Earlier this year Miley Cyrus came out as bisexual and possibly genderqueer (that is, she does not identify as either gender.) It wasn’t that big a story, in part because a celebrity coming out as LGBT isn’t the scandal it once was. But it’s also probably been downplayed because Miley had put the world on notice about her sexuality at her very scandalous, much-covered 2013 VMA performance.
In retrospect, and really even at the time, Miley’s VMA routine was shocking not just because a pure teen idol was dressed in next to nothing while miming sex. It was shocking because a pure teen idol was playing with tropes around lesbianism, bisexuality and queerness.
Miley didn’t just rub up against Robin Thicke; she also grabbed the rear-end of one of her dancers and pretended to bite. She made her tongue a sexual focus of the performance and stuck a giant foam finger between her legs as a kind of improvisational dildo. Many writers praised Miley for embracing empowered female desire. But her performance can also be seen as an embrace of an empowered queer identity.
That empowerment came in no small part through using markers of masculinity. Miley demonstrates she’s empowered by campily insisting that she has the biggest dick around, and by grabbing her black background dancer in a way that deliberately denigrates that dancer’s agency. Whether or not the dancer signed on for ass-grabbing, in the context of the performance, the message is that Miley, sexually, can take whatever she wants from the black women dancing around her.
Christopher Reed, in his book Art and Homosexuality suggests that Miley’s path to empowerment is common among some high-art lesbian artists. He points to photographer Catherin Opie, who gets avant-garde accolades in part, he says, because of the way her images of drag kings reinforce default high art “associations of masculinity and power.
Reed also reproduces Nicole Eisenmann’s Wonder Woman, an image that shows Lewis Carroll’s Alice giving oral sex to the Amazonian superhero. Wonder Woman’s expression, arms thrown ecstatically in the air, oddly recalls Miley’s VMA look. And her freedom and ecstasy come (again much like Miley’s) through winking references to pedophilia.
Wonder Woman is liberated in the image by taking pleasure from someone who, by rights, is below the age of consent. Headless, Alice becomes a prop for Wonder Woman’s self-actualization. Or as Hollis Jane, one of the little people who performed at Miley’s VMA performance, said about dressing up in a teddy bear suit, “I was being stared and laughed at for all of the wrong reasons. I was being looked at as a prop…as something less than human.”
Empowerment for Miley and Eisenmann seems to involve using other people—less empowered people—as instruments. And this is almost always how empowerment seems to work throughout pop culture. In her video “Only,” Nicki Minaj (or Nicki Minaj’s director) presents Minaj as cool and dangerous by linking her to Nazi imagery; empowerment here is built on the imagery of white supremacy.
In her self-directed video “BBHMM,” Rihanna imagines murdering an accountant who ripped her off—but most of the screen time is devoted to torture of the accountant’s more or less nude and sexualized wife.
VIDEO IS NSFW
Many people have argued that the video is empowering, as many argued that Miley’s video was empowering — and I don’t dispute that. But empowerment, in both cases, is something that you get from using the bodies of other people (especially other women) as props. Rihanna and her friends literally bat their victim’s body around like a piñata.
All of these examples are of marginalized women treating others as objects to empower themselves. But of course not only marginalized women do that. Straight male empowerment works the same way, and it works that way so often, and so ubiquitously, it’s not even noticed.
Country murder ballads, from Johnny Cash on down, involve some stone cold deadly country dude proving he’s stone cold and edgy and dangerous by murdering a woman. Gangsta rap uses violence against women to create a persona of hyper-masculine badassery.
The Pixies’ “Bagboy” video from a bit back presents a nerdy kid destroying a house. His edgy violent cool is confirmed at the end when we see he’s tied up and kidnapped the home’s black female owner. You could go on and on and on with other examples.
In Captain America: Winter Soldier, Captain America’s superness is established early on when he literally runs rings around a black jogger on the National Mall. “[V]iewers experience the White protagonist’s superior physicality in contrast to a Black inferior,” critic James Lamb wrote on my website, the Hooded Utilitarian. To be empowered means to be empowered in relation to somebody. As a white guy, you get your superness by vampirically sucking out someone else’s dignity and autonomy.
Miley or Rihanna shake up the idea of empowerment by insisting that it’s not just for white guys. But the path to empowerment doesn’t change that much. Being strong, being autonomous, seems to be inextricably linked to taking strength and autonomy from someone else. Whether you’re Miley Cyrus or Captain America, our culture has trouble imagining power without treating other people as props.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.
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