Sunday night at the MTV Video Music Awards, Rihanna didn't grace the stage to perform "Stay," her twice-nominated hit with Mikky Ekko. In fact, none of the performances at the VMAs featured women of color — unless you count the women relegated to the background of self-described "twerk queen" Miley Cyrus' performance of the summer singles "We Can't Stop" and "Blurred Lines." Indeed, after the parade of acid-tripping bears joined Cyrus and Robin Thicke performing the latter's hit on MTV's stage, things got really interesting, and really offensive.
Throughout her performance, Cyrus was the messy focal point of a number that was danced by mostly black women. These performers twerked in the background, their faces and bodies masked from the waist up by a psychedelic teddy bear object. At one point during the performance, Miley stopped to slap one of her dancers — who tossed something to the crowd from a basket — on the ass repeatedly.
Yes, Cyrus has fielded cultural misappropriation criticisms before, but Sunday night's performance pushed the matter way over the edge. We'll repeat: The 20-year-old singer used black women and their bodies as the literal background of her show. Cyrus, the white woman, was the focal point of her VMA performance, while African-American women were there to silently lend their expertise in support of her performance. Their faces were masked by silly costumes, their skilled dancing glossed over to highlight Cyrus. Every time she thrusted her pelvis or threw a gang sign, Cyrus carefully cultivated a persona on the backs of these dancers.
In June, Jezebel's Dodai Stewart wrote a compelling piece about the cultural appropriation in Cyrus' "We Can't Stop" video. Much like Sunday night's VMA performance, women of color were used as props to bolster Miley's cultural legitimacy. Stewart writes, "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."
In a series of provocative dance moves, Cyrus managed to show everyone that Jezebel, Vice, and Jay-Z were right: Her musical "reinvention" is almost entirely cribbed from black culture — and her VMA performance was a visual representation of how she, literally, has relegated those who inspired her to the background. Cyrus was made aware of these criticisms via Twitter, and she completely ignored them.
So it's no secret that the singer has chosen to reinvent herself by stealing the expressions, dance, and culture of black people. Over the last year, Cyrus been photographed publicly wearing a gold grill. The former Hannah Montana star also rapped a verse on a French Montana single. For her upcoming album Bangerz , Cyrus allegedly said to her producers “I want urban, I just want something that just feels black.” Videos of her twerking on stage with Juicy J surfaced, which resulted in a lot of criticism from African-American writers.
The biggest problem, though, is that Cyrus gets to pick and choose the parts of black culture she likes; people may think that the singer has gone off the deep end when she twerks while parading around in a unicorn suit, but they're still tossing cash her way. Number one singles, endorsements, and high-billing at the VMAs still prove that appropriation may put Cyrus on top. And her fans, many of whom are young, white, and privileged, don't understand just how offensive her cultural appropriation is — quite possibly like Cyrus herself.
And her reinvention is encouraging them to participate: A few months ago, 33 high school students in San Diego were suspended for using school video equipment to film a twerking video that went viral on YouTube. The majority of the students in this video are Caucasian, like Cyrus.
Cyrus and I are about the same age. We’re both products of a Spice Girls-fueled Girl Power movement. As white girls, we were told that we could do anything we wanted — whether it was go to medical school or grind on the groin of an aging pop star. Cyrus feels like she can do whatever she wants, but she'd do well to be aware of her own privilege, which, in this case, has led to her using African-American women as mere props in her show. The fact that Cyrus is trying to use another culture to build credibility? Well, unfortunately, that just makes her lose credibility.