Appropriation, or Why Miley Cyrus' Performance Isn't Simply a Feminist Issue

"Appropriation in art is the use of pre-existing objects or images with little or no transformation applied to them." (Wikipedia). 

Is this not what we witnessed; teddy bear onesie, dancing african american women, silly putty bikini, foam finger. Cyrus' body itself, and Thicke's body as well. Cyrus, her choreographers and image-makers absconded these images, and used them. No transformation actually occurred, despite claims from many camps that this was to take Cyrus from little girl to woman, much as oversexed images such as Britney Spears with the snake, or Christina Aguilera in a boxing ring orgy took them from pop princess to mature artist. But let us ponder a moment over the chosen imagery. Teddy bears could not be any less mature; the choice of this image only reinforces her youth and the impropriety of Cyrus' sexual behaviour, rather than solidifying it as a statement of her new found maturity and control over her sexuality. Thicke is just as culpable here; his choice to participate in this charade, to allow Cyrus to gyrate up against him whilst whining his misogynist lyrics at the young girls in the crowd is deplorable.

Priviledged white girl takes on images associated with black culture. Priviledged white boy takes on images associated with black culture. The misogyny is only a part of the picture. They even went so far as to carry oversized cardboard cut-outs of paintings around the stage. Appropriation. Taking the object, the image, without transformation. 

In a way, the misogyny is appropriation too. Not that it is a good thing, mind you, but it is certainly a hallmark of stereotypical hip hop culture, "bitches and hoes" and "bling" gangsta mentality. What we saw was a 21st century minstrel show. Both performers put on their blackface in the form of words, gestures and costumes, and attempted to "fit in" - they took on these images, performed them. 

But this begs the question of WHY. Traditionally minstrel shows in late 19th century Americana were Irish-American performers who were trying to fit in, doing so by highlighting their dissimilarity to the OTHER, in that case, the african american. Eventually, the Irish American worker, once the much scorned member of Northeastern society, actually became the symbol of the American dream, stretching as far forward as the inherent symbolism in the Die Hard trilogy, pitting working class Bruce Willis against European Alan Rickman. 

So what then does this imagery purport to achieve? If it is to follow the same trajectory, it suggests that in some time the definition of the American dream will be entitled children parading around in a highly sexualized fashion, making all those around them objects for use. Entitlement. Achievement through family connections and money, rather than talent and work. 

We can be concerned about the sexuality, the misogyny, the racism. But the larger message underlying is that success doesn't come from what you do, but who you know and where you were born, and even worse....what you can pay to get what you want. Now this is truly something to be concerned about.