Why We Love To Hate Miley's Twerk

Miley Cyrus's performance at the VMAs is a scandal. The question is why?

Posted Aug 27, 2013

By now nearly everyone has seen or at least heard about Miley Cyrus's twerk-a-licous performance at MTV's VMAs. It was the top story of the day on a variety of news sites and dominated Twitter and Facebook for much of the day, not to mention the blogosphere. The general consensus? We hate Miley Cyrus and her performance.

But now we must ask why? Why exactly do we hate her so much and so vehemently that an article at CNN today was about "Outraged Parents" which quoted parents saying jugmental things like 

"It's a damn shame that Miley is doing this to herself, making a vulgar joke out of her talents and her beauty, but it's a much bigger shame that she's doing it to her young fans and other young people (who) see her in the media," 

and harsh things like

"It's the same thing as going to any street corner in America and selling herself for money," 

 to infantilizing tsk tsks

"It's clear that Miley Cyrus' lifestyle as a young woman is expressing pain and is dealing with emotional problems. Her mother and father have a responsibility to come to her aid and work out these social issues before it's too late,"

But what exactly made us so angry at Miley? To answer that we have to figure out not just her enactment of gender through her lack of clothes and dance performance, but also more importantly how that enactment of gender is tied up in a race and class appropriation, a minstrelsy if you will, that can never be separated from gender in the first place. 

Let's start where it is often best to start: the Victorian Era, especially after the end of the Civil War and the rise of the middle classes. Let's say 1870 or so. Two things were invented in the Victorian Era- the Lady as a performance of economic idleness and sexual purity and the Child as, well, a performance of economic idleness and sexual purity. Yes, they were similar and they were also both completely and totally white. Indeed, the whiteness of the lady and the child were performed in a variety of ways- in advertisements, in literature of the time- like the ever popular Uncle Tom's Cabin, and on stage in theaters and side shows.. But the innocent and pure white child/lady was also performed through drawing lines around who was not included in these categories.  In minstrel shows of the time, white men would blacken their faces and switch their gender and/or their age to enact the hypersexualized Jezebel figure as well as the comic because so impervious to pain wild child known as a Pickaninny. 

Poor little Miley Cyrus probably knew none of this when she performed as the sexually pure and innocent and most definitely white Hannah Montanna, but she may have had some idea she was engaging in class and race minstrelsy when she put on her "ratchet" show and twerked all over Robin Thicke's groin. 

But Miley, unless she has been thinking deeply about the Victorians and how their notions of childhood and sexual purity still structure racial hierarchies in our culture, probably did not know that we would hate her and not Robin Thicke, who willingly thrust his groin into her twerking buttocks.

Now things get more complicated. After all, Thicke has been accused of appropriating Marvin Gaye's music over and over again, including for his hit "Blurred Lines." But somehow his misappropriation of Black culture doesn't result in the same anger that is directed against Cyrus. That is because Cyrus is not just engaging in a long tradition of white appropriation of Black culture in the form of minstrelsy, but in a much newer tradition of white "ladies" purposefully hypersexualizing themselves through the appropriation of Jezebel figures (in this case, those who twerk).

By undermining white women's sexual purity, Cyrus is undermining the claim to racial superiority and racial violence that the Victorians created, but we as a culture continue to live by. The stories we tell ourselves go like this: white women are like children, sexually pure and in need of protection, a protection offered by white men. Black women are hypersexualized and therefore always sexually available. There are other related stories: like white children need protection because they're innocent; black children are dangerous especially if they wear hoodies.

So Miley Cyrus threw her sexually purity in the garbage even as she engaged in class and race minstrelsy. In this sense, Cyrus both undermined and underlined existing power relations: she killed the Lady even as she revived the Jezebel figure.

And so we hate her. From all sides. As a racist, as a slut, as a corrupter of youth. And we ignore the figure of Robin Thicke, a white man many years her senior enacting a scene of sexual excess with a formerly sexually pure Disney star even as he sings a song that is itself appropriated from a Black singer.

If I might paraphrase Adele, host of the 2011 VMAs, that's a whole lot of "rolling in the deep" for something as seemingly shallow as pop music.

About the Author

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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