Miley Cyrus is the face of liberal feminism, and that statement is flattering to neither Miley Cyrus nor liberal feminism.
Our story begins almost a year ago during the recording of Miley’s album Bangerz. As is later revealed in a promotional interview, she decides to go with a sound that she describes interchangeably as “black” and “urban”. So, step one, appropriate the cultural expressions of an oppressed social group and use those elements which are most marketable and appealing to your mainly white audience to spice up your music without actually suffering the disadvantages placed on that oppressed group by society. Step two, equate one particular subculture of that oppressed group (ratchet culture, what Miley calls “urban”), with that entire group, since when Miley said she wanted a “black sound”, she obviously wasn’t talking about Thelonious Monk, Lauryn Hill, Victor Wooten or Etta James.
Now, let’s fast-forward to just a few months ago, when Miley performed “We Can’t Stop”, the first single from Bangerz, at the MTV Video Music Awards. Building on the previous layers of racial exploitation already present in the music itself, Miley proceeds to use her troupe of black female back-up dancers as props, putting teddy bears on their backs and having them dance facing backwards, so they as women are basically invisible, existing only as an ass and a pair of legs in support of Miley. Further reinforcing this, Miley spanks and motorboats the asses of her dancers, literally using their bodies as props for her own sexual gratification. As if that wasn’t bad enough in itself, there’s already oodles of cultural misogyny towards black female sexuality, often particularly centred on their asses, and depicting them as so very sexually wanton that they can’t be raped, because they always want it and are always asking for it. So, just to recap, Miley literally uses black female bodies as props, and, in doing so, reinforces disgusting stereotypes about black female sexuality.
Also, let’s talk about the twerking. I’ve heard people laughing derisively while saying the phrase “ancient African art of twerking”, and to them I give a hearty “[expletive deleted]”, because how they treat the topic of cultural appropriation is far more telling about how much they look down on the expressions of other cultural groups than anything else. Regardless of the antiquity of its ancestry (though, for the record, twerking has a fairly ancient lineage), twerking is a black cultural expression and when Miley Cyrus’s uses it for shameless self-promotion and profit, she’s appropriating the culture of an oppressed group for her own benefit without taking on any of the burdens of that oppressed group, and that’s racial exploitation.
But let’s move on from why Miley Cyrus is a terrible human being to happier topics, like why almost everyone else is a terrible human being. We can broadly divide the reactions to Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance into four categories:
1. The shame-on-you response: shockingly, in response to a rather overtly sexual performance, there was a veritable slew of people attempting to shame Miley Cyrus for rocking her own sexuality. This is the most transparently misogynistic response the performance received, so I won’t labour the point too much: Miley Cyrus can do whatever the hell she wants with her own body and her own sexuality. If she wants to gyrate about the place in flesh-coloured panties, more power to her. The vulgarity of sex and sexuality (especially female sexuality) is a socially-constructed conservative trope that society just needs to get the hell over already.
2. The Spears-Spiral response: I named this one after an actual quote from a friend of mine who thinks he’s a lot more feminist than he is (like all men, including me). A lot of people characterised Miley’s performance as a desperate cry for help from someone with serious mental health problems, with inevitable comparisons to Britney Spears. I really shouldn’t need to say this, but I evidently do, so I will: if you think that a woman getting up on stage and being overtly sexual and comfortable and expressive in her own body is a sign of mental illness, you’re a misogynist. If you think a woman can only be publically and contentedly sexual if she is crazy, there is something deeply wrong with your view of the world and you need to realign your moral compass. This is particularly problematic when she was acting out her sexuality using expressions of black female sexuality, since there is the implication that you might not have presumed she was crazy if she was engaged in a more palatable white sexuality.
3. The liberal feminist response: see how I subtly brought that back? Let’s chat about why (predominantly white, middle-class) liberal feminists dropped the ball on this one. Yes, you did a good job of calling out those who made responses #1 and #2 on why they were being misogynistic slimebags. Kudos on that. However, anti-kudos for either failing to see, glossing over, ignoring or actively denying the racial implications of the performance. Feminism really doesn’t work when you don’t pay attention to the particular challenges faced by women who suffer from other systems of oppression, such as racism, classism, homophobia or transphobia. That’s why Miley Cyrus is the face of liberal feminism: neither she nor most liberal feminists thought she was doing anything wrong, apparently.
