Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Of Cultural Appropriation, Sincerity, and Parody (Or Miley Cyrus v. Weird Al)

If you've been disconnected for a few days, you might not have heard about the VMAs. Let me catch you up.

Miley Cyrus "performed," and the internet let out a collective groan. Drake's response pretty much sums it up:

If you were (lucky? smart? drunk? oblivious?) enough to have missed out on this superb display of pop culture absurdity, you can either watch the whole performance, or simply see it summarized through GIFs

There was a lot of collective hand-wringing about how "slutty" Miley Cyrus was being, seeing as how she was grinding on Robin Thicke (who has his own feminist transgressions to answer to right now) in a bikini designed to make her look nude [Edit: It isn't "flesh colored" as I had previously said since flesh comes in many colors]. 

Appropriately, many feminists took issue with this mainstream display of slut-shaming, arguing that Miley has the right to own her own sexuality and use it as she sees fit. It never does any woman any good to tear someone down for being a "slut," especially since Miley's performance (much like Beyonce's halftime show) wasn't really that different from those typical in mainstream media. It's just that when women seem in control of that display, it's read as "slutty" rather than "sexy." 

That's not to say that there aren't problems with Miley Cyrus' performance. In fact, there are plenty of problems, and most of them have to do with cultural appropriation and racism. 

Cultural Appropriation and Ignoring Privilege

Cultural appropriation occurs when someone of an empowered group "borrows" elements of a culture from an oppressed group and uses them for their own ends.

Most notably, cultural appropriation becomes a problem when the "borrowers" don't seem to make any effort to understand or appreciate the culture from which they are borrowing and therefore (wittingly or not) end up perpetuating stereotype through their performance. 

Several smart people have already written about how Cyrus' performance crosses over any "blurred lines" (sorry, couldn't resist) and into appropriative territory. 
  • Nico Lang at Thought Catalog: "She doesn’t even know that life. Cyrus’s new image is a cheap costume to sell records, as authentic as dressing up as Pocahontas for Halloween. It’s the musical equivalent of a Che Guevara t-shirt."
  • Dodai Stewart at Jezebel: "In a white-centric world, putting white women quite literally in the center of the frame while women of color are off to the side is a powerful, disrespectful visual message, and it really must be said: Human beings are not accessories. These women might be her friends, but the general dynamic created is that she is in charge and they are in service to her."
  • LaChrista Greco at Ms. Magazine"At one point, Cyrus motorboats one woman’s ass, which adds to the weird, circus-y feel of it all. Cyrus is the “ring leader,” and women of color are hers to play with however she likes."
  • Ninjacate in Groupthink responding to Jezebel's original article: "Essentially, what Miley has done here is indicate that 1. She wants to be sexual and 2. She needs to associate herself with black bodies to do it. By doing this, she in inexplicably intertwining the idea of sexuality as part and parcel of black womanhood; that is, that black women cannot exist without sexuality and vice versa, and that the only acceptable way to be sexual, is to "be black". That idea plays into deeply racist ideas about black womanhood, the idea being that black women are wanton and lascivious, and cannot control their expressions of sexuality."
These writers (and others) are doing an excellent job of explaining the racial tensions and cultural appropriation present in Cyrus' performance and her new image at large. Instead of rehashing the ground they've already covered well, I want to look more closely at cultural appropriation and when borrowing crosses the line. 

The thing that struck me is that all of these authors were careful to point out that not all borrowing of cultural elements is appropriation. Nico Lang notes that Macklemore is "an artist who at least has been reflective about his own place as a white artist in a historically black genre." (See some of that reflection here.)

Stewart wrote:
 "The exchange and flow of ideas between cultures can be a beautiful thing. I believe in cross-pollination and being inspired by those whose experience is not like your own. If Miley is inspired by gold teeth and bounce music and has friends who are rappers, that's not a problem. But when she uses these things to re-style her own image, she veers into dangerous territory. If she didn't have the grill, if the black women were integrated throughout the video instead of being segregated to one weird scene, if she hadn't worn that headband… This clip might not have been so problematic."

It seems the most common way to appropriate is to avoid a sincere appreciation for the culture from which you are borrowing and to be blind to your own privilege while doing so. 

Artists like Eminem and Elvis Presley have long faced calls of appropriation, and they (and their defenders) shot back that they had grown up within these cultures. Miley Cyrus has no such claim. Her own father's fame has ensured that she has always been rich and on the right side of cultural privilege. 

A sincere appreciation for and experience within the borrowed-from culture coupled with a reflective look at one's own privilege in spite of those experiences is one way to borrow from a culture without appropriating it. 

But What of Parody

But it's not the only way. 

I say this fully aware that some people are going to disagree with me. I'm sure there are people who find the following examples appropriative, but I want to make an argument for a type of cultural borrowing that works without sincerity: parody. 

Let's take some examples. 

1) "B*tches in Bookshops" (Parody of Kanye West's and Jay-Z's "N*ggas in Paris")

2) "Orange and Camo" (Parody of Wiz Khalifa's "Black and Yellow")

3) "White and Nerdy" (Parody of Chamillionaire's "Ridin' Dirty")

4) "Whole Foods Parking Lot" (general hip hop parody)

In all of these examples, there is someone white borrowing elements of a traditionally black cultural expression (though "B*tches in Bookshops" does have the sole privilege of boasting a multiracial singing cast). 

