Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
August 27, 2013 by Merissa Nathan Gerson
I have what I am going to term Miley fever. It started when I began watching the VMA replays and there she was, in her horrible glory, an emblem of America’s worst social ills. Then, what followed, an obsessive reading and re-reading of the articles meant to illuminate what we had just witnessed. And one by one I realized the writers were themselves exhibiting subtle sexism and racism of their own. Is Miley the social ill, or is she the catalyst to revealing our deepest issues?
It wasn’t just the sideways tongue, or the bad costumes, or the wannabe Katy Perry set. It wasn’t the poor allusions to Britney, or the fact that there was little to no actual dancing happening on that stage. It was the basic fact that first and foremost, not even naked and alone, not even on the most intimate of beds would anyone want to see or experience those lewd moves. They weren’t sexy, they weren’t strip club worthy, they weren’t elegant, they weren’t really anything. There was a kid on stage with a lot of stuffed animals dressed as black women, or black women dressed as stuffed animals, and she was acting out everything she learned and didn’t learn on TV.
And someone, someone somewhere sanctioned the absurdity. Miley doesn’t act alone. Billy Ray Cyrus and Miley Cyrus together still need to be approved. Someone picked out that set, those bad costumes, and choreographed that show. That is what gets me. A collective of people agreed to performing, to allowing a black woman in a thong over her animal print leggings to bend over as Miley went to town on her behind. And then the backup dancers, the teddy bear black people. High brow writers called it a “Minstrel Show” but I want people who didn’t go to college for race studies, for white people who don’t get the whole shebang, to understand how on a basic level this show was a spiraling of crap choreography, absurdly vulgar and unsexy un-dancey gestures, and a whole load of treating black women like animal object props for a skinny white girl’s teenaged acting out.
What happens when a white girl doesn’t know herself and can’t find her own identity post pop-stardom? She looks to the black people for dance moves and gestures and appropriates them in a sloppy way. She attempts to “become something” by pretending to be “them.” Why was this so extra awful? Because not only was she stealing from what she might reductively deem “black culture” with her bad dancing, but she simultaneously demeans and fetishizes the black female body on her stage. That is a whole lot of wrong.
And why does this matter to me as a Jewish feminist writer? Because as a Jewish woman it is my job to advocate that women not be objectified or demeaned, and yes, that always includes black women. It means that I don’t want young white girls dancing in a way that alludes to, well, nothing, not even sex, not even sexiness, but the odd degradation of self and music industry standards on a series of poor dance moves and lewd gestures. It has nothing to do with “sluttiness,” but some modern understanding of tznius, defined by sexual dancing that is classy or choreographically informed where Madonna and Beyonce are the limit.
And being a Jewish feminist woman includes not wanting the racialization and animalization and fetishization of bodies on national television. It means holding a steady day-to-day awareness of my own privilege as a white Jew, and also keeping an eye on the white girls gone awry, or the black women toted along with this skinny white lady’s antics. It means Miley fever needs to be broken with some serious questions. Do we hate Miley? Do we look at her as awful, as an isolated ill? Or are we all to blame for the culture that shapes and promotes and funds and obsesses over an ignorant white girl smearing racist vulgur trash across a stage meant for a national audience? The only way to break the fever is to begin to pay attention.