MC NORMCORE

Curator's Note

Normcore has been described as an ironic fashion aesthetic that revels in the ordinary. I want to play with the portmanteau offered by normcore, to instead explore via Miley Cyrus what it might mean to be normal, hardcore. I offer that normcore is a stylistic celebration of an exclusive youth culture, in which normative young white bodies are commended for their willingness play “ugly.” (Hey, is it Oscar season?)

In this video for “We Can’t Stop,” Cyrus sings about "red cups and sweaty bodies everywhere." The video combines images of young people at a wild party strewn with red cups with those of Cyrus dancing while grabbing and spanking black women. Here the bodies of black women are likened to red Solo cups (a seemingly international symbol of American youth culture), and hyperstylized as the utmost party accessories. The resulting aesthetic is one of youthful disregard because "this is our party we can do what we want," and the bodies of people of color matter only inasmuch as they help to define a wild white femininity that laughs in the face of "haters" while repeatedly slapping black bottoms.

This spectacularly mundane juxtaposition of plastic cups and black bodies frames Cyrus’ white femininity as one of drunken abandon. Further, it is part of a long legacy of white women (especially pop stars) defining wildness and sexual outsiderness through a proximity to blackness. Thus, as others have also argued, Cyrus’ refusal to line up neatly with gendered norms is based in a racial mimicry that relies on regimes of white supremacy and is only possible because of her distinct brand of normativity.

In an interview with teen style writer Tavi Gevinson for Elle magazine, Cyrus takes on her critics by recycling the popular “post-race” argument that race doesn’t matter anymore. Cyrus agrees with Gevinson that what she is doing is "totally normal for people our age" but that doing it publicly gives it more meaning. Cyrus says, "I use myself as, like, a sacrifice for my fans, to be like, ‘Look, I am like you!’” Therefore, Cyrus can be seen as MC of an extra-ordinary party, that is "so turn’t up, yeah." She is doing normal in a very hardcore way. In other words, rather than queer, Miley Cyrus is #normcore, the most hardcore normative young person one can be.

 

Comments

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

Homonormcore

Thanks Eva for a provocative post which nicely troubles a lot of what we have been saying about Miley over the course of this week. Not so much Miley: Super Queer as Miley: Super Totally Normal. A couple of questions impose themselves here: is it necessarily binary, queer or normative? Or are the lines more blurred? Is Miley recuperable for homonormative discourses (her support for gay marriage in some sense would suggest that she is)? Or heteronormative ones? Or both? Or does that set of concerns run the danger of setting up another pair of binaries: homonormative/queer or heteronormative/queer? There was of course a prominent literary movement called queercore in the early years of Queer Theory (associated with Dennis Cooper among others) and I wonder if there is another dyad operating here: normcore/queercore? These are far from easily settled issues so I guess I want you to say more about what is troublingly normal about Miley even as she is making trouble for the normal. MOR

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

Hyper-Normativity

Thank you for this post, Eva - and thank you for raising these interesting questions. I wonder if there is a limit to how normative you can be before your normativity becomes other. Miley is indeed doing something that is “totally normal” for people her age, but as you say she is doing it publicly and to the extreme. It makes me wonder though - is normality really normal once it becomes hyper-normal? As Michael is suggesting, Miley’s normality appears as a type of normativity trouble - and this is actually one of the ways in which I would read normcore in general. It is a resistance to the resistance of the normal.

I think it’s important to note that Miley sees her normativity as a show, a performance - a “sacrifice” or gift to her fans. It’s explicitly superficial - and she makes sure that we’re constantly reminded of it. Her act reminds me of Judith Butler’s discussion of drag queens. They’re performing the normative idea of femininity to such an extreme that it ceases to appear normal. And like the queens, Miley continually allows momentary cracks, fissures or “failures” of her perfect performance of normativity show.

I guess my question is - can a performance of the normal ever be truly normal?

Karin

Chris Zivalich's picture

Normalizing the Hyper-Normative

Eva, this is a great post! And apologies that I have been in and out of discussions; I wish I could sit here all day, but I am schlepping myself around for job interviews, so the unforgiving thrust of capitalism and the need to earn income finds ways to pull me away ;)

In any case, I think this discussion around the performativity of hyper-normative whiteness and exploitative white femininity that Eva brings up is crucial in continuing our discussion about how and in what ways Miley’s appropriation of black bodies and auto-erotic relationship with her whiteness influence “We Can’t Stop,” bringing up competing and contrasting ideas about race, gender, and sexuality.

