Why "We Can't Stop" Talking About Miley: Race, Ratchet and Queerness

Curator's Note

In June 2013 Miley released her video for "We Can’t Stop", drawing myriad criticisms for her appropriation of "ratchet" culture. Since then, many other female pop stars have engaged in culturally appropriative videos/performances, but to scant attention compared to Miley (Gaga’s "Aura" or Katy Perry’s geisha-inspired performance of "Unconditionally"). I argue that focusing on Miley’s appropriation covers a deeper fear of queer sexuality.

Queer of color theorists (Puar, Ferguson, etc) have shown that race and sexuality are inextricable and how bodies of color are rendered queer. To exemplify the links between race and sexuality in Miley’s case, we need look no further than "ratchet." Here I turn to Urban Dictionary for the word’s popular usage. The first entry for ratchet is steeped not only in racial coding ("diva," "ghetto," "degenerate Chaka Khan look-alikes") but the definition also hints at the word’s queer potential: ratchet women dress, look and act in ways that make them not "every man’s eye candy"—they transgress white heteropatriarchal scripts of attractiveness and/or legibility. Miley embodies the queerness of ratchet in this video: she simultaneously sexualizes and infantilizes herself, simulates sex acts with inanimate objects, hints at auto-eroticism/masturbation, and in general transgresses sexual boundaries in queer ways.

Miley’s performance is thus more troubling than Gaga’s or Perry’s because when Miley appropriates ratchet culture specifically she also simultaneously appropriates the queerness that ratchet entails; since ratchet is a kind of queer identity Miley "becomes" queer at the same time that she "becomes" ratchet. Certainly other racialized cultures are also sexualized, but they are sexualized differently in a US context. For example, Perry’s "geisha" performance invokes US stereotypes of Asian women as sexually docile while Gaga’s burqa-play invokes the Western perception of Muslim women as oppressed, passive, and unthreatening. Further, Miley appropriates ratchet culture in her off-stage persona as well. This consistent appropriation differs from Perry’s "geisha" appropriation, for instance, in which the appropriated symbols become a costume that is worn and taken off again, allowing Perry to slip easily back into whiteness and the typical gender/sexual scripts that whiteness signifies in America. Thus, Miley’s racialized/queered/classed performance threatens white heteropatriarchal norms in ways that Gaga’s and Perry’s performances don’t, because their performances reinscribe white, hetero, male dominance. Until we recognize how sexuality and queerness inflect cultural appropriation, our critiques fall short and cause us ultimately to be more sensitive to certain kinds of appropriations over others.

Comments

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

Miley's Queer Lexicon

This is a super post Zachary and carries on wonderfully from some of the discussions unfurling around Ryan’s post about appropriation. As I revisited this video over the weekend I was struck by the many similarities between “We Can’t Stop” and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers: the gorgeous lickability of their colors, the endless party (spring break forever bitches), the infantilizing queerness (which is as Kathryn Bond Stockton has argued about a refusal to grow up or to buy into scripts of linear, arborecent, Oedipalized models. A queer child is always haunting or ghosting Miley’s performances as Ryan’s post also brought out); the scenes of auto- and allo-eroticism and homosocial desire; the eroticized attachment to objects (“look at my shit!” as Alien says before being all too willingly forced to fellate a gun). The list could go on but the first thing that occured to me was how Miley’s “ratcheting” at the beginning of the video is so redolent of James Franco’s Alien and his own appropriations of blackness: the gold teeth, the corn rows, the language he uses, and so on. A larger theoretical point which presents itself here is about “ratcheting” as a queer practice or critical mode. It seems appealing to me because it returns us to an earlier moment (say of Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant’s “What Does Queer Theory Teach us about X?” in which queerness is all about frame-wrenching, recontextualization, exuding rut, prancing and squatting on stages (academic and otherwise). I think we can add “ratcheting” to the burgeoning vocabulary of queer critique which Miley inspires. “Twerking” also has similar connotations of revolt, decentering and upending. Miley is always ratcheting things up, tweaking and twerking, “jamming the machinery” as Luce Irigaray would say. A ratchet of course is a device (with teeth) used for wrenching or screwing but only in one direction. Miley’s ratcheting freewheels in every direction. She can’t stop, it won’t stop. MOR

