I know I’m a little late to the party here on this, but it took me some time to find the time to write this!
Much has been made of Miley Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs in September–most of it hand wringing and pearl clutching over the spectacle of a young woman, a former Disney performer, expressing explicit sexuality in public. I am the last to join in such hysterical slut-shaming. Some more reasoned responses point to Cyrus’ problematic appropriation of black culture to elevate her own cultural visibility, or as a marker of imagined transgression, racial or otherwise. As one professor interviewed put it, “she needs to take an African American studies class.” My reaction to Cyrus’ escapades is similar but it is not the appropriation alone that I find problematic. The story of white performers appropriating the music, gestures, and culture of black performers to line their pockets has a long history. But more troubling for me was Cyrus’ appropriation of black bodies, specifically black women’s bodies, to further her agenda of self expression, and the terms within which she did so.
At the VMAs, Cyrus performed with a background group of exclusively black female dancers. This bevy of teddy bear Hottentots danced and twerked with Cyrus, emphasizing their larger buttocks and thighs. At one point in the performance, Cyrus leans over and smacks the butt of one of the twerking dancers. Surrounded by large bottomed black women, Cyrus mimicked their movements, drew attention to their lower bodies, displayed them as a spectacle that in some way embodies her new identity. In doing so, she drew on a much older iconography and vocabulary of transgression, through the grotesque black body, that ultimately reproduced the racial boundaries she claims to transgress or blur.
The juxtaposition of her slender white body with these larger black bodies presumably rendered her performance shocking or transgressive. Cyrus drew on long standing cultural associations between black women’s bodies and active or deviant sexuality to give her own body its transgressive value. But while she claims a corporeal affinity with these black women whom she calls her “peeps,” her performance in a flesh colored bikini only served to underscore and highlight her own whiteness.
Cyrus’s preoccupation with the black female body, particularly the buttocks, references a historical preoccupation with black women as symbols of sexual savagery and corporeal deviance, embodied by the life of Saartjie Baartman, known as the “Venus Hottentot. “Baartman was a Khoisan woman who was enslaved and carried from Southern Africa in 1810, and subsequently exhibited as an exotic museum object around Europe until her death in 1815. Baartman was a sensation, and most of the period images of her portray the obsessive preoccupation with her lower body as an object of fascination and horror.
Bartman’s impact was not confined to the world of the museum or carnival sideshow. The image of black women as grotesque bodies, often juxtaposed with normative, non-grotesque white women, permeated Victorian visual culture. In advertisements for stove polish or soap, for example, black servants were displayed side by side with their white mistresses. In many cases, black women were portrayed as corporeally grotesque – unbounded, overly large, deviantly gendered. Often the black woman was physically larger than the white woman, with large feet, broad shoulders, and dark skin. This portrayal of black women treated their bodies as indexical of their fundamental, and inferior difference.
In the anti-fashion satire, The Grecian Bend from 1868, a fashionable white womans’ body, unnaturally distorted by the use of corset and bustle, is mirrored in the grotesque black body who gleefully pats her own naturally large posterior. The implication is that the tightly laced and bustled body is a grotesque vision of artificiality, that it resembles in some way the savage body, even as its very artificiality emphasizes that it is not the same. Cyrus’ representations do something similar in that the juxtaposition of her own body with Others ultimately reveals how different she is.
My suspicions about Cyrus’ flirtation with the grotesque were confirmed when a week later, she was reported to have performed with a dwarf in Berlin, perpetuating her own flirtation with the carnivalesque, yet still in ways that highlight her own normativity. Cyrus claims to want to “be black,” does she also identify with being a dwarf? Her attraction to such difference may express her sense of her self as a freak, her desire to transgress the norms of her own Disneyfied upbringing. Yet in drawing on the corporeal vocabulary of the grotesque, all she really does is reinscribed the difference of those whose bodies do not conform to those norms, ultimately reinforcing a sense of their otherness.