With the 2014 VMAs right around the corner, we're approaching the one year anniversary of the foam finger that launched a thousand think pieces. Yes, it's been nearly a year since Miley Cyrus rubbed herself and Robin Thicke with said foam finger, a year since she introduced twerking to Middle America, a year since she — in her eyes — inadvertently used her black friends as props, and a year since everyone and their mom decided they had something intelligent to say about race, sexuality, feminism, cultural appropriation and kids these days.
A lot of those people were right — Mileygate was a good time for cultural critics. But as with every thinkpiece wave you get the baby and the bath water (remember when everyone wasn't completely sure if Beyoncé was a feminist?) Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but no one is entitled to their own facts. And the fact of the matter is, some these think pieces just didn't stand the test of time.
This is not an exhaustive list, because the limit on Cyrus think pieces doesn't exist. We've limited this investigation to the two weeks after the VMAs, because anything beyond that and you're just dwelling on a stale news cycle. But we've gone through dozens of these "what Miley's VMA performance says about our culture at large" articles and placed them into two categories:
- Worth reading: These were good, and still are. If we were building a Miley time capsule we'd stick these in.
- Hate read: Self-explanatory. A good hate read will still upset you — or at least make you roll your eyes — weeks, months, and years after its subject has faded from public attention.
And for those of you who need a refresher, you can watch her performance here.
Miley's Cultural Appropriation
Pieces in this category address two concerns: that Cyrus appropriated black culture with her dancing and her bantu knots, and that she used the bodies of her black female dancers as props, particularly this woman:
Writers at Huffington Post Canada, The New Statesmen, Jezebel, Slate, The Root, Vulture and others argued that Cyrus's black dancers were there to give her a sense of legitimacy. Others argued that it wasn't racist, because white girls are free to twerk.
Tressie McMillan Cottom's Slate column on the way white society commoditizes full figured black bodies — based on her persona experiences of white men asking to motorboat her or trying to grind on her to impress their friends — explained what a lot of black women saw when they watched Cyrus's performance. As Cottom put it, Cyrus was "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."
Jody Rosen's follow-up tweets about the performance get at the heart of what a lot of people felt — Cyrus isn't a racist and didn't intentionally use her dancers. White girls are allowed to twerk. Rap is "pop music's lingua franca," not something one culture can appropriate. But:
.@vandorencharles I called MC's performance minstrelsy because, in my view, it reduced her dancers to totems--of "nasty," outré sexuality.— Jody Rosen (@jodyrosen) August 27, 2013
The problem with most of the articles arguing Cyrus wasn't racist is that they weren't thorough. Clinton Yates at The Washington Post and John McWhorter at The New Republic both condescendingly argued something to the extent of: "if it was Nicki Minaj no one would be upset." Neither addressed the idea that Miley might be benefitting materially from her black dancers, even if she didn't consciously realize it. Instead they blamed it on a sort of reverse racism. Yates wrote:
By implying that Cyrus is somehow creating a minstrel act of sorts by including black dancers in her act, you are implying that there is something lesser than about such an act. ... In short, it is inherently racist to imply that there is anything wrong with anyone other than black women twerking.
And McWhorter wrote:
I sincerely believe that if it were Nicki Minaj who had twerked up against Robin Thicke on television, quite a few would be celebrating it as “transgressive” and such. ... When a white girl does it, though, something’s broken? Where are we going with this? Why can’t Cyrus be transgressing from her position as a woman, period, or a young one—or even as a white one being told she can’t dance in certain ways because of the color of her skin?
Another way of looking at the performance — specifically the part Robin Thicke appeared in — is as Cyrus's sexual revolution. Salon argued that she was just being one of the guys, but will get criticized like one of the girls. The Atlantic wondered if the whole performance wasn't just a failed commentary on "Blurred Lines." The National Review argued that Cyrus, who was 20 years old, was "indirectly legitimizing child porn." The Gospel Coalition weeped.
Rich Juzwiak at Gawker argued that Miley's performance was part of a long tradition of female pop stars' "public sexual awakenings," adding that "Cyrus' performance ... reminded me of the awkward, iconic mess Madonna made when she just kind of flopped down and started rolling on the ground during her 'Like a Virgin' VMAs performance, 29 years ago."
But not everyone was happy about it. Trevin Wax, the managing editor of The Gospel Project, wrote "I Weep for Miley" condemning her performance, the end of Hannah Montana and the culture that led us to August 25, 2013. He wrote:
Tonight, I weep.
I weep for the little girl who gave us Hannah Montana and became a role model to millions of little girls across America.
I weep for the lostness of a girl who doesn’t see herself stumbling around in the dark. ...
I weep for the American Idol culture that promises glitter and gold to children, then chews them up and spits them out.
Everything Richard Cohen at The Washington Post writes is a hate read, but some pieces are worse than others. His contribution to the VMAs time capsule to blame Miley Cyrus for the rape culture that led to the Steubenville rape. After musing on Steubenville (about which the "first thing you should know... is that this was not a rape involving intercourse") he wrote:
So now back to Miley Cyrus and her twerking. I run the risk of old-fogeyness for suggesting the girl’s a tasteless twit — especially that bit with the foam finger. (Look it up, if you must.) But let me also suggest that acts such as hers not only objectify women but debase them. They encourage a teenage culture that has set the women’s movement back on its heels. What is being celebrated is not sexuality but sexual exploitation, a mean casualness that deprives intimacy of all intimacy.
Miley and Society
In the end, Cyrus's VMA performance will be memorable for the memes it produced, and what it meant for our culture at large. The New Yorker — yes, The New Yorker — commented on the meme-ification of the Miley performance. The Wire debated Cyrus's tongue. Entertainment Weekly argued that #YOLO pop is a thing. Fox News wondered if this would hurt the Disney brand. Some wondered if she was mentally ill. And The Onion addressed the fact that, while everyone was writing think pieces and covering the VMAs, there was a war in Syria.
The New Yorker wrote about twerking. That's a definitive cultural moment. And, as biased as this may seem, The Wire's debate on Cyrus's tongue after it made the cover of Rolling Stone might be the definitive discussion of her most famous organ.
Despite all of these conversations on race, sexuality and feminism, the most enduring legacy of Cyrus's performance is people twerking on things. This BuzzFeed listicle isn't a think piece, but it perfectly sums up what people remember from the 2013 VMAs.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.