The internet brouhaha over Miley Cyrus’ fascinating and disturbing performance at the VMAs — the tongue! the teddy bears! the awful molesting of her backup dancer! — has reached maximum overexposure. My social media feed became a stream of long think pieces, most of them searing and brilliant. I don’t want to repeat what’s been said. But I will say that Miley’s performance can teach progressive thinkers to, as a friend of mine always says, walk and chew gum at the same time.
Sometimes in social-justice minded circles it’s hard to reconcile all the different issues and instances of wrongdoings in the world without wanting to rank them — to play “oppression Olympics.” Is it possible that someone can be right on one point and wrong on another: right on civil liberties and wrong on social justice issues? Right on social issues but wrong on foreign policy? This extends to culture. A pop star can do something troubling and exploitative that deserves reproach and discussion — and still be the target of too much criticism for her sexuality.
Cyrus has been subjected to two distinct strains of pushback on her performance. The first comes from the mainstream and the right wing, and posits that she’s “trashy” and “slutty” and a bad role model for young girls because of her verging-on-cartoonish sexuality. The other comes from critical and progressive spaces, rueing the ways in which her performance was racially problematic — not just casually, but in a way that taps right into deep, long-standing strains of American culture that degrade and sideline women of color and their bodies.
Syreeta McFadden at Feministing writes about being hurt, angry and personally tired from watching Miley display her “huge cultural appropriation problem,” but also sad on her behalf:
A segment of our culture will stay mired in slut-shaming Miley for asserting a sexuality that is her right… But I’m living in the part of our culture that is exhausted with the entertainment dream complex’s skewed perception of the complexities of black identity in American life.
Recently here at the Sisterhood, I’ve been writing about how Jews in America can both experience oppression and perpetuate it, at the same time. It sounds silly, but the same actually might be said of Miley Cyrus. Yes, Cyrus is the victim of a culture that shames women’s sexuality. But in her efforts to break out of that narrow vise, she has shoved others back into the grip of damaging stereotypes. It’s a test of our negative capability: Can we defend her from the cruelest critics while also decrying the harmful tropes she perpetuates?