Can conversations about women in pop move beyond a binary of agency or exploitation?

The feminist debate after Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance rarely touched upon the issue of race.  A comparison with Rihanna’s ‘Pour It Up’ video illuminates the dominant tropes being played out in pop culture.

Reni Eddo-Lodge
14 October 2013

Sinead O’Connor and Amanda Palmer have swapped open letters, concerned about the future of Miley Cyrus. Between feminist cries of slut shaming, paternalistic concerns of exploitation, and sex positive insistencies of agency, the conversation spirals round with no end in sight. Both Palmer and O’Connor’s letters do not deem race worthy of including in their analyses of Cyrus’ behaviour. But why would they? Solidarity is, as always, for white women.

There has been much written about Miley Cyrus' image change. She is not the first white girl to adorn herself in mainstream perceptions of blackness like a Halloween costume, revelling in actions tantamount to the modern day black face. Before her, there was Kreayshawn. Iggy Azalea simmers in the background, too. When Iggy publicly claimed Miley stole twerking from her, irony curled up in a ball and died.

Thus, history is rewritten. Twerking’s pop culture reference morphs into whiteness – lacking legitimacy until a famous white person co-opts it for themselves. Elvis was perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon. Eminem openly rapped about it. In his White Rapper FAQ, comedian Aamerr Rahman writes ‘benevolent white people […] who want to forcibly colonise, appropriate and redefine other people’s culture and history are how racism and wars started.’ In her essay Can the White Girl Twerk, Ayesha A. Siddiqui defines this as ‘racial drag’.

Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance was the cumulative effect of her continued work toward this point. The black women backing dancers who surrounded her performance were difficult to distinguish.  Their eyes were blacked out with sunglasses, but then, no one was looking at their faces. Their bodies were voluptuous- wide hips, thick thighs- a stark contrast to the former Disney star. Every so often, Miley would stop to slap or motorboat their flesh. They were relegated to the side lines so that she could shine.

There was outcry when Miley’s VMA performance partner Robin Thicke used almost naked white and light skinned black women in the background of his latest pop video, Blurred Lines. When it comes to her backing dancers, Miley’s objectifying tactics are not dissimilar.

White women – conventionally attractive white women with access to class privilege – are the ‘housecats of society’, as Chelsea Fagan succinctly puts it. Subject to gendered oppression, of course. But ‘so much [of this] oppression stems from condescension, infantilisation, and overprotection.’ What both Fagan and Siddiqui discuss frankly is the perceived purity in cis, straight, white female youth.  

Alongside a new found penchant for nudity, Miley considers the perceived hypersexuality of black female flesh intoxicating enough to attempt to emulate. She imitates an ugly colonial narrative that stems from a violent past. Our waists, our hips and our thighs are not inherently sexual once we’re released from the restrictions of the male gaze, or the stranglehold of white dominated cultural appropriation.

At the polar opposite of pure white womanhood is blackness and the implications that come with it. Suspicion, aggression, and hyper sexualisation - each adjective is gendered. Like the trope of pure white womanhood, they are rigid and restrictive. Against a backdrop of structural racism and white supremacy, white women indulging in this perceived state of blackness is the ultimate rebellion.

Whilst Miley Cyrus rapidly becomes the pop culture reference point for twerking, Rihanna’s ‘Pour it Up’ video snatches the reference back. The comparison between the two, then, is where much maligned black female flesh fits into performance - if it does at all.

Maya Angelou writes it well. ‘Does my sexiness upset you? / Does it come as a surprise / That I dance like I've got diamonds / At the meeting of my thighs?’

One could argue it’s a subtle difference. But in a video co-directed by the artist, black women are released from the margins, and are taking centre stage.  Whilst Miley uses black female flesh as props to make a point, Rihanna takes the position of both client and dancer. Fur coat, shining rocks and dollar bills all signify unbridled power. A pick up artist might call it peacocking. There is no male gaze on screen to lap up the scenes.

What’s prized as aspirational or desirable in white women’s bodies is not the same as black women’s bodies. We’re not represented in many mainstream representations of beauty. Black female artists, then, who opt to twerk centre stage with pride, are making a statement. With limited access to the structure of pure white womanhood, we operate within racialised respectability politics. Described well by Tamara Winfrey Harris in Bitch Magazine, respectability politics require black women in the public eye ‘to be noble examples of black excellence. To be better. To be respectable’. 

Against this backdrop, Rihanna's attitude can be read as an act of radical self-love. Black women’s bodies, in her limited sphere, are free from the patriarchal construction of the male artist. Whilst too many mainstream representations of sex positivity have sorely lacked any analysis of race, its central ethos has encouraged women to explore and celebrate many aspects of their sexuality free from patriarchal judgement and barriers. Why then, isn’t Rihanna’s twerking celebrated as sex positive agency? Where are the defence barriers insisting that criticism of her is rooted in slut shaming?

Pop music has a long way to go before women can step onto a stage without worrying about their looks. We are too far down the slippery slope of trading on objectification for any conventionally attractive female pop star to totally reject the rules of the game. It would be disingenuous to suggest that liberation can be found in expressions of agency alone, but it’s clear that the conversation about must stretch beyond agency or exploitation.

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