4. The intersectional feminist response: acknowledging and criticising the racially exploitative elements of Miley Cyrus’s performance while supporting her rights as a woman. Yes, she can do whatever she wants with her own body and sexuality. No, she cannot do what she wants with the bodies, sexualities and cultural expressions of other women, particularly women of an oppressed cultural group. The importance of this should become particularly clear at the start of my next paragraph.
Let’s talk about Paula Deen (I lied about it becoming clear, sorry). For those of you who don’t know, Paula Deen is an American celebrity chef and restaurant owner. The food she markets is so fat-filled that she is arguably a threat to public health and she is a sufficiently monstrous, greedy hypocrite that, after years of unhealthy eating finally caught up with her and gave her diabetes, she continued to promote her butter-fried butter-flavoured buttered butter while also working as a paid spokesperson for an insulin manufacturer. Paula Deen is also a flagrant racist. She has admitted to using the N-word in conversation and decided against planning a “plantation” wedding with all-black serving staff engaging in Shirley Temple-esque minstrelsy, not because of how absurdly racist it was, but because she knew there would be a bad media reaction. When these matters came to public light, Deen portrayed herself as the victim of an aggressive media culture and, despite losing sponsorship, a publishing deal and her cooking show, her popularity has waxed rather than waned. A typical refrain from Deen’s defenders is that she’s just Southern and it’s all part of her culture, which is (1) pretty insulting to the millions of American Southerners capable of going through their daily lives without being racist and (2) not an excuse for racist behaviour.
The reason I raise the issue of Deen is that I think the difference between the responses to what Paula Deen did and what Miley Cyrus did expose a number of serious cultural problems we have. First of all, society evidently deems it more acceptable for a woman to be racist than to be overtly sexual. The backlash against Paula Deen has been miniscule in comparison to the backlash against Miley Cyrus, and upwards of 90% of the reaction to Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance has been criticising her for being sexual rather than being racist. Clearly, wider society is far more upset by female sexuality than by racism, even accounting for Miley Cyrus’s larger media profile compared to Paula Deen. In fact, the disparity in outrage is so palpable that most people barely noticed the racial implications of Miley Cyrus’s performance underneath the layers of sex, whereas the racism of matronly Paula Deen was more readily visible since she was occupying traditional gender roles when she was being racist, as opposed to expressing an active and vibrant sexuality.
Finally, to return to my opening statement, liberal feminism is accused frequently and fairly as being a feminism that mainly represents the perspectives, opinions, experiences and interests of middle-class white women. This has rarely been more clear than these last few months, when most liberal feminist commentators on the Miley Cyrus controversy were seemingly too invested in defending the selfish individualism of a middle-class white woman like themselves to care that she was exploiting the bodies, sexualities and cultural expressions of her black female back-up dancers. It’s time for more discourse and dialogue about the failures of liberal feminist ideologies. I understand that, especially for prominent feminist activists, the idea of admitting to a flaw in your feminism is terrifying. When you’re a public figure for a movement, your opponents will always try to make your individual failures reflect badly on the movement in its entirety, and that’s hard to stomach.
But you take that power away from them when you own up to what you’ve done and work to rectify your errors and improve yourself moving forward. More importantly, you also make one more step towards a more robust, inclusive and effective feminism. It’s a comforting lie to imagine that all women are equal, that all women are in this together. The truth is, not all women are equal. Women who bear the brunt of other systems of oppression have their own unique challenges that can’t be overcome by a feminism that tries to be blind to race in a world that isn’t. Not all women are equal, but they should be, they can be and they will be as long as we’re all willing to interrogate our own prejudices and build a better and more intersectional feminism that gives a voice and a platform to the concerns of all women, not just the privileged few.