A lesson from Miley Cyrus's new video: If you want to look "cool" and "edgy" and "tough," just steal the styles and dance moves of black people.
The new pseudo-thugged out Miley has been percolating for a while; from her twerking unicorn suit video to her appearance on stage at a Juicy J show, the former Disney darling seems drawn to specific elements of a specific form of hip-hop. Not socially-conscious hip-hop. Dirty South/crunk hip-hop associated with strip clubs, pimps and drug dealers. Juicy J is formerly of Three 6 Mafia, a group who rose to fame with hits like "Slob On My Knob" and "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp." The track Miley popped her ass to at his show, "Bandz a Make Her Dance," is specifically about hanging out in the company of strippers. Some key lyrics:
Start twerking when she hear her song, stripper pole her income
We get trippy and then some, so nasty when she rollin’
She put that ass up in my hands, I remote control it
You say no to ratchet pussy; Juicy J can't
Racks er'where, they showin' racks, I'm throwing racks
In the VIP, rubber on I’m stretching that
Rich niggas tippin, broke niggas lookin
And it ain't a strip club if they ain't showin pussy
She make that ass clap, dancin' like she on a dick
Bring it back I threw a stack, that's one lucky bitch
Up and down she’s going she’s sliding on that pole
Making money, stacking them honey, shawty go
Miley seems to delight in dancing much like these strippers do: Twerking, popping the ass, bending at the waist and shaking her rump in the air. Fun. But basically, she, as a rich white woman, is "playing" at being a minority specifically from a lower socio-economic level. Along with the gold grill and some hand gestures, Miley straight-up appropriates the accoutrements associated with certain black people on the fringes of society. (See: "Ratchet Girl Anthem.")
In the video, Miley is seen with her "friends": Mostly skinny white boys and girls who appear to be models. But in a few scenes, she's seen twerking with three black women. Are they also her friends? Or is she just hoping for street cred? Note that she is wearing white, in the spotlight, the star of the video — and they are treated as props, a background for her to shine in front of. We've tackled the use of people of color in the background before; it's a theme that persists, but remains wrong. In a white-centric world, putting white women quite literally in the center of the frame while women of color are off to the side is a powerful, disrespectful visual message, and it really must be said: Human beings are not accessories. These women might be her friends, but the general dynamic created is that she is in charge and they are in service to her. Not so far off from Paula Deen's dream dinner party. Remember when Gwen Stefani surrounded herself with Harajuku girls? Margaret Cho, at the time, labeled it a minstrel show. A really on-the-nose choice of words, since white people have been mimicking black people for fun and profit from Al Jolson to Amos n' Andy to Elvis. Now we have Ke$ha (seen below) and Miley dressing up like they live in the hood. (Do not forget that thanks to her father being a huge star and her time at Disney, Miley has been wealthy for her entire life.)
There was a time, just over a decade ago, that "ghetto" took off: Everyone was using the word "ghetto," talking about being "ghetto fabulous," and even Carrie on Sex And The City was wearing gold nameplate necklaces and earrings of the sort made popular by black women. Now we're seeing the word "ratchet" get tossed around the same way, and the gear associated with "ratchet culture" — gold grills, extensions, long, intricate fingernails, contorting fingers into gang signs — is hip and cool and edgy. (Here is a good piece explaining how "ratchet" went from an insult to a compliment.)
Let's not get it twisted: The exchange and flow of ideas between cultures can be a beautiful thing. I believe in cross-pollination and being inspired by those whose experience is not like your own. If Miley is inspired by gold teeth and bounce music and has friends who are rappers, that's not a problem. But when she uses these things to re-style her own image, she veers into dangerous territory. If she didn't have the grill, if the black women were integrated throughout the video instead of being segregated to one weird scene, if she hadn't worn that headband… This clip might not have been so problematic.
As Tamara Winfrey Harris of What Tami Said once wrote:
A Japanese teen wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a big American company is not the same as Madonna sporting a bindi as part of her latest reinvention. The difference is history and power. Colonization has made Western Anglo culture supreme–powerful and coveted. It is understood in its diversity and nuance as other cultures can only hope to be. Ignorance of culture that is a burden to Asians, African and indigenous peoples, is unknown to most European descendants or at least lacks the same negative impact.
It matters who is doing the appropriating. If a dominant culture fancies some random element (a mode of dress, a manner of speaking, a style of music) of my culture interesting or exotic, but otherwise disdains my being and seeks to marginalize me, it is surely an insult.
Think of Derelicte, or of dressing kids up as "homeless" for Halloween. Inappropriate. Wearing a gold chain isn't blackface, just like buying a turquoise ring in Arizona is not offensive like calling your panties "Navajo" or modeling lingerie in a Native American headdress. But it's important to understand that Miley is very privileged to be able to play dress up and adorn herself with the trappings of an oppressed/minority culture. She can play at blackness without being burdened by the reality of it. A new piece for Newsweek reports:
there are more African-Americans in the corrections system today—in prison or on probation or parole—than there were enslaved in 1850.
Miley and her ilk need to be reminded that the stuff they think is cool, the accoutrements they're borrowing, have been birthed in an environment where people are underprivileged, undereducated, oppressed, underrepresented, disenfranchised, systemically discriminated against and struggling in a system set up to insure that they fail. As Sesali Bowen wrote for Feministing in March:
But being ratchet is only cool when you do it for fun, not if those are valid practices from your lived experiences […] Folks with certain privilege are willing and able to float in and out of ratchet at will […]
…Pop culture trends like twerking, “aint nobody got time for that,” or even just using the word ratchet to define the wild things that happened at last night’s party are all rooted in someone’s lived experience. Sometimes it’s your lived experience, but if it’s not, please stop for a moment to consider your privilege and what role you may be playing in the appropriation of someone else’s exploitation.
It's worth noting this track — which is chiefly about the joys of dancing like a stripper and doing lines in the bathroom— was written by two men, producers Rock City and Mike WiLL Made It and originally intended for Rihanna. (True story: Miley said to them: "I just want something that just feels Black.") But blackness is not a piece of jewelry you can slip on when you want a confidence booster or a cool look. And playing at being poor — while earning a profit by doing so — is just distasteful.