Miley Cyrus: The Cultural Bandit

While watching the 2013 Video Music Awards, 10 million viewers found their jaws glued to the floor after Miley Cyrus’ raunchy, disturbing, and provocative display performing Robin Thicke’s hit single, Blurred Lines.  In case you missed it, take a minute to watch the clip below.

Disclaimer: If you recently ate, please take a moment to digest before attempting to watch this video. The content is highly graphic and suggestive which may cause an upset stomach.


This performance brought a lot of heat and attention to Miley Cyrus for being “over the top”. The world was shocked and left asking why?  A CBS News article titled, “Miley Cyrus’ booty-shaking VMA performance gets quite the reaction,” quoted former NSYNC member, Lance Bass, “I didn’t know I had to warn them that their little Hannah Montana was going to be naked and humping a finger.” Everyone was shocked at Cyrus’ transformation from America’s Disney Channel sweetheart, Hannah Montana, to rump-shaking, grill-wearing, “ghetto” Miley Cyrus. However, looking at this performance objectively, Cyrus’ intent is quite clear; do what it takes to gain attention because there is no such thing as bad press. Thus, what makes her VMA showing problematic is not why she did it, but rather, how she did it. That night, America witnessed the manifestation of cultural appropriation that propelled Miley’s career forward at the expense of respect for the black culture, which she attempted to mimic.

Music history shows that it is almost impossible to become a “crossover” artist without culturally appropriating since music is so closely tied to culture. Different cultures use music to narrate and reflect their cultural history or identity. Shared cultural experiences, real or perceived, determine an artist’s legitimacy and authenticity within a community. That’s why you don’t hear black rap artists from the streets of Brooklyn “crossing-over” to sing country music about their “big green tractors”or playing their guitars while the sun sets on their ranch. I am not saying there aren’t black people who live these experiences, but those experiences are not reflective of the “common” black experience. When an artist misrepresents him or herself in this way, the artist’s authenticity can come into question.

Although, the restriction of authenticity limits the niches black artists can successfully participate in, the same does not apply for white artists. This stems from an inherent privilege granted to white people, which bestows them power to continually borrow and replicate cultures. In turn, this creates a forum for white artists to sell, literally and figuratively, a piece of another culture and for “normal” white people to take ownership of it everyday. Thus, white culture expands and continues to dominate in music, fashion, and media, because it uses cultural appropriation to undercut other cultures.

Recently, there has been a gradual shift in taste within white consumer culture that artists such as, Miley Cyrus have adopted to recreate their image to stay relevant. The author of “On the Inherent Privilege of White Culture” on intersectional feminism blog site The Scarlet Woman explains, “There’s a pretty strong movement within white culture (especially today) that values concepts like ‘authenticity’ and this idea of  ‘realness’. These two values exist in opposition to the mainstream culture which is based on mass manufactured goods, and gets associated with ‘pre-packaged’ identities, ‘cookie cutter’ personas, and the like (see Justin Timberlake circa the N’SYNC era)”. Thus, Miley cyrus’s career transition from all-American country singer/actress to rebellious pop-star is an accurate depiction of this contemporary shift in popular white culture. Her “new” image is a product of her privilege. It has allowed her to claim any aspect of black culture and make it appropriate or acceptable for whiteness. Now, some of you reading this right now may be asking yourself: What has Miley stolen from black people and made it a ‘new’ popular trend associated with her?

Here is a quick list of a couple of the most OBVIOUS things:

  1. Her ‘Mini Buns’ Hairstyle: First of all, just because you change the original name of the hairstyle to be more suitable for white culture, does not make it a product of whiteness. This hairstyle, originally known as Bantu knots from the Zulu tribe in South Africa, has been worn by black celebrities such as, Scary Spice,  Lauryn Hill, and, Rihanna, for decades. However, it was not popular, fashionable, or acceptable in white culture until artists like Miley Cyrus adopted it in recent years.  


  • Her Love of Twerking: I am sure most of you know what this dance style is by now. However, this recently popular dance preexists Cyrus,’ “Miley Cyrus Twerk Team”. The dance’s history can be traced back to West African dance where dancers bounced their hips in response to the beat of the drums. Variations of this dance can be seen throughout black musical history. Although, Cyrus is not known for twerking well, she actively maintains authority over it by employing black dancers who can twerk to legitimize her image.


Cyrus Twerk Power

In summation, when thinking about cultural appropriation, we must consider a couple of points. First, when arguing an aspect of your culture is being appropriated, consider where you fall in the white-black dichotomy every institution in this country is founded upon. In other words, where do you fall in the power dynamic determined by the concept of race?  “Whiteness,” or in this case, “white culture,” is an open-ended notion perpetuated and protected by the racial hierarchy that has granted certain privileges to some at the expense of most. In respects to culture, power has given white people flexibility and privilege to constantly redefine “white culture.”On the other hand, those outside this racial category are inclined to maintain the rigidity of their cultural identity in fear of losing it. Thus, by being white, your cultural inclinations are constantly adapting simply to assert white privilege. However, if you are black, or find yourself in between the dichotomy, your power to protect your cultural identity is limited and your main defense mechanism is cultural appropriation. It is clear that, the vagueness of “white culture,” protected by the systematic power dynamic, allows it to take ownership of other cultures with little to no fear of any concrete repercussions. That said, I do not blame Miley Cyrus for capitalizing on her privilege. However, if she is truly an ally of the culture she is appropriating, like she claims, I challenge her to openly acknowledge and give credit where it is due.



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