Blurred culture lines

Was Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs offensive or misconstrued?

Aditi Pradeep

What really went right with Miley Cyrus’ performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards?

Tabloids and pop culture journalists wasted no time in criticizing Cyrus for her dancing, singing and even her tongue movements. Perhaps Cyrus might have had a better reception had she not casually strolled out of a giant bear with her tongue out, but who’s to say?

Giant bear heads and awkward hairstyles aside, more interesting is Cyrus’ attempt to shed her Disney image by taking on the stereotypical persona of a sexually promiscuous African-American woman.

Several journalists bashed Cyrus for her cultural appropriation of twerking and made a case that her performance was racist. I’ll be the first to admit much of Cyrus’ performance was inappropriate or disrespectful, but how distasteful was her “twerking,” actually?

Critics claim the reason Cyrus is embracing black culture is that it happens to be the furthest from her once “good” Disney image. But that’s not a stereotype that Cyrus created, but rather one her critics believe.

Twerking is taking the nation’s clubs and young adults by storm.

In its rawest form, twerking is the shaking, bouncing and jiggling of the bottom half of the body, and it’s often associated with women of color. DJ Jubilee
introduced the move into the mainstream in 1993 with the lyrics “Twerk baby, twerk baby, twerk, twerk, twerk.”

The word recently — and controversially — entered the Oxford English Dictionary, which defined it as dancing to popular music “in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.”

To me this signifies that perhaps twerking is now considered less “black culture” and perhaps more “pop culture.” Haven’t people been dancing promiscuously and with a “low squatting stance” for ages?

Like other African-American cultural terms and icons — such as “jerking” or “molly” — twerking has been appropriated to mainstream culture through the music industry.

I understand several of Cyrus’ performance techniques were unrefined, but I don’t think her intentions were dubious.

She is a young woman — as old as many college students — who is experimenting with her image by performing a song originally written for Rihanna. Is it right for us to criticize her for wider problems of the music industry and of pop culture?

I don’t think Cyrus was completely in the right, but I also don’t think there’s an easy answer. The line between being offensive and simply enjoying a style not common to Cyrus’ own culture was blurred.

Where cultural icons like twerking truly belong is undefined. When spread through music videos and song lyrics, these icons become a part of larger culture and can’t be contained to one group.

As a public figure with little to hide, Cyrus is an easy target. We should take a step back and have an actual dialogue on who the true instigators of cultural appropriation are: pop stars, or the fans?

Being offended is often the first step, but we must go further in working to find what is problematic, and what is simply provocative in pop culture.