MTV Video Music Awards expose racism and sexism in music industry

By Elise Martorano

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Many people probably expected the MTV Video Music Awards to be loud, flashy, raunchy and generally tasteless. But what ensued during Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke’s joint performance on Aug. 25 exceeded these expectations, proving to be a borderline-pornographic display of flagrant racism and misogyny.

For those of you who (fortunately) missed the performance, here’s a recap: Cyrus emerged from a giant teddy bear, strutted about the stage making horrendous faces (in a style that she probably hoped made her look “hood”), crudely slapped the rear ends of her black backup dancers and even took a couple of breaks to dance ineptly. After her song, Robin Thicke strolled onstage in a Beetlejuice-esque suit for his performance of “Blurred Lines” and reveled in the sexual glory of the song while Cyrus implied – without much imagination involved – some pretty suggestive acts.

Facebook/Miley Cyrus

Of course, these majorly problematic themes were (generally) overlooked by most of the audience. Instead, the overwhelming majority of confusion regarding Miley Cyrus’ performance of her song “We Can’t Stop” seemed to focus on the incongruous electric teddy bears in the background and the blatantly sexual acts she simulated not 10 feet from the audience. What was right under the audience’s nose, invisible to most in the storm of “slut-shaming,” was the fact that Cyrus and Thicke’s performance accentuated and perpetuated deep-rooted, discrimination-enabling stigmas under the guise of art.

Cyrus, who has recently mentioned in no uncertain terms that she wants her music to sound more “hood,” is the face of white privilege. Surrounding herself with black dancers, she first hopes to prove that she is associated with black culture as a way of legitimizing herself as an artist. Second, she implies that she is separate from black culture – black without being black. In her article “Brown Body, White Wonderland,” Tressie McMillan Cottom of Slate.com emphasizes Cyrus’ ability to pull this off: “She is playing a type of black female body as a joke to challenge her audience’s perceptions of herself, while leaving their perceptions of black women’s bodies firmly intact. It’s a dance between performing sexual freedom and maintaining a hierarchy of female bodies from which white women benefit materially.”

Cyrus’ offense lies far deeper than her use of larger, black dancers. Throughout her performance at the VMAs, Cyrus strutted between the dancers, touched them inappropriately and then gave them an expression that seemed to imply that the dancers were cooperative in her objectification of their bodies. McMillan Cottom explains how this increases Cyrus’ street-cred in the eyes of the audience: “Playing the desirability of black female bodies as a wink-wink joke is a way of lifting up (black women’s) deviant sexuality without lifting up black women as equally desirable to white women.” In her performance of “We Can’t Stop,” Cyrus uses black women as accessories – they are there for her entertainment, to make her look cooler and more attractive. She appropriates and disrespects black culture through her exaggerated impersonation of a “gangster” demeanor, her use of the culturally black dance move “twerking” and her presumptuous, ringleader-esque association with black women in the wake of her treatment toward them. She takes black culture away from black people, putting herself in the spotlight and reducing an entire culture to a “hood” persona, fit only to dance vaguely in her shadow.

Perhaps even less commented on than Cyrus’s racism (in favor of her lewd display of sexuality) was the delicious irony of the lack of criticism on Robin Thicke’s part. Thicke performed his hit song “Blurred Lines,” a funky trip into the land of misogyny and the apparent confusion that some people have over the issue of consent. Along with some other pretty violently sexual lyrics, his song includes lines such as, “You’re an animal, baby, it’s in your nature / Just let me liberate you,” “I hate these blurred lines” and “I know you want it.” Not to mention the music video, which features Robin Thicke and his two backup singers in some pretty classy suits, grabbing and caressing three all but naked women.

The fact that Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is apparently a joke (meaning to ridicule the music industry’s habit of taking advantage of women) is hilarious in and of itself. In her article, “A Feminist Takedown of Robin Thicke, And Anyone Who Thinks There’s Anything ‘Blurry’ About Sexism,” Elizabeth Plank of PolicyMic.com explains that “sexism can’t be ironic because we’re not over it. It’s still massively prevalent. Men still benefit from it, women are still hindered by it.” This point is obvious, given the fact that Thicke has been overall praised and glamorized, especially in his performance at the VMAs, while Cyrus received enormous amounts of ridicule and generally disgusted responses from audience members. Thicke sings a chauvinistic, borderline rape-rationalizing song and Cyrus simulates some sexual acts. Now for the insane double standard: Thicke walks away with his reputation unscathed and perhaps even improved in the light of Cyrus’ display. Meanwhile Cyrus is seen as repulsive, not for her racism, but for her display of sexual maturity. Granted her actions onstage were inappropriate and downright pornographic, but her desperate attempt to shake herself of her wholesome Disney Channel persona is the very last issue that should be her undoing.

Overall, the spectacle witnessed at the VMAs was culturally and socially irresponsible, insulting, degrading and an undeniable reinforcer of some very serious issues that our culture claims to have overcome. In the wise words of Hadley Freeman, “Cyrus’s approach to cultural appropriation is as sophisticated as Robin Thicke’s view of female sexuality.”

Elise Martorano is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]