It could be argued that these performers are being irreverent to a mode of expression that has functioned as political speech and power for underrepresented and oppressed people. 

However, there are key differences between the type of appropriation Miley Cyrus is doing in her video/VMA performance and the cultural borrowing taking place here. For one, all of the artists in these parodies seem to recognize their privileges (racial or class). 

The humor of the "Whole Foods Parking Lot" parody is that it is not "street" in the way the cultural elements the performer is borrowing have presented themselves. "Getting real" in the Whole Foods parking lot is not the same as "getting real" in the way that hip hop music has traditionally meant. This man in his Prius is drawing upon the incongruity in order to make a point. And yes, his point is meant to be funny, but it can only be funny if we recognize the decidedly unfunny incongruity. He doesn't have to live in a world where a problem is likely to be solved with gun fire. That's a privilege of his race and class. 

In all of these examples, the performers are attempting to draw attention to their own minority status within a larger majority. Both the "Bookstores" women and Weird Al are pointing to nerd culture, a segment of the population sometimes ostracized. (Though nerd culture does seem to be enjoying its own cultural appropriation turned pop culture phenomenon these days). 

The Whole Foods clientele has long been a source of ridicule for their seeming snobbishness and sometimes-borderline-unhinged obsession with "good" food (no matter the cost; I've often heard the store called "Whole Paycheck"). This video attempts to take that stereotype and play on it. 

The kids who made the "Orange and Camo" video are pointing out another pocket of hierarchical privileging within white culture. Their rural lifestyle is a far cry from the suburban dream that most often gets displayed as the cultural norm, and they're using the hip hop trope to draw attention to it. 

For all of these parodies, then, hip hop's ability to let pride and cultural expression shine through oppression is showcased. What hip hop does so well, these artists see and want to use. 

The problem is, hip hop does that so well because it grew out of actual oppression. Nerds getting picked on for speaking Klingon and reading books and kids being teased for their camo have little in common with people using musical expression to try to counter centuries of institutional racism. 

That's why the incongruity must exist. That's why none of these songs could be created "straight," without the element of humor. They have to be parodies because their creators know that the oppressions are not even comparable. They're borrowing a cultural element without trying to actually infringe on its space. 

(W)rapping Up

Cultural borrowing is an inevitability. It is often, in fact, a positive thing. Whether you ascribe to the melting pot theory of American identity or are more of a patchwork quilt visionary, America is largely founded on the idea of multiculturalism and the merging of different paths. 

There are multiple ways to merge the paths of different experiences without stepping into the negative land of appropriation.

Many people say that Miley Cyrus could have avoided her current fiasco by being more reflective of her own privilege and ensuring that her foray into black culture was more than a convenient tour, stopping to pick up trinkets she liked as she went.

I argue that the other way to avoid this kind of appropriation is to recognize that privilege up front and use it as the catalyst for parody, thus drawing attention to the disparities that make cultural appropriation such a problem.

I say this as someone who identifies with all of the groups using hip hop in the songs above to draw attention to a minority (and privileged) position. I grew up in a very rural part of the Midwest and often found little in common with the portrayal of suburban families in media representations. I shop at Whole Foods, read a lot of books, and have been called nerdy (both lovingly and cruelly) more than once. These songs work for me partially because they resonate some truth that I feel.

But they also work for me because, as someone who listens to hip hop music, I recognize their predecessors and see the incongruity. I recognize that the "problem" of someone lingering in front of the quinoa on his iPhone is not the same as the problem of racial oppression. These songs force my own privilege back on me. In order for the humor to work, I have to recognize that.

By pointing out (however subtly) the power structures at play, parodic artists are able to use the most effective parts of another culture's expression without trying to make them their own.

A Note on Monoliths

One thing that frustrates me about the use of parody in this way is that it seems pretty racially reductive. Although there is a woman of color performing "B*itches in Bookshops," I haven't seen many (any?) parodies of this kind with all racial minority performers. 

Perhaps it's because the stereotypes about black culture tend to paint all black people as a monolithic group. Ninjacate addresses this poignantly in her piece:
"Yet another issue with Miley's portrayal is that it presents "ratchet culture" as synonymous for "black". As Phylecia2 pointed out, black people are not a monolith, and neither is black culture.While ratchet culture is a valid expression of black culture, it is not the expression of black culture, and there are millions of black people for whom this particular expression of culture does not resonate. However, due the racial realities of the world we live in, Oprah will be expected to know about twerking because black = twerking." 
If we see every black person as having the same experiences and personal ties to pop culture representations of black identity (a reductive, stereotypical view), then we're less likely to accept a parody from these performers as parody. It reminds me of this post over at What Tami Said about how rainbow-colored hair on a white girl/woman is considered "cute," but rainbow-colored hair on a black girl/woman is read as "ghetto." When our socially-approved range of acceptable performances is so narrow, there are very few opportunities to explore identity.

But perhaps my inability to think of an example of parody like this done by people of color is just a limit of my own exposure. Can anyone think of any? I'd love some links!


  1. I really like your take on this. :)

  2. I think there's also a lot to be said about the amount of harm the satire is able to do. Parody about people who shop at whole foods will not likely take the amount of money they have-enough to shop at whole foods-away from them. They've still got cultural resources to work with. This is less true when someone from a privileged background parodies or appropriates those with less privilege.