The Defence Of Miley Cyrus

miley-cyrus1After her recent performance at the 2013 MTV Music Video Awards (MVAs), Miley Cyrus has been the target of a lot of attacks, some suggesting that Cyrus has openly objectified women and joined the ‘boys club’, some suggesting that her presentation borders on racism, and others simply assuming that she is a tactless, tasteless ignoramus.  Such assessments ultimately seem unfair.  When looking at both Cyrus’s performance and her video for the song ‘We Can’t Stop’, it seems that rather than promoting the objectification of women, she is lampooning the practice through satire. The reactionary responses are not the result of considered thought, but rather the product of viewers who haven’t looked deep enough into the use of juxtaposition and the absurd to understand the nature of the satire applied.

 

miley-cyrus-teddybearFirst, it is important to recognize that the performance is based, at least in large part, on the video for the song ‘We Can’t Stop’.  It was not Cyrus who put the video together, but rather Diane Martel, who in turn is the one that is likely responsible for the satiric elements (whether Cyrus is aware of them, I do not know, but I will give her enough credit to assume she does).  Martel has made videos for a range of artists including: The Killers, Sting, Khia, P!nk, Franz Ferdinand, Britney Spears, Robin Thicke, Rick Ross, Pussycat Dolls, Avril Lavigne, Nicki Minaj, Fallout Boy, Mariah Carey, Christian Aguilera, several for Alicia Keys, Beyonce, Jenifer Lopez and Mariah Carey, and of course The White Stripes.  Let’s consider the elements of   objectification in the video for ‘We Can’t Stop’. Cyrus wears an oversized teddy bear on her back, as do several other women in both the video and the MVA performance.  This is overtly absurd (the bear is far too large to be pragmatic) and therefore begs the question: What is the purpose?  It is a clear use of juxtaposition.  The teddy bear and the woman are tightly juxtaposed and so we must consider what the teddy bear means in a social context and how that applies to women.  First and foremost, Teddy Bears are meant for children and in a patriarchal context, women are often viewed as large children meant to be taken care of by their patriarch, be it the father or the husband.  The teddy bear is also an object that can be purchased and possessed and owned.  Likewise, in a patriarchal context, women are ‘given away’ at a wedding by the father and take on the last name of their husband to identify that they are now the property of that man.  Though this may be an antiquated practice, it is still employed and women are still seen as possessions, even if money doesn’t change hands as commonly in the West as it did centuries ago.  The teddy bear, as an image of childhood and as an image of commodification, works when juxtaposed with women in that it highlights the flawed perspective with which the patriarchy views women.

 

twerkThis childish view of women is furthered by a scene of an adult male lying in bed sucking his own thumb.  This image shows how childish such mentalities are.  The word ‘twerk’, a sexualized dance, is also presented as childish as it is spelled out in Alphagetti™ letters, a food typically only eaten by and marketed for children.  Such juxtaposition makes it clear that these elements are meant for the adolescent.  Coupled with a scene where a male figure has smoke blowing from his crotch, we can see that the male view is flawed as smoke can be seen as either unhealthy in that it is cancerous, or as something that is used to obscure and make vision unclear.  In both instances it is counterproductive and the source of this counterproductive element is the male sex organ.  Adopting the views of such men is counterproductive because they are the product of the childlike reason and serve to either obscure or make ill.

 

The dolls which children play with can create unrealistic expectations for children.

The dolls which children play with can create unrealistic expectations for children.

There is also a scene with Cyrus holding up what might fairly be referred to as an ‘Alternative Barbie’.  This Barbie has a hair style that matches Cyrus’s own in the video, but is not one that is actually available from the Barbie™ line.  This demonstrate an expulsion of the prescribed ideals of beauty and an embracement of one’s own idea of beauty.  We see in Barbie™ line a lack of representation for a diversity of beauty.  Neither curvy women, nor petite women are represent, nor flat chested women, nor women with large buttocks.  When it comes to hair, the Black dolls feature hair styles that require a great deal of manipulation for a Black girl to acquire.  The video suggests instead of trying to look like a Barbie™ doll, the doll should look like the girl.

 

 

bubblebuttSuch issues dealing with ethnicity (I say ethnicity because I believe ‘race’ is a problematic term for reasons discussed here) are equally a part of the video and performance.  Black women with voluptuous buttocks are featured in each, and Cyrus is seen slapping the buttocks of these women in each.  This feature, commonly referred to as the ‘bubble butt’ is one that is commonly glorified in contemporary hip-hop videos.  It is a beautiful form, but the glorification of it seems to suggest that it is becoming a prescribed ideal.  We have seen recently rumours that some hip-hop stars have felt compelled to get plastic surgery to enhance their buttocks to fit the this image.  Cyrus, herself, is a petite girl and has no such features, but in the video as well as the performance she is seen twerking in a manner that is usually reserved for women with ‘bubble butts’.  This challenges the notion of the prescribe ideal of beauty and suggests that women can embrace such things on their own terms and in their own company (Cyrus, in the video, is seen twerking in a group comprised exclusively of women and so their performance is not for men, but rather for themselves) and do not have to adopt the prescription offered by some men.

 

 

An image made of Sarah Baartman, who was exploited and put on view at freak shows.

