Or, Why The Whole VMA Incident Is a Really Teachable Anthropological Moment
My older daughter (and probably my students) will confirm I’m too old for this stuff … The MTV VMA show isn’t on my entertainment radar screen. Certainly not before it happens. So this year, all I kept hearing after the VMAs aired was how Miley Cyrus’s performance was way way too ___________. (Fill in your choice of extreme negative description. In general, the focus was on tasteless, but that was by far the mildest characterization.)
From the breathless-sounding media tags and omnipresent OMG vibes, I felt compelled to check it out.
Now, I’ll admit up front that I can’t add too much clever insight to what’s already been written about this pop-culture moment. Responses both wittily commenting on Cyrus’s successful image transformation and seriously explaining why White privilege allowed Cyrus to pave an easy path to that naughty party-girl transformation are very worth checking out.
OK. Especially since this VMA incident seems to have striking staying power, there’s something about what she did–and what we’ve seen–that’s compelling and compounding the ubiquitious media discourse about it. Some serious symbolically structured cultural production going on. A bit of agency, some hegemonic structures, domination, resistance, all in ritualized and ritualizing context, nonetheless somehow reproducing dominant structures and leaving us grasping for sensible glosses about why it gets to us and why it turned out the way it did.
So there’s definitely something anthropological to consider. And perhaps against my better judgment, I’d suggest that it’s actually worth the consideration, if only because the Miley Cyrus/VMA incident has really taken us ritually to some kind of disturbing threshold, creating awareness of something–or several somethings–that we now need to talk through.
More specifically, there’s at least one really important, very introductory anthropological lesson here. I can safely say that, now that I’ve done my hour or so of internet research. (This largely consisted of checking out MTV’s website to see the original performance, and being almost completely clueless about contemporary pop music, checking out the relevant Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke videos and lyrics. And the extraordinary, almost immediate online blog responses that tend to disconcert and truly impress my slow and methodical scholarly mind, which has been cogitating for days on why the Miley/VMA incident seems to be such a big cultural deal.) The general lesson:
This incident and its effect on us–to judge by mainstream, major online, and social media coverage, chatter, and the propagation of GIF-constituted memes–shows why taking a step back and critically, thoroughly trying to understand the broader sociocultural context of ritual (and let’s admit it, the VMA show may not take anyone to the threshold of the Sacred, but it does constitute a ritualized and ritualizing setting) is really important. This is because analyzing sociocultural context can help you understand and act with a bit more clarity of thought … so that you weigh, say, treating people up front with respect against shocking them with vulgar, sexist, and racist symbols.
Now, in staging a ritual–that is, if you’re powerful enough in a social context to influence the staging and choreography (like Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, or apparently now-ubiquitous video and stage director Diane Martel) this decision is not necessarily a no-brainer. There’s a communication value in touching taboos, allowing you to create for the participants and spectators an encompassing, moving ritual excursion from the everyday. But analyzing context in the planning stage would have brought out before-hand the most massive, galling problems with what went down at the VMAs. A little prior anthropological critical thinking seems to have been missing–and would have been salutary–during the planning stages of the VMA production.
First problem. Miley Cyrus’s grotesquely sexualized ritual clown character did a lot to reproduce White privilege broadly at the expense of Black women. This is because director Diane Martel choreographed the medley of “We Can’t Stop” followed by Robin Thicke’s current hits (“Blurred Lines” and “Give It 2U,” the latter featuring Lamar Kendrick and 2Chainz in both the studio and VMA live medley versions), so that we first see Cyrus clowning against the contrasting backdrop–or even at the expense–of much curvier, full-figured Black female dancers and (it’s hard to describe this any other way) human stage props … and then we see her trying to clown at the expense of Thicke, who largely ignores her.
