Antics and Ethics of the White Girl

Like her fellow Disney starlets, Miley Cyrus abandoned her teenybopper image and embraced her sexuality as a twenty year old pop star. She has traded her Hannah Montana wig for a Sharon Stone coif, left her Limited Too wardrobe for bondage-style Versace, and Instagrams herself with tattooed rappers Wiz Khalifa and Juicy J. She’s twerked on Robin Thicke, and is naked on a wrecking ball. She has rebelled. She’s bad, and she wants you to know it.

All this, of course, is to be expected. After all, Britney did it (with Justin, with Madonna, with a python); Christina did it (dirrtily, no less); Rihanna won’t let you forget she’s doing it, and as for Miley, well, she simply can’t stop doing it. But Miley’s decision to grow up in front of the cameras was accompanied by the decidedly sinister decision to exploit black culture along the way. Who’s at fault for this? I propose that if we’re to blame Miley, we ought to look at the culture that’s created her and more importantly, the mythos of the white girl.

                                                                        ***

After the now notorious VMA performance in which the Nashville born Cyrus gyrated across the stage, groped a backup dancer’s derriere, twerked on Robin Thicke’s jailstripe festooned crotch, and straddled a foam finger, denizens of the Internet expressed confusion, disgust, and outrage. Feminist outlets such as Jezebel resented –and rightly so – the immediate slutshaming that conservative camps unleashed upon the Cyrus. What they failed to recognize, though other outlets soon did, was the racist cultural appropriation underscored Cyrus’ entire routine.

Cultural appropriation, though lacking one concrete and specific definition as is common to major phenomena, can be conceived as the selective use of certain aspects of (mostly non-white) culture by (mostly white) people in an effort to construct an image (mostly considered “cool” by common standards). It differs from appreciation in its disregard for the history of the appropriated culture and the agency of those that are part of it. When Miley twerks, as she is wont to do, in her video for “We Can’t Stop” or on stage with Juicy J, or pretty much wherever her heart desires, there’s little doubt that she’s showing appreciation for a dance move that’s routinely seen in hip hop videos, that started with performers such as Big Freedia, and that can trace its history to traditional African dance.

Enter the case of the white girl and the cultural dynamics that have defined her as such. The “white girl”, scare quotes intentional, is alluded to as a code for coke in the rap community, is the possessor of many problems, and is mythologized as the very product of mainstream capitalism. She comes in several forms, be it It or Alt, Kate Upton or Kristen Stewart, but is always the vehicle through which all desire, frustration, success and blame is realized. As Ayesha A. Siddiqi posits, “The straight American ‘white girl’ serves as the normative gender performance, the femininity from which all femininity deviates, through which all women of color are otherized.”[1]

In light of this, Miley’s twerking escapades are in fact, fairly predictable. She, like myself, grew up in the age of the Internet, the medium through which any and all cultural signifiers are easily transmitted, morphed and claimed. To claim that her appreciation for rap music is insincere would be dubious; to deny that rap culture has assimilated into popular culture would be hopelessly naïve. But it is the commodification of rap, and by extension black culture, as a shortcut to an interesting persona that is the problem, for it leaves behind the true arbiters of the culture – black people – as spectators and not participants. Siddiqi asserts that “The commercial success of gangsta rap wouldn’t be possible without North America’s largest demographic buying in. The commercial demand for sexually aggressive and violent rap is appreciably shaped by white teens in the suburbs looking to live out their fantasies via imagined black bodies.[2]” It is cool and marketable and unfailingly hip to caricature what white people deem black culture because whiteness defines what is commercially successful.

       ***

As a member of the South Asian diaspora, my personal frustrations with the ever looming image of the white girl who culturally appropriates manifests itself in the privileged hordes of fair-skinned folks who venture to India and Bangladesh and Pakistan to venture to warm and “exotic” locales, capitalizing on the notion of a land of “mythology” to fulfill self-fulfilling service work, helping “oppressed” women and perhaps taking a ride on an elephant. The white feminist in India decries rape and the evils of the foreign brown man, entering a cosmos where all women to her are oppressed and subservient; she “looooves vindaloo” but is wary of all that is offered to her. Jewel toned saris pop against the pallor of their skin as they stand against shrine or among orphans – every place is a photo op. But why book a train ticket to Delhi to enter the market for exotic India when bindis are easily available for purchase at Urban Outfitters? Bindis, unique to Hindu and South Asian culture, have been seized by the Tumblr crowd (where people can identify as “transethnic” to justify their cultural appropriation) to signify an alternative lifestyle.

