blackness, therefore Miley’s inclusion of these characters only developed a contrast that made it obvious that she needed them to make her look believable. It’s just like that moment when a white person says, “Oh c’mon, I like black people I have plenty of black friends” or when music comes up as a topic of discussion and a white person asks you “So Yeezus or Magna Carta Holy Grail?” to prove an understanding of the most popular element of black culture.
The faceless black woman, bent over to only appear in the frame of the camera for less than 10 seconds, to shake her ass and give us an authentic “twerk” while wearing what might as well been a clown outfit with thonged underwear to accent her voluptuous behind was the piece of the performance that offended me the most. As Miley walked past and smacked her behind while gnarling at her backside with an almost savage expression, the black woman seemed emotionless (because we could not see her face) and simply walked off the stage with no other inclusion into the set. She was there simply as an accessory to the cultural appropriation that Cyrus displayed, just as the other three dancers to appear to be Miley’s hypemen.
This delves into the fact that historically, black women have not had agency over our bodies especially in a public arena due to the stigmas and cultural impositions placed on us ever since our arrival to new land. This commodification of the black female body and all of its private parts, is perpetuated through rap music by black men and has now transferred over into another realm by the exploitation of a young white woman.
Such literal examples of what Miley believes to be “black” go hand in hand with her statement to song writers Rock City when she came to them requesting the “We Can’t Stop” track by saying “I want urban, I just want something that feels black.” She was not searching for just any type of black sound, perhaps maybe she would have proposed, Toni Braxton, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys or Billie Holiday. Her southern, white privileged background clearly did not provide her with any cultural knowledge outside of her bubble, so to her black feels rebellious, tasteless and provocative.
As a black person and more specifically a black woman, I am offended by the commodifying and most of all the mockery of the images of myself in the reflections of black culture that Miley Cyrus has highlighted and warped into her own distorted performance act. She didn’t even possess sufficient and basic rhythm in order to execute any percentage of “twerking” in a believable way, it was a complete mockery. Perhaps her behavior could have been influenced by her urge to express herself after experiencing an engagement break-up. Miley wouldn’t be the first woman to try to achieve or prove her womanhood through sexuality, that’s not the bulk of the issue. It is the exaggerated sexual and racial objectification that she uses as her No.1 vehicle in doing so as well as aiding her crafting her new persona and in her “get richer quicker” scheme.
I get it. In a world with highly individualized notions of blackness, still most of us can say that from White America to South Africa and all the way to New Zealand, people have tried to adopt some iconographic element of popular black culture. It’s contagious and the ultimate mystery in which every one else wants to understand and get a taste of feel of. As Jay-Z stated on twitter, “she represents an old worlds worst nightmare” which suggests that her initial actions in being “innovative” and straying away from her old image suggests a newness. But in the same step, Miley has claimed ownership over an old concept and is toting it around as new in her desperate quest for self-discovery. She won’t find her soul in these black bodies, imitations, attempted facial expressions, scandalous pieces of wardrobe or in her song lyrics that rebelliously “feel black”.
She should stop.