Updating the blog here to pull old entries from the pros/e/yes archives…in their original order. This project is simply a unification of my personal blog (with a LOT of NSFW entries) and my professional blog.
Yesterday’s entry title was actually missing a word – “Solely” – it should have been titled, “If You Are Focused Solely On The Sexualization, You’re Missing The Point” — and as you might have guessed, yesterday’s and today’ entries are about the already infamous VMA performance being talked about all over the interwebz. I didn’t want to watch it…I was not even curious. I had seen the original videos by both Ms. Cyrus and Mr. Thicke (both of his, as applicable to the VMAs)…and I am, admittedly, beyond an age of interest in anything related to MTV.
That said…yeah, for the specific purpose of today’s entry, I made an active point of pulling up the VMA performance. To actually watch. My initial, honest-to-Abraham-Lincoln reaction was *yawn*. It was the same basic reaction I had on Monday, with my double-dose entry, with an added mental thought of, well, this is just basic club scene shit, not really any big deal…and if I were in a club, I’d think Ms. Cyrus was a rather awkward dancer. However, I also made a very distinct point to watch a bit critically, for the very reasons I noted yesterday.
So before I really dive in…I am going to preface with a few points of note, gentle reader, so that you can decide for yourself if you want to read further. First, this is going to be a very long entry – what is known here as a “ramble-rumble” style entry. If you don’t like reading very long blogs, then you may wish to bow out now, with no offense taken. Second, I will be discussing matters of media, race, sexualization, and perpetuation of historical stereotypes…in conjunction with where those things intersect with my own research. What this means is that while I will work diligently to keep the writing “light”, I may delve into a bit of academic mode in this entry. Third, because I am a middle-class, heterosexual, white woman…there are facets of this entry that I am going to be touching into that I am still, very diligently, working on improving and expanding my personal understanding (and am asking for help from those who understand more fully if I err, which I probably will). This is important to understand…because in my stance as a researcher, my personal view is completely irrelevant…but I’m not writing right now as a researcher. I’m writing as myself, and speaking only from my point of view, while drawing from the research I have conducted from a less personal position. Fourth, and finally, if you are of the mindset that I might be “over-thinking” the topic, I would encourage you to just walk away now. Because I would much rather take the time to think about it, even over-think it (not to the point of ridiculous navel-gazing, but enough so that I haven’t maybe overlooked something important) than to not bother even attempting to think about it at all. If you are the sort who wants simplistic, elementary school discussion, go buy a fucking bumper sticker and don’t waste either of our time here. With love, of course.
With those things in mind, if you’re still here for the ride…well, make sure your seat belts are fastened, and that your tray tables are in their upright and locked positions. We’re about to take off…
My thoughts begin with the idea that we are all, truly, connected. Before you mistakenly think I’m going metaphysical here…getting gooey and Kumbaya…let me dispel you of that outright. I mean in a far more literal, physical, here and now kind of way. Our very humanity is what connects us. Our flesh and blood and common ground…and yes, shared histories. The very moment we, as individuals and societies, attempt to divorce our present day from the histories that shaped it– that moment is when we crystallize a present that is completely out of touch with the very ever-present reality around us. Dimensionally speaking, we human beans have a kind of nasty habit of only considering our personal history as the springboard, failing spectacularly to recognize that our personal frame of reference is directly connected with others…and worse, expecting others to conform to our personal worldviews. So it is here that I begin…with love of my fellow human beans, as flawed and frail as we can be (and are)…to work from a starting point that I hope will make sense to others.
One of the flaws…the frailties, if you will…of humanity is our ability to dehumanize each other. Enter the Miley Cyrus fiasco that is not just her fiasco. Too many people have ignored Robin Thicke, given him a pass, for his contribution to this mess…and that is not a point that I have missed. Either in the sense of gender disparity and bias, or in the sense of dehumanization. Some of the oldest arguments surrounding sex and sex/gender roles can be made on just the deafening silence about his contribution to the performance alone that would turn this entry into a writing that would give War and Peace a run for its money. But as it is, most of the criticism, condemnation, and armchair psychoanalysis is presently (and predictably) being directed at Ms. Cyrus. Some is questionable, some is laughable, some is downright ludicrous. Yet there is some criticism that actually raises important questions and deserves consideration.
