Can't Be Tamed

Miley Cyrus's VMA Performance Was Ridiculous, But It Wasn't Racist

Cyrus’s scandalous VMAs performance was many things. But racist, as some are arguing, is not one of them.

Kevin Mazur / Getty Images

Americans have abided by their hallowed annual tradition this Monday: being scandalized by a pop star’s antics at the previous night’s MTV Video Music Awards.

The recipient of this year’s Madonna in a wedding dress/Britney in a glittery thong/Kanye West “I’mma let you finish…” water-cooler buzz is Miley Cyrus, who personified the concept of “trying too hard” with her performance on Sunday night’s show. The whirling dervish of crass, empty-calorie provocation that was her performance of “We Can’t Stop” and "Blurred Lines" with Robin Thicke shocked people for a number of reasons, but one accusation as absurd as the dancing Furries Miley was twerking with is the idea that her performance was racist.

It is the year 2013, which means that she-who-played Hannah Montana feigning masturbation with a giant foam finger is the pitch for a flood of cultural think pieces, all of which hit the internet Monday morning. A lot of the reaction was pegged to the forced edginess Cyrus littered her performance with, from simulating analingus on a seven-foot-tall black woman to grinding her butt on Robin Thicke's crotch while licking the air—the alternately concerning and fascinating reality that this is what a 20-year-old girl thinks constitutes being sexual.

But Vulture’s Jody Rosen, along with a flurry of supporters tweeting their agreement, has a different read on the performance. “The shock that Cyrus was peddling wasn’t sex,” Rosen writes. “It was all about race.”

Here’s the argument:

"Cyrus has spent a lot of time recently toying with racial imagery. We’ve seen Cyrus twerking her way through the video for her big hit “We Can’t Stop,” professing her love for “hood music,” and claiming spiritual affinity with Lil’ Kim. Last night, as Cyrus stalked the stage, mugging and twerking, and paused to spank and simulate analingus upon the ass of a thickly set African-American backup dancer, her act tipped over into what we may as well just call racism: a minstrel show routine whose ghoulishness was heightened by Cyrus’s madcap charisma, and by the dark beauty of “We Can’t Stop” — by a good distance, the most powerful pop hit of 2013."

The idea that Cyrus staged what amounts to a minstrel show Sunday night is an interesting, though debatable, one. And the debate has begun. Already, Rosen’s colleagues are ripping apart the argument.

“By implying that Cyrus is somehow creating a minstrel act of sorts by including black dancers in her act, you are implying that there is something lesser than about such an act,” writes Clinton Yates at The Washington Post. As if it’s completely impossible that she simply enjoys and respects the talents of those she chooses to work with. In short, it is inherently racist to imply that there is anything wrong with anyone other than black women twerking.”

Noah Rothman at Mediaite calls Rosen’s column “embarrassing.” Saying that Rosen is grasping at non-existent straws with his arguments, Rothman writes, “Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar and twerk is just a twerk.”

And sometimes a VMA performance is just a VMA performance. We may be a nation clutching our pearls, collectively raising one eyebrow, and asking in hushed whispers over our cubicle walls, “Did you see Miley last night?” but all that means is that we got exactly what we wanted from the VMAs. We want unpredictability. We want provocation. We want Miley Cyrus to stick her face into a large woman’s butt crack because we want to be talking about it the next morning.

That’s why we engage in heated debates over whether Miley Cyrus is racist based purely on a overly busy, tacky VMA performance. We look forward to overthinking it. We look forward to feigning outrage. The Parents Television Council fired out their annual "We Are Aghast!" press release this morning in response to Cyrus’s antics, an opportunity they, as Deadline TV columnist Lisa De Moraes says, probably relish.

“Without Parents TV Council, the aged VMA trophy show might lose its status as The Go To Program for former Disney star kids looking for an image update,” she writes. “And, without the VMA’s, PTC would have one less occasion to promote its campaign to compel cable networks to offer programming a la carte. It’s a great working relationship.”

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All of which brings us to perhaps the most entertaining detail of the Miley Cyrus circus. Cyrus's father, singer Billy Ray Cyrus, is on the PTC advisory board. "The Miley Cyrus/Robin Thicke performance simply substituted talent with sex," reads the PTC release. Talk about your achy breaky hearts.