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.

Miley Cyrus performs during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards at the Barclays Center on August 25, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Miley Cyrus performs during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards on Aug. 25, 2013, in New York City.

Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for MTV

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.

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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.

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.

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