My initial reaction to the entire situation (without having watched the performance, and not wanting to watch it) was disgust at the level of slut-shaming being hurled at Ms. Cyrus. I’m still disgusted by it…and it is still occurring all over the place. I stand firm in my position that if all you can say is “skank” or something equally useless, then go buy a bumper sticker and step out of the conversation. However, where my mistake (and it certainly was a mistake) was — was my failure to recognize that there was more going on in that performance than I thought about, and I really should have taken the time to consider the larger picture. The element of sex in the performance, to me, remains no big deal…in and of itself. Miley Cyrus is coming into her own as a sexual being…making quite a lot of noise doing so…which is certainly her choice. She has every right to do that, like it or not. It is her body and her life…and if she chooses to exploit it, that is her decision. Where I have a few concerns is the matter of profiteering…and the fact that it isn’t solely her own body and sexuality that she is exploiting.
Amid the criticisms is something I want to make a point of noting: in making this performance a way to scapegoat Ms. Cyrus for things like “forcing parental choices” or turning this into something that defines everything that she is, that is also incredibly dehumanizing. My pointing that out is not an attempt at making “relative” the issues…it is just something that needs to be addressed. She, too, is someone’s daughter…while she may not be a little girl, she is someone’s little girl…and at the end of the day, her infamous performance does not define who she is entirely as a human being. It defines a choice she made…a choice that has distinct consequences…and some of those consequences are not hers alone to bear, because she chose to objectify others. (We’ll come back to those bears in a while, don’t you worry.) As an advocate for and champion of choice, I am also a believer in reminding people that the right of choice comes with it the reality of consequence. The responsibility half of the equation when we start talking about our rights. So, when I noted that it isn’t solely her own body and sexuality that she was exploiting, I am not criticizing her as a person (I don’t know her personally); rather, I am criticizing a choice that she made, and very publicly, that does not affect solely her…even while she will likely capitalize on it, netting millions…which was part of the point.
One argument I have gotten when I have pointed this out is that the black dancers did so voluntarily. Yes, that is true. Certainly. I’m not arguing that point in the least. However, let me toss a couple of thoughts out for consideration. Has anyone asked them, the dancers, I mean -at all- how they felt about the specific choreography? It is entirely possible that none of them cared about it, since boiled down, it was just a dance routine, after all…that they were getting paid for. (Hint: that is another big difference — they’re getting paid for their work, but they are not making millions in profit from this routine.) Also, if this dance routine were happening outside of a televised event…you know, here in the real world…say, at a club…would Ms. Cyrus’ hands have been all over the ass of a black woman without first looking her in the face, maybe with some sort of introduction, and gaining direct consent? (Hint: this is a point that actually touches into both main performers’ songs, come down to it.)
…which brings me to something that is getting overlooked by my fellow white folks, including my feminist-minded friends. The matter of ignorance (willing or innocent, I won’t guess at) regarding “black culture.” I am placing the phrase in quotation marks, because black culture is not a singular thing. Most white folks I know would not say they’re “of European descent” –honestly, it’s understood that Europe is actually a continent, and when we talk about “our culture,” we tend to be a little more specific than “European” — …and then turn around and act 17,000 kinds of surprised when -you know- other people outside of a “white normative” have multiple facets to their cultures…whether we’re talking about any ethnic or racial matter, frankly…culture is not a borg-type thing. (Sorry, the geek had to come out, if only briefly.) It is not singular. Like every culture we can think of or name, there are many facets…and we waste a lot of time that boils down to stereotyping based on what we don’t actually know because we haven’t bothered taking the time to consider the histories. This is not about “white shame” (and yes, I had that thrown at me) — it is about being a human fucking being…and making the effort to see outside of your own predefined “normative” in some small effort to understand why Ms. Cyrus’ performance just might have touched on the pulse of a few non-white folks’ nerves. Further, it’s about more than the slut-shaming (which is an important issue that feminists are rightly upset about); however, like the mistakes of the Women’s Liberation Movement, certain mistakes seem to be getting repeated… Seems we can’t stop…*cough*
And that brings me to this.
There is just no legitimate explaining away something right in front of your face, at all. Once your eyes have seen, what you saw can never be unseen. Diane Awerbuck pointed out, “Saartjie Baartman is not a symbol. She is a dead woman who once suffered in a series of cruel systems. The best way we can remember her is by not letting it happen again.”