Zachary Harvat's picture

The auto-erotics of whiteness

This is a great response! I am about to head into work, so I won’t be able to respond at length until later tonight, but I want to think through what we might learn from this connection that you draw so astutely between Franco and Cyrus. The pistol-fellatio scene in Spring Breakers keeps coming to my mind: I wonder if we could talk a bit more about auto-eroticism (I have always read the “dick guns” in that scene as both Alien’s and not Alien’s—he simultaneously fellates and auto-fellates) and its relationship to race. Miley exhibits a strong fetishization of black women’s bodies in her video at the same time that she fetishizes her own body (making out with her Barbie look-alike), which she covers in markers of blackness. I wonder how this self-fetishization or auto-eroticism—emphasizing the eroticism of one’s own body—might function to both elide and call attention to one’s whiteness. When Miley derives pleasure from herself in this video, does this pleasure stem from her appropriation or from her whiteness? Can we separate the two? As I said, I’ll return later tonight with more thoughts, but maybe this will spark some more discussion in the meantime.

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

Three I's: Innocence, Infantility and Irony

Thanks Zachary for posting this video - and for your great comments! And thanks Michael - for bringing up ‘Spring Breakers’! I immediately thought of it when I re-watched this video too - probably because of the uncanny and unresolved relationship between ideas of innocent ‘fun’ (the endless party and the hallucinogenic colours) and calculated power play coming through in both Miley’s and Alien’s performances of black machismo. Miley’s prancing and ‘ratcheting’ of things here is oddly seductive - and the way she erotically interacts with men, women and things is butch and forceful (and one thing I find particularly interesting is that she uses both typically masculine and feminine seductive poses). In a way, it feels like all the party people, similarly to the stuffed animals and the barbie doll, become inanimate next to Miley - she conducts a perfect performance of absolute power.

At the same time, we mustn’t forget that there is a certain element of irony to this (as there is to Lauren and Berlant’s ‘frame-wrenching’, Butler’s drag performances, Gaga’s burqa play, and Katie Perry’s geisha/doll performances). Miley’s butch ratcheting to some extent comes off as funny or disturbing - and it’s interesting precisely because it’s completely unconvincing. While Miley conducts and upholds her performance of power, she also constantly undermines it. The fact that she is ACTUALLY playing with dolls and giant teddy bears here is one example. She infantilises her power at the same time as she immobilises her surroundings.

My final point is about auto-eroticism and masturbatory performances. Miley continually performs a type of masturbatory dance here, and as Zachary points out she makes out with her Barbie look-alike and dances seductively with girls that look strikingly like her (‘partying with Miley’ really becomes ‘partying with JUST Miley’). Lesbian theorists usually deny the auto-erotic and infantile connotations (studied by e.g. Freud) of lesbian activity, but I personally find them really interesting - and I think Miley uses them very powerfully here. Can I ask you, Zachary and Michael - what do you make of the smoke erupting from the man’s groin? Is it a ‘dick gun’ that is already ‘spent’? Also, what do you guys make of the way Miley uses her tongue in this video? It’s something I’ve found striking in both Ryan’s and Zachary’s videos and pictures. Miley constantly sticks her tongue out - both in a seductive and hungry ‘I-am-about-to-suck-you-dry’ way and a childish cheeky way. Is this another instance of Miley’s ‘queer child’ performance - her juxtaposition of infantility and eroticism? Or is it something more carnivorous?

