You can count on Miley Cyrus to always be trendy. A year ago at MTV’s Video Music Awards, she was “twerking” while wearing a sequined teddy bear corset and sticking her tongue out. Thankfully, at this year’s VMAs, the trend she showcased was activism, indicating that this new generation of entertainers sees an advantage in becoming more politically conscious.
When “Wrecking Ball” won the VMA for best video Sunday night, Cyrus sent her date for the night onto the stage to accept the award on her behalf. The young man, Jesse, talked about his experience as one of the 1.6 million homeless young people living in America.
“I’ve cleaned your hotel rooms, I’ve been an extra in your movies. I’ve been an extra in your life,” Jesse said. “Though I may have been invisible to you on the streets, I have a lot of the same dreams that brought many of you here tonight.” Jesse directed viewers and fans to Cyrus’ website where, indeed, there’s a video of Cyrus talking about youth homelessness and telling fans how they can donate.
This is, without reservation or qualification, fantastic. I’ve always been irritated that supposedly liberal Hollywood and entertainment media types routinely fail to use their award ceremony pulpits for political activism. And more generally, the apparent political apathy of our cultural icons and role models permits, or perhaps even foments, political apathy in Americans everywhere.
But what’s even more encouraging about Cyrus’ step is that she’s no trendsetter. She’s a trend appropriator. After all, with twerking, Cyrus was appropriating the hip-hop dance moves of Southern black women in Bounce music and culture. And although sending a person on stage to receive her award is somewhat original, at least among this new crop of entertainers, the trend of celebrity activism is well-established. Cyrus enthusiastically embracing activism like a stripper pole is an encouraging sign of just how hip and trendy celebrity activism has become.
But what’s even more encouraging about Cyrus’ step is that she’s no trendsetter.She’s a trend appropriator.
Once upon a time, it was only “established” actors and musicians who took stances on social and political issues—the Brangelinas and Clooneys, and their Hollywood royalty forerunners and progeny. It was a bit like academia, where young scholars rarely stick their necks out until they have tenure. But as pop culture becomes simultaneously more ubiquitous and crowded, the blending-in bland pretty face or voice is no longer enough. Uniqueness is increasingly a part of celebrity branding, and that means finding largely unheralded causes—like homelessness—to champion. Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook and other social media encourage sharing one’s opinions as part of building that unique brand.
Consider Laverne Cox, the Emmy-nominated Orange Is the New Black actress. Perhaps because Cox is transgender, her identity and career were always going to be political. Still, Cox is perhaps the only emerging actor or actress I’ve ever seen who titles her professional website with the credentials “Actress” alongside “Activist.” While not yet a household name, she’s embracing activism as a core part of her identity and brand—and hopefully inspiring many other actors and artists, trans and non-trans, to do the same.
Or consider the actor Orlando Jones, who is not exactly known as a Hollywood A-lister (though he was great in Drumline). Recently, Jones created the somewhat spoofy but definitely serious “Bullet Bucket Challenge” to comment on the fact that while celebrities are dumping buckets of ice on their heads to raise awareness about ALS, black men keep being shot and killed all across America.
Either way, what Cyrus, Cox, Jones, and others are doing is using their voices—and the megaphones they are given—to talk about the plight of others or, in the case of Cyrus, giving someone the chance to speak. Similarly, Cox is producing a documentary about CeCe McDonald, a black trans woman who was violently assaulted, then blamed for the attack and sentenced to prison. Celebrity brings a spotlight, and many entertainers are now using that light to shine awareness on things that matter but which simply wouldn’t get the same attention otherwise.
Those of us devoted to issues of social and political injustice can bemoan Hollywood’s tendency to aim for the lowest common denominator all we want. But the fact is, entertainment is a profound force in America and, ahem, even the most self-righteous among us feel a bit better about life when Beyoncé comes on the stage as a proud feminist.
If I ever catch my daughter twerking, I may want to have a conversation with her. But if she someday takes a public stand for an important cause and lends her voice to the voiceless, I’ll be proud for her to follow Miley Cyrus’ example.