Karin’s point about drag queens is important—the exaggerated performative expression of femininity becomes queer by superimposing itself upon any normative components. However, drag queen culture today, including its role in RuPaul’s Drag Race, has also taken on new meanings. Contemporary and popular drag that often services hetero- and homo-normative narratives is about “female illusionists” and the idea of how close to a “real” woman one can look. I think this process—the exaggerated femininity becoming normal insofar as it “authentically” copies the original—comes back to our ideas about duplicity and might play a role in racial mimicry as an act of normative whiteness.

This shift in which the hyper-normative model—exaggerating elements so drastically to appear queer and self-parody—becomes normalized could represent what Miley’s video accomplishes. On one hand, I see this normative brand Eva speaks of, because Miley’s use of black bodies is not new in many ways. As I mentioned on Ryan’s post, there is a particular historical moment we occupy in which black women’s bodies are exploited as props to convey sexual meanings. In this sense, Miley’s reliance on a popular trope—that black women are overtly sexual and love to shake their ass—is an inheritance of racialized sexuality that in many ways, makes her a kind of normalized hyper-normative, perhaps challenging many of the queer/not-so-lined up elements we have discussed.

In any case, I also push back on whether her appropriation is entirely nomcore/normative because of the way in which she uses black bodies and ratchet culture to self-taste and auto-eroticize herself, relating back to Ryan’s and Zach’s posts. If we think of Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here” video, black women’s bodies are exaggerated and used as hyper-sexual props, yet Lily Allen uses them to make a point about women’s rights, ironically undermining black women to uphold herself as a woman with a brain who “doesn’t need to shake her ass.” Rather than accepting the queerness of ratchet culture and the threatening sexual elements that accompany it, Allen completely disavows them.

To me, Allen’s attempt at parody to make a provocative political point actually normalizes the hyper-normative, whereas Miley’s more interwoven connection with the sexualized elements of the black women she slaps makes it harder to tease apart the queer from the normative.

Eva Hageman's picture

Free, White, and 21

Thanks for these questions. To answer your first question: I don’t see a fixed binary between queer and normative, but I think your comments do helpfully point out a difference between how we are each using or understanding queer. For me, queer must center an analysis of power that understands race as more than just a costume that can be put on and taken off. Ironic racialization does not create a queer subject and in fact seems to be the utmost in normative expressions of power. What I mean here is that one of the fundamental expressions of white supremacy is the subjugation of other(ed) bodies to do its bidding. In other words, “this is our house, we can do what we want.” So no, I guess I don’t see Miley as troubling the normal in any significant way even if this is just a performance of hyper-normativity. The constant reminder that this is explicitly superficial works to maintain the brand of normativity that Miley suggests. One that finds fun in playing ugly, but never wants you to forget that she is free, white, and 21.

* edit Sorry this is in response to Michael and Karin. I posted this before seeing your post, Chris.

Ryan Tracy's picture

Nom Nom, Norm Norm

Welcome, Eva. And hi, everyone.

Indeed, embracing Miley will be, at least on some level, to embrace whiteness; to ingest it, and, perhaps, to suffer the abiding aftertaste of white supremacy ideology. I do not doubt that white racism underwrites the possibility of many of the tropes represented in this video. Nor do I ignore the video’s entrenchment in a by and large racist pop music capitalist industry (although, by that account, any and all media that comes out of this industry—including Beyonce’s coyly “unreleased” release—will have to be viewed as merely a screen for capitalism, so why bother making much of any of this “cultural” stuff?).

I do doubt, though, that the imaginary this video presents—one of collective revelry—possesses the necessary irony that normcore would by definition seem to require. What I mean to say is, I think the desire in this video for a social scene where black bodies can be/do white bodies and white bodies can be/do black bodies is not ironic, is in fact sincere, and is evidence of a desire for some kind of racially queer utopia. There is a project of reciprocity that is visible in this video. Yes, Miley slaps black bodies, but she is also slapped back by them (0:45). I also don’t think there is any moment in the video that summarizes better the desire to topple social hierarchy than when Miley’s head is literally stepped on by one of her fellow partiers (3:03). Miley is the center of the video by convention, but within the video’s imagery, there is a persistent decentering at work. From the misuse of everyday objects, to the role switching, topping/bottoming, femming/butching, dragging/ratcheting, the imagery here desires everything to be other than what it conventionally should be.

That being said, it’s certainly possible to argue that the particular racially queer utopia represented in this video is already structured by a matrix of white supremacy—one that makes erasing all lines and re-scripting all bodies equally without necessarily taking power differentials into account appealing, perhaps, mainly to white people, and so, in some way, fails to truly achieve a reparative utopian vision of a queer future where that future is not decided unilaterally by white people when they finally get around to imagining a diverse and collaborative world in which they are not the first, the premiere, the default, universal stand-in for “human” experience—queer or otherwise.