Karin

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

Axiomatic

I think the gun/fellatio scene in Spring Breakers is fascinating. On one level the girls are forcing Franco/Alien to suck on his own “shit” but his response (are there even two guns in his mouth at one point?) is to say he could do this every day. There is something in that (the pleasures of repetition and modes of being “stuck”) I think, which resonates with what you, Ryan and Karin have been saying about Miley’s great “refusals”: to grow up, to have desires which are other directed, to stop, and so on. I’ve been thinking about how Miley can be productively read alongside Gayle Rubin’s charmed circle of good/bad sex because her auto-eroticism, fetishization of and making out with objects (sledge hammers, fabrics, barbie dolls), public sex acts, her promiscuity, clearly fall outwith the charmed circle of heteronormativity and heteroreproductivity. I have also being considering how Miley’s persona and performances can be read with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s axioms in Epistemology of the Closet and the way Miley makes trouble for regimes of the normal as her gender, sexuality and identity consistently refuse, in Sedgwick’s terms, to line up neatly. For example, in her videos Miley’s biological sex does not always line up with her gender, the traits of her personality and appearance, which are supposed to be the same as her biological sex; the gender assignments of her preferred partners are not always, as they are supposed to be, opposite; there is her seeming refusal to self-identify as gay or straight; her preferred sexual acts are not insertive but intensely marked by autoerotic pleasures; her most eroticized sexual organs are not necessarily genital (the tongue for example) or procreative; her sexual fantasies don’t necessarily match up with her sexual practice (the appeal, for example of inorganic objects); her enjoyment of power which is supposed to be low. What Sedgwick allows us to see is that a number of presumptions are made about a person’s identity or sexuality which are only ever true to varying degrees and for many people are simply not true at all. Among these presumptions which Miley upends are: that each person has a sexuality and that it is implicated with each person’s sense of overall identity in similar ways; that each person’s most characteristic erotic expression will be oriented towards another person and not autoerotic; that if it is alloerotic it will be oriented toward a single partner or kind of partner at a time; that its orientation will not change over time. As Sedgwick puts it, one of the things that queer can refer to is “the open mesh of possibilities,gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses, and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically”. Miley is SUPER queer because nothing about her lines up or signifies monolithically. MOR

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

Buccal erotics

To speak to Karin’s question about Miley’s tongue a bit more: in a show in London as part of the Bangerz tour Miley slides in on her own tongue which, to my mind, is a really interesting displacement of the birth canal (when I see it I am reminded of the cover of Jane Gallop’s Thinking Through the Body). There is, as Ryan has pointed out already, an autoheteroaffectivity to Miley’s self-tasting. When Miley sticks out her tongue, the crowd roars. We are, in a sense, all Miley’s tongue. And to return to the question of the non-genitality of the tongue we can say that Miley’s pleasure in her own buccal erotics is queer precisely because tonguing, licking, kissing, rimming (and other pleasures in and around the mouth as space of erotogenicity) are all non-reproductive, don’t lead anywhere, have no genital aim. Freud even said that kissing was super-perverse because the mouth leads to the throat, then the gullet, then the intestines and then to the organs of excretion. Literally when you kiss you are kissing/eating the other’s shit. For Miley it is more about a self-rimming or a bodily slide from the mouth to the anus. We might even say that she takes pleasure in her own “shit”. Also in London Miley placed the microphone at her crotch and I find this displacement really provocative. She doesn’t insert the mic into her vagina or her anus (or even her mouth) but it stands in for the lesbian phallus in a metonymical slide. To return to a post Karin and I wrote on Lady Gaga’s phallicity here on IMR some years ago we could say that Miley’s microphone (rather than Gaga’s telephone) emblematizes what Butler says about the phallus as a transferable phantasm or fiction since it never returns to the gendered body as origin. With Gaga the phallus becomes slippery, a metonym, sliding from crotch to anus, to breasts and even to other objects, including the telephone. For Miley the phallus is just as, if not more slippery, because it slides from tongue, to ass, to Barbie Doll, to sledge hammer, to… Like Gaga Miley anarchically offers us no certainties about gender, sexuality, identity, or subjectivity, whether she has or is the phallus. In London’s G.A.Y. club she roared that Liam Hemsworth could suck her “fat dick”. And, really, it is not so much a question of whether Miley has a dick but of what she does with it. Just as it is not so much a question of what queer is as what queer does. MOR

Ryan Tracy's picture

A Taste for the Elsewhere

Very much enjoying these threads of thought.

Zachary brings up an excellent point: “When Miley derives pleasure from herself in this video, does this pleasure stem from her appropriation or from her whiteness? Can we separate the two?”

People of color have been answering this question for a long time with a resounding No. Miley’s black appropriation in this video sexualizes black bodies while sexualizing her own as well (although when I say “sexualizes” I really hope to restrict this word to the image or imaginary that is being produced, and not specific actual bodies). And I think our discussion of Miley is importantly initiating a kind of reckoning with Miley’s whiteness, or, “being” white (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a “fact” of her whiteness). That race or racialization inheres in desire should be at hand in our discussion of erotics, normative and queer alike. I think this is something queer of color critique has brought to the foreground. It can be difficult for white people to recognize that part of what they are attracted to, when they are attracted to a white body, is that whiteness of that body. Insofar as whiteness is a particular cultural manifestation of power based on the ideology of white supremacy, and insofar as power (as phallus) might be thought of as initiating and conditioning the field of desire, then we cannot deny the ways in which whiteness produces and maintains desire—a desire, ultimately, for itself. People of color will tell us first hand what it’s like not to be desired because “not white.” And I observe the persistence of racist erotics in gay online hook-up sites, where guys will post something to the effect of: “I’m not racist. Just not into…[insert minoritarian racial category].” Jose also writes about this in Cruising Utopia in the chapter on Kevin Aviance.