One of my main anthropological conclusions here is that Diane Martel directed Cyrus so that she really behaved like a ritual clown (to see what I mean from a cross-cultural ethnographic perspective, check out Handelman , Hereniko , and Howard & Rensel ), but because this staged broadcast ritual aimed to use Cyrus-as-clown to provoke and upset us, the audience, it had to achieve this effect by having her start out clowning with the Black women on stage, degrading them even as she degraded herself, and then failing to grab the attention of the man she focused on (Thicke), despite pulling out all the stops (that is, the twerking and using the now-infamous foam hand as phallus to prod both Thicke and herself). Meanwhile, the men involved–entirely irrespective of their racial identity–got clean away with reinforcing a definition of masculinity as being about having celebrity and money so that you can get a lot of attention from women and, in doing so, tell the woman you happen to be focusing on at that party that you just have to have sex with her, and she knows deep down she really wants it.
This brings us straight to the second problem. Sexism. This isn’t so much an issue with the song Cyrus performed to begin the medley at the VMAs. Miley’s current hit “We Can’t Stop”–and its accompanying video–is mainly about partying, with all of the drug-taking, drinking, sex, dancing, and various bodily boundary-breaking combinations of those four activities, at least sometimes to dangerous (to one’s life and safety) degrees, like doing all these activities in the swimming pool. The somewhat melancholic, slow-medium tempo, and melodious pop-tune clearly tugs at the listener/viewer reflect a bit (perhaps just only just enough), ideally as you’re coming down after the party, exhausted or hung-over, that we may need a nap now, but they can’t stop us … we’re gonna get back up and continue the real, extreme partying. ‘Cause that’s who we are.
(In fact, in the process of following links about the VMA/Cyrus incident, I read a story on Vibe.com about how pop songwriting (biological) brothers Timothy and Theron Thomas sold Miley on recording their “We Can’t Stop,” after Rihanna passed on it. The story seems to confirm my impression of the lyrics, melody, and video imagery. From the story:
“They played it for Miley and she had just come from partying. She was like, ‘I was just partying with my friends and everything you just said in this song I seen,'” Theron said about Miley’s reaction. “‘I was looking at it from standing on a couch with my friends, just chilling in the cut and looking around the club like whoa…I’m hearing the song like that was my weekend. I have to do this song,’ [she said] and then we just got connected from there.”
Notably, it is this story that most directly began to raise some real concerns about Miley Cyrus strategically appropriating Black cultural symbols–especially those more broadly marked as associated with social danger–in order to reinvent herself as an edgy and dangerous-seeming White pop star.)
Now, let’s compare “We Can’t Stop” with Robin Thicke’s more up-tempo dance songs “Give It 2U” (with Lamar Kendrick and 2Chainz) and “Blurred Lines” were also performed during the intensely Tweeted MTV VMA show performance. These numbers are straight-up vulgar songs about a guy trying to convince the girl in the club to get together with him and get a room together ASAP. Pop music has continued its inevitable transformation from slyly but always indirectly evoking sexual intimacy and desire (even “Makin’ Whoopee” was a smidgin more euphemistic when it originally came out during the Roaring 20’s) to blatantly talking about, begging, or demanding sexual satistfaction and other experiences of excess (drugs, controlling or hurting your sexual partner, or being hurt by them). This might not work for all or even many of us, but it is an undoubtedly popular theme that has global resonance in youth and party cultures … and beyond. In fact, this theme makes sense in contemporary club contexts, with the shift from indirectly referring to sex in the context of highly structured pair-dancing styles (including styles as historically recent as disco) to focusing more directly–especially from the male perspective–on hooking up.