Yet that is precisely what has happened and is happening. Z.A.C. said it differently, in a way that might make a bit clearer the problem of part of the dance routine of Cyrus’ performance:
“We also made note in that article of how black womens’ bodies were censored in music videos. There was a Lloyd video that, in its original version, there is a short snippet where Drake’s girl Maliah twerks close-up in the camera. On MTV, that clip is either removed or Maliah’s butt is blurred out. The conclusion: black women’s bodies are too obscene for television.
There is so much to be enraged about regarding Miley Cyrus’s performance last night. Well-documented, and totally obvious, is the fact that Cyrus is using black culture to harden her image, to transition her from Disney Star to legitimate pop star, so that she can stay relevant and—essentially—keep making money.
But there’s also the message that MTV is clearly sending: that there is something inherently dangerous or offensive about a black woman’s body. When we do it, it’s a crime—it’s too hot for tv—but when a white woman does it, it’s a laugh, or it’s edgy. And she gets to headline their biggest show of the year.”
The images Z.A.C. shared explain more succinctly:
Go ahead. Click to see the above images side-by-side, full size.
Part of me got hung up earlier today while working to think through some of what was bugging me about that. It’s easy to say “racist” (which would imply a perception of racial superiority)…but a friend of mine’s dad half-corrected my thoughts when I dared to voice them with him. To him, the more applicable (and just as horrible, if not worse) idea involved is “xenophobic.” I personally feel that both ideas are at play…but my focus isn’t entirely on that. Partly, yes…but not entirely. And while thinking on that, an article I read the other day kept colliding with my thoughts…this one. Click through. Read it. I’ll wait.
I’m not a Rihanna fan. I have nothing for her or against her. I know nothing about her, nor will I pretend to. I can look at the above image and state plainly that I think she is beautiful. And…I hear the song “Umbrella” and wanna drive ice picks in my ears. Nothing about her talent (I like her voice okay) or her beauty (she’s stunning)…I just can’t stand the song. That, though, has everything to do with my personal music preferences and nothing to do with her. (Oh, yeah…and I’m getting old…but whatever.)
Here’s where the big but comes in…and it is a but worth seriously considering. The song “We Can’t Stop”…was originally written with Rihanna as the intended performer. I am not going to assume that Rihanna’s interpretation of the song would have been in remotely the same universe as Miley’s interpretation, in terms of art and presentation…but I can’t help but wonder… If the performer on Sunday night would have been Rihanna, what would the public response have been? I mean, considering how she was thoroughly excoriated by our American media for celebrating her own cultural tradition at Carnival? Which, by the way, is not a sexual gratification experience. It is a celebration of life…it is a celebration of people…it is love-filled. I’ve only celebrated Carnival once, many years ago, when I lived in Panama…and it was incredible. Truly incredible.
It is we, Americans, I mean (and quite predominantly white Americans), who seem to apply our rigid Puritanical origins and morality-based expectations to celebrations (and other cultures generally) that we don’t recognize or understand (and don’t bother trying)…we slap a sexual identity on something where one simply is not existent. This was as true in Hawaii as it is anywhere else…and the original hula is something that was not sexual. Done nekkid? Yep…and missionaries’ wives were shocked and appalled that the “savages” were in some state of undress…dancing. *gasp…the horror* — and while some of us (SOME) better understand today that hula is a kind of storytelling, and an honor to the gods of Hawaiian lore — a lot of folks continue to have this stereotype of Hawaiian dancers in either sack cloths…or coconut bras and grass skirts. It’s easy to dismiss it as ignorance (and many do)…but when just recently a different brand of the same horror of missionary wives of more than a century ago is on full display at one woman’s participation in a celebration of her own culture that is no more sexual than hula…? What this suggests is that we really haven’t come all that far. I won’t even get into the religiously-stilted roots of all of that (because that is a HUGE component)…because I would just get a headache ripping it all to shreds. I’ll simply pimp Darrel Ray…again.