To put it simply, it’s an uncritical and unjust act to wear a bindi as a white person when your brown-skinned counterpart can be called a “dot head.” Though it would be perfectly respectful to don a sari or cover one’s hair in appropriate contexts in South Asia or with a South Asian family, using such garments to portray some wild definition of refinement is bizarrely unethical. Flagrantly displaying a Ganesha banner in one’s dorm room in an effort to seem spiritual is an ignorance of actual Hindu iconography. Miley’s cohort, Selena Gomez, put on a bindi and a vaguely “Indian” outfit as part of her dance performance; Iggy Azalea indulges in her Bollywood fantasies in the video for “Bounce”. Neither of these women have any regard for the history and cultural significance of their choices and both play into the conflation of cultural and commodity fetishism that so pervades our culture. Though one might argue that cultural signifiers are increasingly divorced from their referents, there is still a legacy and history behind them and entire groups of people who use them not for commercial gain, but as part of their every day identity.

***

In “Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl”, by French cultural criticism journal Tiqqun, the (sexist) authors define the Young-Girl (implicitly, of course, white) as the “central article of permissive consumption and commodity leisure[3].” Although they assert that their Young-Girl is “not a gendered concept”, they insist upon the Young-Girl as “the most rugged pawn of market domination in a war whose objective remains the total control of daily life  and ‘production’ time.” Their approach, though marred by its sexist language – at one point they claim that the Young-Girl “has the personality of a tampon” – offers a skewed insight into the forces that have shaped the white woman as the purveyor of cultural appropriation. Academic posturing aside, it sparks dialogue as to the agency of women and the complicated nature of sexism and commodity fetishism.

The obvious feminist counterpoint, that of the Jezebel variety, is however no less dangerous because it excludes persons of color from the critical dialogue. The solution to such a quandary is the awareness of the intersectional nature of identity politics, easily achieved by recognizing the agency of women and gender nonconforming persons of color. The popularity of the #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen hashtag on Twitter is evidence that not only are there vocal proponents of intersectional politics, but that academics of color and queerness have made many advanced strides in critical identity studies that the White Academy is now recognizing. It is the same white capitalist structures that uses the Tumblr generation to privilege Macklemore as a champion of gay rights while ignoring queer rappers of color such as Le1f and Mykki Blanco. A feminism that is intersectional would undermine the position of the patriarchal capitalist structures that limit the agency of all women, not just white ones, and allow for critical exploration of self. To borrow from Sontag: what we need is not a hermenutics of white feminism, but an ethics.

***

I like to imagine that wherever Miley is now, she is content. A friend of mine wonders if Miley Cyrus is the modern-day reincarnation of the greatest seductress of them all, the biblical Salomé. Maybe. I think she’s a bit sweeter and sadder, someone more like Coppola’s Kirsten Dunst-as Marie Antoinette, sitting before her gilded mirror, perfecting her nonchalant pout. Eyebrows tweezed and arched, newly cropped hair the ideal shade of platinum blonde. I don’t give a fuck she mouths, partly to convince everyone else, mostly to convince herself. She doesn’t give a fuck, simply because she’s trained herself not to – and that’s why we’re talking about her now.

[1] Siddiqui, Ayesha, “Can The White Girl Twerk?” The New Inquiry Vol. 20: Off-Brand. September 5, 2013. <http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/can-the-white-girl-twerk/>

[2] Siddiqui, Ayesha, “Can The White Girl Twerk?” The New Inquiry Vol. 20: Off-Brand. September 5, 2013. <http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/can-the-white-girl-twerk/>

[3] “Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl,” Tiqqun. Trans. Ariana Reines, Accessed on Triple Canopy September 2013; originally published May 22, 2012

<http://canopycanopycanopy.com/16/preliminary_materials_for_a_theory_of_the_young_girl>