Miley Cyrus made news this week with a carnival-like stage performance at the MTV Video Music Awards that included life-size teddy bears, flesh-colored underwear, and plenty of quivering brown buttocks. Almost immediately after the performance, many black women challenged Cyrus’ appropriation of black dance—“twerking.” Many white feminists defended Cyrus’ right to be a sexual woman without being slut-shamed. Yet many others wondered why Cyrus’ sad attempt at twerking was news when the U.S. is planning military action in Syria.
I immediately thought of a summer I spent at University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. My partner at the time fancied himself a revolutionary born too late for all the good protests. At a Franklin Street pub one night—one of those college-town places where bottom-shelf liquor is served in fishbowls for pennies on the dollar—we were the only black couple at a happy hour. I saw a few white couples imbibing and beginning some version of bodily grooving to the DJ. I told my partner that one of them would be offering me free liquor and trying to feel my breasts within the hour.
He balked, thinking I was joking. I then explained my history of being accosted by drunk white men and women in atmospheres just like this one. Women asking to feel my breasts in the ladies’ restroom. Men asking me for a threesome as a drunk girlfriend or wife looks on smiling. Frat boys offering me cash to “motorboat” my cleavage. Country boys in cowboy hats attempting to impress their buddies by grinding on my ass to an Outkast music set. My friends have witnessed it countless times.
Not 30 minutes later, with half the fishbowl gone, the white woman bumped and grinded up to our table and, laughing, told me that her boyfriend would love to see us dance. “C’mon girl! I know you can daaaaannnce,” she said. To sweeten the pot, they bought us our own fishbowl.
That summer we visited lots of similar happy hours. By the third time this scene played out, my partner had taken to stonily staring down every white couple that looked my way. We were kicked out of a few bars when he challenged some white guy to a fight about it. I hate such scenes, but I gave him a break. As a man, he did not have the vocabulary borne of black breasts that sprouted before bodies have cleared statutory rape guidelines. He did what he could to tell me he was sorry: He tried to kick every white guy’s ass in Chapel Hill.
I am not beautiful. I phenotypically exist in a space where I am not usually offensive-looking enough to have it be an issue for my mobility, but neither am I a threat to anyone’s beauty market. There is no reason for me to assume this pattern of behavior is a compliment. What I saw in Cyrus’ performance was not just a clueless, culturally insensitive attempt to assert her sexuality or a simple act of cultural appropriation at the expense of black bodies. Instead I saw what kinds of black bodies were on that stage with Cyrus.
Cyrus’ dancers look more like me than they do Rihanna or Beyoncé or Halle Berry. The difference is instructive.
Fat, non-normative black female bodies are kith and kin with historical caricatures of black women as work sites, production units, subjects of victimless sexual crimes, and embodied deviance. As I wrote in an analysis of hip-hop and country music crossovers, playing the desirability of black female bodies as a wink-wink joke is a way of lifting up our deviant sexuality without lifting up black women as equally desirable to white women. Cyrus did not just have black women gyrating behind her. She had particularly rotund black women. She gleefully slaps the ass of one dancer like she intends to eat it on a cracker. She is playing a type of black female body as a joke to challenge her audience’s perceptions of herself, while leaving their perceptions of black women’s bodies firmly intact. It’s a dance between performing sexual freedom and maintaining a hierarchy of female bodies from which white women benefit materially.
That hierarchy explains why background dancers generally conform to dominant beauty norms. The performance works as spectacle precisely because the background dancers embody a specific kind of black female body. That spectacle unfolds against a long history of how capitalism is a gendered enterprise and subsequently how gendered beauty norms are resisted and embraced to protect the dominant beauty ideal of a certain type of white female beauty. So, when I saw the type of black dancers chosen to juxtapose Cyrus’ performance of sexual power, I was given pause. Whether Cyrus is aware of this history or not, her performance is remarkable for how clearly it is situated in the history of racialized, gendered capitalism that makes my body a public playground for the sexual dalliances of white men and women.
Being desirable is a commodity. Capital and capitalism are gendered systems. The very form that money takes is rooted in a historical enterprise of controlling an economic sphere where women might amass wealth. As wealth is a means of power in a capitalist society, controlling this commodity is a way of controlling the accumulation, distribution, and ownership of capital and indirectly controlling women.