By reinforcing stereotypes, the insult that was meted to women of color is their bodily and sexual agency, integrity, and autonomy takes a lesser role than one young white woman’s choice to exhibit her own sexual independence (for profit). That is quite a disgusting insult, come to it…and it’s bigger and older than Ms. Cyrus. She’s just the most recent person playing the game…at the expense of others. I’ve heard said that her predecessors were somehow different…that there was something artful involved, or some subversive challenge to the establishment. I’m not here to argue that today…there are people far better equipped to engage in that facet of the discussion…but what it got me to wondering was…
…was there any artistic or subversive merit to Ms. Cyrus’ performance? The teddy bears jump out at me for a few reasons. (See? Told you the bears would be back!) There is a seemingly symbolic message that goes beyond the “Pokemon” accusations…and snarky comments about Japanese porn. I’m not really trying to deeply analyze this, because it was just a question I wondered about…and initially, when I saw the teddy bears, I was reminded of “Donkey Rhubarb” — which actually is kinda cool and creepy all at once, and contains a weird symbolism even (excuse me, artistic merit)…but then when I watched the performance itself…and Ms. Cyrus’ shift out of the first costume into the second…the entire ass-smacking incident struck me as even further insulting. Why? Because it was so carefully worked out. Dancing around awkward cutesie-poo with the teddy bears (self-focused), then shifting to completely sexualized in the bikini thing (remaining self-focused) – without any recognition to others whatsoever. So whatever artistic merit there might have been was, itself, subverted by a hyperfocus on self, rather than a shared focus…which I might not have been quite so concerned about. Meaning, if the shift would have included a face-to-face interaction with the dancers (you know, as a recognition of their existence, even only symbolically) after the teddy bears were tossed, then I might find it a little less offensive. Who knows? Perhaps Ms. Cyrus will have some future explanation that will knock everyone’s socks off…but I somehow doubt it. I mean, honestly, one of the lyrics states clearly, “Don’t care nothin’ ’bout nobody…” If I am wrong about it, I will offer up the necessary apology.
Anyway, those teddy bears…and the seemingly repeated references to “all growed up” (again)…also have cause a bit of armchair psychoanalysis all over the interwebz about “Daddy Issues.” This bit is slightly off-topic, but I’d like to address it briefly. Is it possible she’s acting out against her father? Sure…it’s possible. I doubt it, though. Of course there could be some sort of sordid something there…wouldn’t be the first time that has ever happened. Or, their relationship could be just an ordinary father/daughter relationship (I don’t mean the saccharine televised relationship, either) — in which case…what woman in the U.S. doesn’t have some sort of “Daddy Issues”?!?! I’m not going to even speculate, because I don’t know them personally, and anything is possible…but my immediate response is not likely. BUT…this does bring me to something I noted yesterday that I planned on touching into in today’s entry.
Where all of this intersects with my own research…which happens to be about parental perspectives, specifically regarding daughters. My focus centered on sex education (with STI prevention at the base), and what parents perceive to be contributing factors to STI transmission. Different themes surfaced, including communication, shame, perceived promiscuity (as a sub-theme), media influence, alcohol and drug use…among other things. Another of the sub-themes that surfaced was gender expectations, connected with a few of the other things…and that was quite interesting to me then…and just as much now, in connection with this topic. During my research interviews, the entire notion of “only bad girls” do certain things…and “my daughter is not sexually active”…without ever really connecting “good girls don’t have sex.” Really…the notion of keeping daughters “girls” forever is nothing new…the denial about female sexuality (when, in fact, OMIGAWD, THIS)…except within very rigidly-defined parameters that many of us agree are simply archaic. And, as it always has been, it is not only organized by gender…but it is (and has long been) also organized by race in this country. Never mind that there has been no increase in promiscuity statistically…there has been decreased access to preventive care and services for health in poorer communities. I don’t think I need to point out the seeming obviousness of the members of our population who are disproportionately affected by poverty. These facts tend to bust up the narrative that black women (and other women of color) are somehow more promiscuous than white women. They aren’t. Not in the least. These are points of fact that I’m not the first (nor will I be the last) to name bluntly.
I said yesterday, plainly, that I am no expert (not even remotely) on black culture. I am, however, leaning more and more toward intersectional feminism, and I am trying to understand at least some of the issues outside of my own personal cultural normative, because I believe that ALL women need to stand together…not just some of us. I believe we need to be building bridges of understanding and learning from and about each other…so that we ALL can reach a place of authentic equality. To a hopeful time when one power- and attention-hungry individual (male or female) can no longer use another person as a novelty in order to promote their own brand of bullshit. Because we are all connected. Whether we want to be or not is irrelevant…the fact is, we are. What harms one of us ultimately harms us all. And that is worth defending against. That is worth the discussion. That is worth taking the time to at least try to understand more about. Maybe imperfectly…but even in the attempt, a better bridge is built. And on this day of days, that is worth attempting.
Otherwise, we really won’t stop continuing to see this sort of shameful ignorance in the future.