Written by Teresa Young
Is there room for discussion about cultural appropriation AND sexual objectification?
The VMAs were two weekends ago , and yes, there was also a chemical weapons attack in Syria. Don’t worry, there is room to discuss Syria, too. In fact, one of the more difficult issues feminists face is choosing what issue to take up at any given moment, because there are just too many! Today, I have chosen the topic that has pervaded social media the past few days: Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs, more importantly, sexual objectification and cultural appropriation.
First, Miley-the-person is 20 years old, and even though legally she is an adult, the psychological literature clearly distinguishes between a 20-year-old adult and a 30-year-old adult. I did things in my early-20s that I probably wouldn’t do now, and that’s part of being an emerging adult. That being said, I wasn’t in the entertainment industry, where my whole self would have essentially been a product. The discussion on the Internet about Miley’s sexual objectification of young women and children’s toys has been silenced under the guise of slut-shaming and moved toward a discussion about the cultural appropriation problem. The real issue at hand here is that it is difficult to tell the boundary between Miley-the-person and Miley-the-brand.
In an article on Feministing.com, the author of the article highlights this issue of distinguishing between the brand and the person by initially stating, “That spectacle isn’t all Miley’s fault.” She goes on to blame Disney and the entertainment industry. But, for the remainder of the article, the author refers to ‘she’ as in, “…she hasn’t given me any comfort that she understands the complexities of black identity in White America.” Is ‘she’ Miley or the brand? As a society, why don’t we have any qualms about twerking during primetime television when children might be watching? And, why is that okay, but Miley-the-person or Miley-the-brand should know better than to use black women as a commodity? Are these two ideas mutually exclusive?
In addition to that article, there was also one posted by Ms., which also underscored the issue of cultural appropriation and indicated that criticism of Miley’s display of sexuality is slut-shaming. Again, are we talking about a person or a brand? This article does not even attempt to delineate this issue and flat out blames Miley for “not taking the time to learn about the women she is exploiting.” Again, as a 20-year-old white entertainer, do we really think she knows better about her sexuality and about racism in our culture? Isn’t she, as a brand, a commodity too?
My initial reaction, because I am still a work in progress when it comes to intersectionality of race and gender, was to be disgusted by the use of teddy bears and her tongue hanging out of her mouth. I mean, if you just look to the right on the FemPop page, you can see information on the APA Report on the Sexualization of Girls. The song Miley was singing was written by six other men, and she is listed last as a writer. Miley-the-brand is predominantly male. Miley singing and dancing as her brand on stage, was male. It was not a woman embracing her own sexuality. It was chauvinism. That is not to say that we can shame her for being sexual; there is a nuanced difference. The entertainment industry’s provision of black women as commodities and hyper-sexualized young women should both be issues on the table. Our demand and consumption of these types of media should also be an issue on the table. Both cultural appropriation and sexual objectification have a place in this discussion. Focusing on one at the expense of the other silences all of us.
Written by Teresa Young