This gendered distinction about breaking mundane boundaries when partying is certainly reflected, among the three songs featured in the virally-spread VMA medley performance, in the contrast that Cyrus’s and Thicke’s lyrics pose. Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” uses the first-person plural to say that it’s all ok with crossing–no, going pretty far beyond–everyday boundaries of personal control and intimacy. That is, in the typical dimensions of drugs, alcohol, dancing, partying in the pool. And in making her now iconic weird tongue gesture. (The brief verse/video scene involving her Black “home girls with the big butts” is the exception, which I address below. The larger symbolic message that gets repeated most often in “We Can’t Stop,” both textually and visually, is the one about partying as breaking boundaries in general.) Violence, including sexual violence, is only evoked in passing in Cyrus’s video. Violence is not mentioned in the “We Can’t Stop” lyrics. In contrast, Thicke sings in first person singular directly to the girl in the club (or the nearly completely naked models in the “R-rated” version of the video). This is the case in both “Give It 2U” and “Blurred Lines.” This is where the criticism of Thicke’s lyrics as disturbingly “rapey” come from. It is not just that Thicke–along with the featured rappers in the original songs, including TI on “Blurred Lines”–boasts about how well endowed he is and tries to convince the girl that they’ll have fun, that he’ll really satisfy her. The lyrics are also about going further, about hard sex. This metonymically evokes a non-consensual situation. It evokes sexual assault and rape. It’s not explicit, but it’s close enough. It is worth noting, though, that the phrase “blurred lines” does not seem intended to assert that there really is a grey area concerning consent in sexual–including violent sexual–intimacy. In the context of the rest of the lyrics, “blurred lines” asserts that there’s a grey area, when you’re out partying and dancing, about being faithful to your absent partner. The important thing that comes into focus when we contrast Cyrus and Thicke’s respective lyrics is just how sexualized and gendered Thicke’s songs are. Thicke’s lyrics are clearly marked as male, in this context bringing out the relationship to the unmarked female party song. One can start to see what the VMA medley director, Diane Martel, was going for. And it’s not pretty. Miley comes out ready to party, with fairly revealing but silly, sort of pop/street art clothes (read more about the clothing and set design from the artist himself here); the slick, cheesy, popular guy (the younger Thicke) arrives, and Miley takes more of her clothes off and starts shamelessly–and to be fair, pretty provocatively–goading the guy, daring him with the obscene foam hand and her close-up booty-shaking; yet, he largely ignores her. Basically, Cyrus’s failed ritual clown character is simultaneously cast as a girl who showed up just to party, but she ended up embarrassing everyone by taking her clothes off and trying to grind on the most popular guy there, even though he really didn’t want her.
And so, the third problem. We are left to make sense of an extraordinarily ambiguously effective ritual clown show (diverting our attention entirely from the deeply problematic, shamelessly expressed attitude about male heterosexual identity, sexuality, desire, and control). Cyrus behaved like a real ritual clown toward the others on stage, but she failed at achieving the kind of social leveling that sacred clowns produce during ritual journeys to the sacred in traditional communities around the world. What would her role and its effects have been like if she were a successful sacred clown? Hereniki (1995) provides a description of the sacred clown’s role in wedding feasts on the Polynesian island of Rotuma:
As the ritual clown, the han mane’ak su is usually asked to perform on the day before the wedding proper when food for the wedding feast is being prepared, on the wedding day itself, and on a designated day after the wedding when the couple are taken to the groom’s home. But the chosen clown is not just a performer; she is also the supreme ruler of the wedding’s activities. As such, the chiefs and other men become the target of her antics, and are ordered about like little children. This inversion of the social order causes much laughter among the wedding guests.
A wedding context provides the Rotuman clown with considerable licence to do as she wishes. Implicit in this frame are boundaries that are flexible, and amenable to being stretched or tested for their resilience. A skilful clown who has acquired a certain amount of confidence and reputation can be very daring in her technique or interaction with the chiefs and other men; a less confident clown tends to avoid the risk of offending the chiefs.