An image made of Sarah Baartman, who was exploited and put on view at freak shows.

Of course, by featuring Black women with ‘bubble butts’, the video and performance seems to draw on the tradition of the minstrel, and this is dangerous territory.  Portraying clichéd images of members of any ethnicity can be seen as reinforcing stereotypes, rather than satirizing them.  The specific treatment of the large buttocks here is reminiscent of the treatment received by Sarah Baartman who was one of two Khoikhoi women who were exploited for the physical appearance, namely their enlarged buttocks (steatopygia), and were toured around in freak shows.  This does not seem to be what Cyrus is doing.  Instead, she seems to be lampooning such objectification, much as Major Lazer does in the video ‘Bubble Butt’.  The problem for some is that Cyrus is white.  I would suggest that the fact Cyrus is a woman validates her concerns.  It seems that when Black men objectify Black women with steatopygia, there is no backlash whatsoever.  Instead, their videos are played frequently and their singles sell well.  When a white woman does the same, it seems there are concerns for some in regards to ‘race’.  The fact is that Cyrus is, like the women featured in hip-hop videos, a woman, and so, when seeing the exploitation of other women, has a right to comment on it regardless of what her perceived race might be.  This is not to say one must be a woman to comment on the exploitation of women, merely that Cyrus, as a woman, should not be criticized for addressing the exploitation of other women strictly due to her perceived race.

 

Wyclef Jean is one of fww hip-hop artists who avoids words like 'bitch' in his music and promotes equality with women, even defending women in the sex industry with songs like 'Red Ligh District'.

Wyclef Jean is one of fww hip-hop artists who avoids words like ‘bitch’ in his music and promotes equality with women, even defending women in the sex industry with songs like ‘Perfect Gentlemen‘.

This attack on the Black male from a white woman may not sit well with some, but it seems that at least some Black males in the hip-hop community, whilst very much interested in improving their own status, have no interest in improving the status of Black women.  Using words like ‘bitch’ and ‘hoe’ is not the least of the concerns (though some male hip-hop artists like Lupe Fiasco criticize the use of words like bitch in tracks like ‘Bitch Bad’), nor is the objectification of women.  By exploiting Black women, such Black men are adopting the role of the exploiter, and this is perhaps best exemplified in the video when the overtly Black vocals that repeats the phrase ‘It’s our party; we can do what we want” is actually featured as a white face on a black background.  This is reminiscent of the Frantz Fanon book Black Skin, White Mask, which speaks to how some Black people in colonized communities adopt the views of their white colonizers.  It seems that for some in hip-hop, such attitudes have likewise been adopted and that the some Black males are eager to adopt the role of exploiter of Black women rather than abolish the role of exploiter of Black women.

There are other elements of the video that draw on ethnicity.  At the beginning of the video, for example, Cyrus puts a gold retainer in her mouth, seemingly mocking the practice of the ‘grill’.  This certainly seems to mock the practice of putting gold and/or platinum and/or diamonds in one’s mouth as a status symbol.  I would such it is a fair criticism.  Such displays serve no pragmatic purpose and are ultimately childish, much like the male sucking his thumb and the spelling to ‘twerk’ in Alphagetti™ letters, or the Black man eating a money sandwich.  It is a waste of money.  An employment of money that serves no purpose.  Buying a sandwich will provide sustenance, whereas eating a money sandwich is more expensive and fails to provide sustenance.  Embracing such ‘cultural’ practices seems ridiculous when a white girl adopts them, but this absurdity highlights the innate absurdity of the practice being imitated.  What is the purpose of putting bling in your mouth?  By presenting elements like twerking and oral jewelry as part of culture, impressionable youths see it and then imitate it thinking it is part of the culture, but by having somebody who is outside of that culture embrace such practices, is shows what little value there is in such practices.  What purpose do they serve?  Is wearing unneeded gold in one’s mouth part of an authentic cultural identity?

 

 

Miley Cyrus

Miley Cyrus

The performance was absurd and overt, but it did serve a purpose, and that purpose was not to simply insult or offend.  The purpose was to challenge thinking.  Anybody who came away from watching it offended by Cyrus should look closer and examine what it is that was being said.  Is it Cyrus we should be offended by?  Or the patriarchal influence in contemporary music videos that objectifies women?  Had it been Nicki Minaj twerking Kanye West, would people have been so offended?   Had Kanye West brought out Black women with steatopygia and slapped them on their buttocks, would he have been called a racist?  Or even sexist?  The intent, for me seems clear. Cyrus is promoting a varied definition of beauty whilst challenging sexist practices by making it clear how absurd and offensive they are.  Some say that she simply wants to be Black.  It seems to me, rather, that she is asking: Why can’t we treat Black women, and by extension all women, with more respect? whilst advising us not to adopt the views on women offered by grown men who think that spending thousands of dollars on oral jewelry is a good idea.  Ultimately, though, Cyrus seems to seek to define her own sexuality and beauty in a manner which does not fit with the way in which her beauty and sexuality was constructed by a patriarchal corporation like Disney.  Because there is such a contrast, the patriarchal system seems treat Cyrus harshly because she has not allowed them to define her and instead seeks to liberate both herself and other women.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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