So I think even, if not especially, in a discussion of Miley’s “autoheteroaffectivity” (thanks, Michael!), race is crucial to the way desire is being played out. What I think might be transformative in this video is, perhaps, Miley’s multiply racial erotics; a refusal to remain safely in one racialized embodied eroticism; much like her refusal to remain safely within the confines of femininity or masculinity; adulthood or childhood. Yes, Karin, Miley’s erotics are voracious, all consuming. “When you say you love me, know I love you more. When you say you need me, know I need you more.” These words are from “Adore.” Miley’s adoration of herself is an adoration of us that devours us. This voraciousness is bound to cause trouble, especially in the way it refuses to acknowledge common boundaries of desire. But it’s a trouble that seems worth while to me. Can we say that the queer world that is “not yet here” is likely to be one where desire is not structured by racist logics? If so, isn’t this video a calling forth of that world? A desire for that world? A taste of/for that world?

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

Cosmophagia

I was wondering if the question of appetite would come up this week. Clearly Miley, as Ryan and Karin say, has this “voraciousness” and there is no doubt reasons to think that addiction, adoration and appetite are tangled up with one another. Wayne Koestenbaum has a wonderful essay on Susan Sontag (in My 1980s) where he refers to her as a “cosmophage”: “Susan Sontag, my prose’s prime mover, ate the world. In 1963, on the subject of Sartre’s Saint Genet (her finest ideas occasionally hinged on gay men), she wrote, “corresponding to the primitive rite of anthropophagy, the eating of human beings, is the philosophical rite of cosmophagy, the eating of the world”. It seems to me that their is also something of the cosmophage in Miley. The video for Adore where she wants more of everything sees her nibbling on bed sheets, pillows, fabrics. Miley gobbles everything up. And one of the triggers in the Call for Curations for this theme week was “fat art/thin art” playing on the title of a book of Eve Sedgwick’s poetry. On the one hand Miley has been excoriated for being “too thin” after tweeting selfies of her impossibly skinny body. And on the other we have this—lyrical, sexual, generic, conceptual—voraciousness, the need to ingest everything. Ryan has also brought up the idea of self-tasting and Miley’s auto-eroticism and this seems to me to have a cosmophagic quality too. Again Sontag on Sartre on Genet: “Jerking off the universe is perhaps what all philosophy, all abstract thought is about: an intense and not very sociable pleasure, which has to be repeated again and again”. MOR

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

Cosmophagic Carnival

I thoroughly agree with Michael’s and Ryan’s comments - and this is what I was trying to get at in my post above. Miley appears voraciously hungry - for the world, for new identities, new lovers, everything! There is something slightly disturbing about this hunger - just as there is something disturbing about the way Miley wriggles her tongue. It’s not just seductive - it’s almost beyond seduction. It keeps reminding me of Linda Blair’s performance of the possessed child Regan in ‘The Exorcist’ or a Sri Lankan demon mask: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-HEnNTo_Q4Bg/UhK6g6ZEE8I/AAAAAAAAI8E/xL4gIXsuDho/s1600/DSC01011.JPG

Miley performs her queerness and erotic appeal a bit TOO WELL. It borders on what Mikhail Bakhtin calls the ‘carnivalesque’ (which, of course, has often been linked to queerness - it is an attempt to turn the world on its head - reflect it’s most extreme other - to make it come fact to face with what it really is). As we’ve already pointed out, this video portray an endless party or carnival, moving faster and faster, and we won’t stop, can’t stop. Miley’s impossibly skinny selfies further reflect an idea of the carnivalesque. Anorexia and excessive skinniness often gets represented as monstrous in the media - and I think Miley is playing with this. She takes on the image of a hungry, starved, semi-demonic predator - teasing and threatening us at the same time.

Karin

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