I have conversations by myself about many things while sitting on the toilet, imagining I’m being interviewed by Barbara Walters. Why not share them here? (Please don’t list your reasons, because frankly, I don’t care.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about race, feminism, and sexual orientation because the past year has been so filled with these conversations, which is a good thing! At least the discussions are finally as prominent as the events that inspire them; they’re finally WITHIN popular culture. Progress is happening. The topics are taking the main stage, not just the stars.
I’m liking Miley more and more. Before, I would be annoyed by all pop women taking off their clothes because I felt like Madonna already did that. She already won the battle and made the point that women can take control of their sexuality by exhibiting it however they want to, which is different from men calculatedly putting women on display. Any repetition felt pornographic in a bad way (because there is pornography that doesn’t degrade women), as though it were ordered upon pop’s ingénues by men in suits, effectively undoing Madonna’s work.
However, I no longer see Miley in this vein. She is one of the few pop women who puts her body out there in a new way. From a viewer’s perspective, it feels distinctly like her choice, because what executive would ask a woman to chop all her hair off, dress in a teddy bear leotard and sneakers, and stick a foam finger up her vagina? No, a male record executive would more likely ask a female singer to abide by society’s narrow definition of sexy, requesting that she writhe around in a sand pit or sultrily sweat in a jungle-like setting (a la Britney Spears clothed in a snake at the 2001 VMAs). There was nothing traditionally tantalizing about Miley’s VMA performance, or any of her performances since then, nor has she meant for them to be. She herself thought her VMA display was funny. In effect, Miley is saying your body is yours. Do whatever you want with it. Create your own standards and be what you want to be (sexy, not sexy, something else, etc.) based on how YOU feel in various postures, clothes, and stages of dress.
Initially, I thought we didn’t need a Madonna-type in a world where all the pop girls walk around without pants, but I totally missed the point. In a post-Madonna world (I know Madonna is still alive, but her impact has been greatly reduced due to ageism and her alleged difficulty coping with it), it seems Miley is the only progressive popstress with the relevance of the Queen in her hey day. Three years ago, it was Gaga. Katy, Rihanna and Beyoncé may control their own bodily displays, but they aren’t bringing anything new to the table. They all offer the same old sultry pose.
Now, let’s talk about Miley’s appropriation of black culture. I’m obviously unable to see it from a black perspective. The closest thing I, as a gay white man, can relate that to is Lady Gaga’s use of high-heel sporting backup dancers in the Alejandro video. I need to pause right here for a side note.
*I imagine the GLAAD-types out there don’t see eye to eye with me, but I, Barry Epstein, view this as a gay influence. Some might say cross-dressing is separate from being gay, and I see your point, but there is an undeniable confluence in much of the gay community. The gay men I’ve encountered who reject the MAJOR effeminate quality of gay culture are often self-loathing, hating that very part of what undeniably constitutes them. Hetero-centric society deems effeminate men as unmanly, and these gays want to say, “I’m still a man even though I’m gay because I walk with a bro’s posture and don’t dress in drag.” You can be a man and be effeminate. You can be a man and dress in wigs and skirts and bend your wrists all day. All you need to do to be a man is to identify as one. Not a single other thing should matter.
Back to Miley. I see Gaga’s appropriation of gay culture, and use of gay dancers, as incredibly flattering. She’s recognizing the huge influence of gay culture on what she does, as did Madonna in the Vogue video, so when I hear the black community complain about Miley’s appropriation, I simply don’t get it. Her actions seem completely complimentary to me; she’s expressing her love for black culture. Furthermore, she’s not the first to do it. Justin Timberlake has done so for years, and yet no one hates on him with regard to cultural appropriation.
Miley may be unaware of the minstrel show history fueling people’s anger with her stage dynamic. However, in some twisted way, isn’t her lack of awareness representative of how far we’ve come? People loathe her alleged ignorance, but that ignorance shows that racism isn’t on her mind. It represents the gradual dissolution of racism and increase of appreciation for black culture within popular culture. Isn’t this a good thing? Doesn’t the youth’s unfamiliarity with historical discrimination against all types of minorities show that they’ve been taught acceptance, with rejection not even a prospect? Like I said, I, as a white person, don’t have the perspective of someone who is black, nor his/her life experience. Thus, I can’t deny that Miley’s performance may have been insulting to others, but I don’t understand why, and maybe I never will, which makes me sad.