Feminism: Why Miley Matters OR Our Relationship To Pop Culture Does Not Exist In a Vacuum

Yesterday's post on Miley's VMA performance and the racism she put on display has gotten way bigger than I ever expected. I originally wrote it for Jezebel's Groupthink forum, then cross posted it here. Between the two, the article has racked up close to 12K shares on facebook, nearly 100K views, and enough tweets that I've been getting follow requests to my private twitter account all day; and the numbers will likely only have grown by the time I hit publish. 

But while on a superficial level I'm glad that so many people have read and shared my work, the bigger emotion that overtakes me is relief. Relief that so many people get it. Relief that so many people understand that there was something very, very wrong with what Miley did onstage that night, and it had nothing to do with her costume. Relief that this many people understood that Miley's performance was not a stand-alone occurrence, but a symptom of a much, much bigger problem with the way that blackness, and specifically black womanhood is portrayed in our culture.

I specifically mentioned Mikki Kendall in the first graf of the original piece because I really feel like she ignited something with black feminists when she started #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. To me, it's as though she gave black women permission to finally push back against the marginalization that they have faced by the mainstream white feminist collective. She was brave enough to demand that she be heard, and the rest of us took it as a rallying cry. And as a result of that, I've personally been agitating ever since to see a more intersectional perspective reflected in the feminist sites that I frequent, most specifically Jezebel, because I refuse to allow intersectionality to ever again be far from the collective feminist consciousness.

Now, I owe Jezebel my feminism. It is the site that introduced me to the concept of feminism, and guided my understanding of sexism, institutionalized racism, fatphobia, slut shaming, rape culture, reproductive rights and a whole host of other issues that I had experienced, but never had the words to articulate. So this isn't about my dislike for Jezebel, because I don't want to dislike Jezebel. 

But Jezebel is painfully whitewashed, and it shows. After being named as a guilty party when SIFWW issue blew the internet wide open, EIC Jessica Coen responded by writing a passive aggressive post about the stages of grief, and the totality of the site's SIFWW coverage was this post aggregating "Our favourite SIFWW tweets" that didn't even mention Mikki Kendall as the originator of the hashtag. (An "oversight" that was corrected when commenters complained) 

Jezebel has yet to apologize for their complicity in Hugo Schwyzer's success, and his systematic silencing and abuse of feminists of colour.

Even yesterday, after it was pointed out that Jezebel's coverage of Miley's performance did not even attempt to comment on the racist overtones on display, Jessica Cohen's response was to recycle an old post written by Dodai Stewart, one of the few WoC on staff, stick her name on it,  and add a slapped together introduction. And noot a meaningful discussion was had. 

Considering the fact that the theft of intellectual property from WoC by white feminists was one of several concerns brought to the forefront by SIFWW, it was beyond tone deaf to do this, (even though, yes, this is not technically stealing) and I refuse to believe that the Editor-In-Chief of a major online publication didn't know that this was in incredibly poor taste. If she genuinely couldn't see the implications of that specific act, then that tells me everything I need to know about the brand of feminism that she practices; one that devalues and purposely overshadows the contributions of WoC.

And to add insult to injury, we were treated to another wonderful article detailing the way in which "Butts Are Back", starring none other than Robin Thicke, who was very recently ripped to shreds by the self same website for the way women were represented in his Blurred Lines music video.

But there were mainly white women in that video, so it was an urgent problem in need of fixing. Give It 2 U, is full of those wild ghetto girls, so it's completely cool that he uses them to personify his big dick fantasy. It would be remiss of me not to mention that many of the dancers are from actual university teams. These are college educated women. As far away from "ghetto" as one might hope to get.

To circle back to the point, I want white feminists to GET it. I want white feminists, (you know, the ones with the white privilege and the institutional power) to understand that if you want call yourself a feminist, then you have to stand for all women, not just the ones who look like you. You have to adopt an intersectional approach. You have to recognize and understand that life is both different and more difficult for a woman in a brown body. I want sites like Jezebel and XOJane to call out racism when they see it, and not just focus on the issues that are relevant to them as white women. 

And this isn't to say that the slut shaming that went on yesterday shouldn't have been called out. It most definitely should have. I saw things said yesterday about Miley's body and sexuality that made me physically recoil, and a particularly insidious hashtag about her "down south rump" trended almost all day. But intersectionality means that we have to be able to have that conversation running parallel to the one that calls Miley out on her commodification of black women's bodies for fun and profit. Miley isn't a victim; she doesn't need coddling, and she should be held responsible for her actions. Being a critical cultural consumer means that we can both acknowledge that slut shaming is terrible and misogynistic, as well as talk about Miley's complicity in the historical oppression of black women.

This is not just a discussion about Miley Cyrus or her rebellious phase. It is a larger cultural discussion about a society that allowed that performance to make it all the way from conception to execution with nary a word said against it. Because the dirty little secret is, I really like Miley's song. I even think that her new single Wrecking Ball is a little bit brilliant, and that she's genuinely talented. This isn't about Miley Cyrus being racist. It's about the mainstream consciousness allowing her to get away with this particularly insidious brand of coded racism.

For every person on the internet advising that we "just ignore it" because "she isn't real music anyway", there are 10 Smilers who are planning their next "Ratchet Halloween Party". Miley's actions have consequences beyond hundreds of tweets and armchair diagnoses of low self esteem. Her performance told a million white girls that it's okay to other your black friend. It's okay to treat her like a petting zoo. It's okay to assume that she won't mind being touched because that's what black women are there for. Your enjoyment; your entertainment. 

It's gross, and insidious, and the kind of racism that's especially hard to call out if you don't happen to have the words to frame the situation correctly. Pop culture does not exist in a vacuum. It is a feedback loop that is both sustained by and contributes to the way the we see ourselves as a culture, and in relation to each other. To say that pop culture doesn't matter is to say that society doesn't matter, because it's our attitudes and preferences that determine what is and isn't allowed to flourish on the entertainment market. 

So yes, I did write 2200 words on Miley Cyrus yesterday, and another (*counts*)... 1200 today. I did it because it matters. I did it because the artist formerly known as Hannah Montana is grown up now, and the racist choices she has made will influence the way an entire generation of tweens approaches race relations and concepts like cultural appropriation and commodification, and I want to make sure that she doesn't let them grow up to be people who think it's okay to mock people who look like me on national television.