The Rotuma traditional clown–the han mane’ak su–dramatically contributes to the staged, ritualized and ritualizing departure from the mundane, in which the entire community–from commoners to chiefs–participates. With a clown in control, the community is transported to a threshold zone beyond the normal social order, where things are chaotic or turned upside-down. Antistructural liminality, as Victor Turner (1969) would describe it.Why was Miley unsuccessful in the ritual clown role? She seemed to create her clown character for the TV/online audience by symbolically (more specifically, metonymically) associating herself with the black women surrounding her, backing her up on stage, or allowing her to simulate licking their behinds. I think that we can reasonably suspect that director Martel and others involved in the production, including Cyrus, expected that a large proportion of the non-Black audience would rather easily substitute in their imaginations the Black women on stage with the “big-butt Black girls” we see in the “We Can’t Stop” video (again, directed by Martel). Here, Cyrus is doing her twerk thing with three Black women in a gym, as she sings:
To my home girls here with the big butt
Shaking it like we at a strip club
Remember only God can judge ya
Forget the haters cause somebody loves ya
In other words, in the video Cyrus is not the clown. Instead, she’s the edgy, ambiguously angelic White, skinny, young party girl–a kind of sexualized fairy (certainly not yet a fairy godmother) who’s establishing that it’s o.k. for her Black “home girls” not only to flaunt their bodies as sexualized bodies so they can also have fun, but more simply to have the bodies (read big butts and not skinny fashion-model physiques) they have. It’s worth noting that the verse I quote here is the only one in the song that refers directly to gender and racialized cultural identity. Cyrus’s own White female appearance forms much more of a cultural symbolic contrast with the above-mentioned home girls. The meaning that the audience receives is quite different than if the context had involved Rihanna singing those same words. In any case, this scene in the video sets up the big ritual fail in the VMA performance. As condescending and unecessarily dependent on gendered racial stereotypes as the video scene seems (why does anyone need Miley Cyrus to confirm for them that it’s ok to flaunt not looking like a fashion model?), it turns into a bad racist joke at the VMAs, because Miley Cyrus is no longer the benevolent magical fairy character with an uplifting message. She’s now the ritual clown. Again, this clown character is established at the beginning of the medley through the contrast or inappropriately intimate interaction with the Black women on stage. Basically, we see Cyrus as a clown in large part through metonymic connection to Black women, with the implicit message that in general, Black women are either background scenery or hypersexualized strippers, or perhaps both. And then Cyrus the ritual clown just freaks us out. An old standard approach of the ritual clown–provocatively, inappropriately, indiscriminately simulating sex, and thereby taking us on a journey from the humdrum everyday–fails to get the attention of the rest of the characters on stage.
We’re left with the unusual situation of the ritual clown stuck in the threshold outside the everyday, even after everyone else has left the stage. We can still see her. Cyrus is thus continuing to draw our attention away from our everyday concerns. The ritual has confused and disturbed us, in no small part because it offered no clear return to the everyday. Meanwhile, the men involved (mainly Thicke) have had earlier criticism about excessive sexism largely swamped by all the attention on Cyrus as liminally-stuck ritual clown.
And so, the ritual itself didn’t directly reinforce an articulated cultural belief in highly sexualized male domination. Fortunately. Still, it passively left male-celebrity or wealth-focused sexism as the default pop music entertainment image of maleness. And by successfully drawing our attention to her liminal, ambiguous, still-ritualized status, Cyrus also got a lot of us to consume her music and videos, generating direct download sales and a lot of advertising revenue.
This is certainly one of the most important insights of cultural criticism over the past 50 years or so: broadcast, cable, online, and wireless media provide ubiquitous, easily accessed, clear information channels that divert our attention from everyday routines, concerns, and obligations. I would emphasize here that these symbolically structured, ever-present diversions exhibit a particularly anthropological dimension. They keep us in rather chaotic, unbalanced, unfocused, ambiguously ritual states, all too often leaving us uncertain how to belong, act, believe, or engage in the world.
Focusing on analyzing context, though, helps us to avoid such confusing media consumption, so that we can better understand how entertainment as ritual affects us. At their best, rituals can make us aware of problems or contradictions that we successful ignore in everyday settings. Thus, ritual can help communities focus on and work toward achieving constructive changes: challenging racism, sexism, and practices of sexual violence; improving living standards; reducing poverty or structural inequality. But to do this properly requires some critical thinking before and after the ritual.
Handelman, D. (1981). The Ritual-Clown: Attributes and Affinities. Anthropos, 76(3/4), 321–370. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/40460961
Hereniko, V. (1995). Woven gods: female clowns and power in Rotuma. Center for Pacific Islands Studies, School of Hawaiian, Asian, and Pacific Studies, University of Hawaii.
Howard, A., & Rensel, J. (1994). Rotuma: Interpreting a Wedding. In M. Ember, C. Ember, & D. Levinson (Eds.), Portraits of Culture: Ethnographic Originals. Prentice Hall.
Turner, V. (1969). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Rutgers, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.