The MTV VMAs are tonight. (Actually, for all I know, the online streaming red carpet/pre-show thing is probably happening even as I type.)
I won’t be watching them live (True Blood finale!), but in some perverse attempt to pretend I’m still in touch with current entertainment trends, I will be DVRing it to watch in bits and pieces over the next few nights.
From one perspective, I’m not quite sure why I even continue this yearly VMA ritual. As I age further and further out of the MTV/culturally relevant demographic, there’s more people I don’t recognize at all, more songs and bits I fast forward through, and more jokes and references that I just don’t get (and some, as I sometimes say, that I may get, but I don’t want — if you catch my drift).
But I keep watching, I guess for those moments when I do find a new artist or song to appreciate, and also because I’m naturally interested in seeing cultural trends unfold “live” before me on the TV screen. Assuming a high likelihood of at least one water cooler moment emerging from the brouhaha, I like being able to form my own opinion of that moment from having seen it and reflected upon it — rather than just basing my opinion on someone else’s condemnation.
Though it’s worth admitting that sometimes my view of that “water cooler” moment is based both on my own personal viewing and also on input from other cultural commentary. For example, during last year’s Mileygate, I was able to come up with plenty of opinions about the sexual politics of the performance, but it took a lunchtime conversation with some fresh-out-of-college co-workers to raise my awareness about the troubling elements of cultural appropriation that were embedded in the performance.
I’d never heard of twerking before, you see. And after that conversation, I did some research. Hadley Freeman in The Guardian helped me more clearly see the minstrel show undertone of the production:
a young wealthy woman from the south doing a garish imitation of black music and reducing black dancers to background fodder and black women to exaggerated sex objects.
Meanwhile, Anne Theriault (writing in HuffPo Canada, but who I also follow avidly on her own blog, The Belle Jar) expressed her outrage at white feminists silence over things I should have seen when watching the performance — the crass objectification of women of color in the stage show’s choreography and in Cyrus’ performance.
Even worse, in her performance last night Miley used black women as props — like,literal props — and barely anyone said anything. I saw very few people displaying any outrage over the fact that Miley was, at one point, slapping a faceless black woman on the ass as if she was nothing more than a thing for Miley to dominate and humiliate. I saw barely anyone discussing the fact that Miley’s sexual empowerment, or whatever you want to call it, should not come at the cost of degrading black women.
All in all, it’s a small object lesson in the value I hold in seeing something with my own eyes before condemning or opining upon it, but also in the ways I need to keep listening and learning. I mean, seriously, looking back one year later at my level of blindness around the racist undertones (overtones, through-tones) there… I mean, it’s like, Hello, white privilege! There you are again!
And why am I rehashing all this one year later? Because we now have two twerking videos freshly released, sitting at the flashpoint of controversy, and with both performers scheduled to sing at tonight’s awards show.
In one corner, Taylor Swift, whose new video Shake It Off is earning critique for its own cultural appropriation of hip-hop culture and the sexualization/objectification of twerking and women of color — most especially the moment where, to quote Hillary Crosley in Jezebel, “she celebrates her true self by crawling through a bridge of brown and black women’s butts.”
In the other, there’s Nicki Minaj, whose Anaconda video is a hyper-sexualized invocation (celebration?) of tweaking and black women’s booties.
So how does one rate which is most troubling? Does Swift get a pass because her video is tamer in its sexual content, or because she now asserts that she’s coming at her work and life from a feminist perspective? Or is Minaj’s video the less offensive one because Minaj is speaking from within her own culture and cultural experience, and because the video, as Lindsay Zoladz suggests in Vulture, is not about pandering to the male gaze:
One thing I find striking about the video is the complete lack of men in its surreal, bubblegum-Amazon world (except, of course, for Drake, who I’ll get to in a minute). The song itself describes — and, arguably, objectifies — a series of male characters, but we don’t see them in the video. Instead, it’s just Nicki and her dancers, going about their day — you know, just making some fruit salad, doing some cardio — in this hallucinatory all-female universe. At one point she eyes the camera seductively like she’s about to eat a banana, but instead chops it in half and chucks the peel away away with a diabolical smirk. . . . The staying power of “Anaconda” might not outlast its viral moment, but while it’s trending let’s at least acknowledge its slyly confrontational power.
I’m far from the only one making this triangle of comparison between Cyrus, Swift and Minaj. It all comes up in this Washington Post point-counterpoint that’s ostensibly focused just on the Taylor Swift single/video.Instead, the conversation weaves among all three singers and their twerking, as well as name-checking a bunch of other current artists whose cultural appropriation is, shall we say, a bit suspect.
But rather than playing the competition game — choosing to raise one singer in my estimation at the cost of the other — and rather than giving either woman a pass for the troubling elements of their discourse, I’m instead going to use this moment to bring in something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: how to both enjoy and critique artistic and cultural expression.
Liking problematic things doesn’t make you an asshole. In fact, you can like really problematic things and still be not only a good person, but a good social justice activist (TM)! After all, most texts have some problematic elements in them, because they’re produced by humans, who are well-known to be imperfect. But it can be surprisingly difficult to own up to the problematic things in the media you like, particularly when you feel strongly about it, as many fans do. We need to find a way to enjoy the media we like without hurting other people and marginalised groups. (Social Justice League)
And then, on the flip side of my own flip side is my desire not to blame either woman too harshly for the problematic pieces of their discourse. Because we all live in this kyriarchic, misogynist miasma. It infects our lives, our thought patterns — how could it not infect our artistic and creative expressions, too?
So ultimately — at least in these last pre-show minutes — I’m with Michelle Lhooq in The Guardian, seeing these various performances as more a symptom of our diseased culture than a root cause:
Slapping a parental advisory warning on Nicki Minaj’s bum will not change the way black women are exoticised. Banning videos by Robin Thicke, DJ Snake, and Calvin Harris, who use female bodies as trophies hard won of their overpowering masculinity, will not deflect the male gaze. Calling out Miley Cyrus’ career-advancing performance of racial drag, or Lily Allen’s casual racism is important, but what we really need is a broader spectrum of depictions of female sexuality – especially when it comes to women of colour – in mainstream culture. . . . Because the real problem is not that women of colour are over-sexualised in music videos, but rather how absent they usually are in the dominant culture as well as in discussions of cultural issues. Music videos shouldn’t be the only ways that mainstream society gets a glimpse of “otherness” but all too often, they are.
We’ll see if I’ve changed my mind after watching the DVR recording from tonight. Because if one or the other performance turns out to spectacularly offensive, culturally tone-deaf, or otherwise problematic, well then that’s new data. And new data sometimes changes the equation.
Image credit: “Gotham Twerk” by Arzeno, shareable via a Creative Commons License (retrieved from http://arzeno.deviantart.com/art/Gotham-Twerk-398203237 )