Miley Cyrus VMA performance: White appropriation of black bodies.

What It Feels Like When Miley Cyrus Uses Your Body as a Punch Line

What It Feels Like When Miley Cyrus Uses Your Body as a Punch Line

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Aug. 29 2013 8:04 AM

Brown Body, White Wonderland

To celebrate herself, Miley Cyrus used other women’s bodies as a joke—women who look like me.

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For black women, desirability as a commodity is embodied by the very nature of how we came to be in America. Our bodies were literally production units. As living cost centers, we not only produced labor as in work, but we produced actual labor through labor; i.e., we birthed more cost centers. That mulatto babies existed speaks to the desirability of black women to some extent. But that desirability threatened the economic order. The legendary “one drop” rule of determining blackness was legally codified not just out of ideological purity of white supremacy but to control the inheritance of property. The sexual predilections of our nation’s great men threatened to transfer the wealth of white male rapists to the children born of their crimes through black female bodies. The ideology of black female bodies as non-normative worked in tandem with capitalistic concerns about protecting white male wealth. White female beauty ideals were exalted in service to this goal. That some white women can now play with that ideology to assert their individual sexuality may or may not represent a feminist achievement, but it does exemplify how little has changed for black female sexuality.

The strict legal restriction of inheritable black deviance has been disrupted, but there still exists a racialized, material value of sexual relationships. The family unit is considered the basic unit for society, not just because some god decreed it but because the inheritance of accumulated privilege maintains our social order. Who we marry at the individual level may be about love, but at the group level, it is also about wealth and power and privilege. Black feminists have critiqued the material advantage that accrues to white women as a function of their elevated status as the culture’s normative beauty ideal. As far as privileges go, it is certainly a complicated one, but that does not negate its utility. Being suitably marriageable privileges white women’s relation to white male wealth and power.

Lest we think this kind of racial hierarchy as material process is restricted to history and pop culture spectacles, even among sex workers and exotic dancers there is a documented wage difference for white dancers as opposed to black dancers. It holds true for porn actresses, and I suspect, for all manner of sex workers. In Atlanta there is a curious frat-boy-elite practice of visiting black strip clubs for kicks. This detour into black sexuality as amusement-park oddity is, as I understand it, rooted in the belief that black dancers work harder for tips than do white dancers who assume being pretty and naked is sufficient. The relative bargain of black sexual performers is a direct reflection of the assumed social value of black women.


That is how black round female bodies become inferior. That is the inferiority Cyrus is ostensibly rooting against in “We Can’t Stop” when she encourages “homegirls with big butts” to reject the “haters” because “somebody loves [them].” Just who is that somebody is left unanswered, but I suspect it isn’t the white male audience for whom Cyrus performs her faux bisexual performance. That is choreographed for the white male gaze against a backdrop of dark, fat black female bodies and slightly more normative café au lait slim bodies because the juxtaposition of her sexuality with theirs is meant to highlight Cyrus’ supremacy, not challenge it. Consider it the racialized pop culture version of a bride insisting that all of her bridesmaids be hideously clothed on her wedding day.

The difference is that fat black female bodies are wedded to their flesh—we cannot take it off when we desire the spotlight for ourselves or when we’d rather not be in the spotlight at all.

This political economy of specific types of black female bodies as a white amusement park has been ignored by many, mostly because to critique it we have to critique ourselves.

My mentor likes to joke that interracial marriage would be a solution to racial wealth gaps only if all white men suddenly married up with poor black women. It’s funny because it is so ridiculous even to imagine. Sex is one thing. Marrying confers status and wealth. Slaveholders knew that. Our law reflects their knowing this. Our culture of acceptable sexuality and deviant sexuality still reflects this. The cultural ideology remains.

Cyrus’ choice of the kind of black bodies to foreground her white female sexuality was remarkable for how consistent it is with these historical patterns. We could consider that a coincidence, just as we could consider my innumerable experiences with white men and women after a few drinks an anomaly. But I believe there is a pattern in the cultural denigration of bodies like mine as inferior, nonthreatening spaces where white women like Cyrus can play at being “dirty” without risking their sexual appeal.

I am no real threat to white women’s desirability. That’s why white women have no problem cheering their husbands and boyfriends as they touch me on the dance floor. I am never seriously a contender for an acceptable partner and mate for the white men who ask if their buddy can put his face in my cleavage. I am the thrill of a roller coaster with safety bars: all adrenaline but never any risk of falling to the ground.

I am not surprised that so many overlooked this particular performance of brown bodies as white amusement parks in Cyrus’ performance. The whole point is that those round black female bodies are hypervisible en masse but individually invisible to white men who were, I suspect, Cyrus’ intended audience.

No, it’s not Syria. But it is still worth commenting upon when, in the pop culture circus, the white woman is the ringleader and the women who look like you are the dancing elephants.

This piece is adapted from McMillan Cottom’s blog, tressiemc.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a Slate writer and Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Emory University. Follow her on Twitter.