Zachary Harvat's picture

Famously Normal / Normatively Famous

Thank you, Eva, for a great addition to our conversations; indeed, this post adds another complicating dimension to our previous discussion, which is excellent.

I take your points here about normativity and normcore, especially as it relates to Miley’s whiteness. Although I also agree with Ryan and Chris that her relationship with/to race is complicated, and I think that her appropriation here does function abnormally (read: queerly)—which isn’t to say it’s any less racially problematic.

However, my thoughts on race and normativity need to stew for a bit longer. Instead, I want to think about normativity as it relates to Miley’s status as a pop star. Can we ever really call Miley normal when her fame makes her so exceptional? Even if her actions, etc, are normal or reinforcing the normal/normative, does Miley’s status as ~Miley~ render them abnormal? Perhaps we might call Miley conventional (although I think she’s quite an unconventional pop star, actually) but I don’t know if we can go so far as to call her normal. What happens when the abnormal perform the normal? Or perhaps that’s precisely what normcore is all about and I’m just misunderstanding :/ Do others have thoughts about fame and normality? I need a bit more time to think things through.

Eva Hageman's picture

echolocation

Hi Again everybody,

Chris, I totally agree with your analysis of the “Hard Out Here” video. But I don’t see it as so different from the “We Can’t Stop” video. Both use black women’s bodies to define a white woman’s sexuality and desirability. The sort of reciprocity that Ryan points to with Miley getting spanked does not change that Miley’s sexuality is being defined here through a proximity to blackness. The end result is that each video (“Hard Out Here” and “We Can’t Stop”) seems to reify the other as a sort of echolocation of the (relative) flexibility of white normativity.

And to respond to Zachary, yes I think that the fame part is a large part of what sets Cyrus up as normcore. I am thinking of normcore more as a way to be extra-normal. So as Ryan points out Miley is in the center of the video by convention, and that is exactly my argument that the set up of the video is conventional.

Ryan, yes I agree that the video is entrenched in the racist capitalist structure of the larger industry. But I think that makes it even more crucial to discuss the expressions of power in “all of this “cultural” stuff.” What I am saying here is that race is an important part of a queer analytic frame and not something that should be overlooked or sidestepped just because it makes an argument uncomfortable or untenable. Analyzing race in culture is more than just calling something racist and moving on to what you really want to say. For me, as I have said, that means examining the power dynamics in that situate my object of study. I cannot figure Cyrus as The Super Queer because for me a queer futurity of the not yet here could not possibly be about a re-centering of whiteness.

Ryan Tracy's picture

Echola-da-di-da-di

Eva, I love your use of “echolocation” here, as it complicates my earlier arguments that there is something, perhaps, inherently queer about doublings. In the sense you use it, the doubling this video performs is a reinforcement that locates the video within the normative narrative of white privilege (white centering and the concomitant marginalization of others).

I also think of Echo, the “other” (or one of many others) in Ovid’s telling of the myth of Narcissus who is categorically decentered by Narcissus’s self-gazing. This particular dramatization of Narcissus is no doubt the one that dominates critical discourses on the left. In recent works by Zizek, Badiou, Sloterdijk, and Butler—”selfishness” and “narcissism” stand for a kind of absolute core of social evil. White supremacy, Eurocentrism, heteronormativity, ableism, capitalism, American exceptionalism and unilateral militarism, the global north—all of these are reduced to manifestations of narcissism by leading figures in critical and queer theory. But it is this default position of anti-narcissism that I am invested in critiquing and challenging.

First, there is the paradox that all of these narcissisms seem to be social forms of narcissism. As collective identifications that draw strong social (if negative and repugnant) bonds between people, these narcissisms may stand in the way of a certain vision of social justice, but they are social phenomena nonetheless. In this way, they trouble the notion that narcissism can ever be conceived as a totally individuating process or psychic state that threatens social fabric.

One might talk of the impossibility of narcissism as it is generally figured—isolating, unilateral, self-involved. Reflexivity or self-centering, as it were, might be the effect of otherness, and a deep desire for it—an identification that places one in both positions, self-and-other; center and margin.

I guess what I’m wondering, then, is: Does this video’s echolocation of white centeredness only reinforce this norm as a kind of obstinate, white narcissism? Or, might its—and Miley’s—self-centering gesture radically toward (and away from) the other, the elsewhere, the not-yet-here, even as it fails to transcend the terms of the here and now, the status quo? And if so, can we make use of that gesture, since, as far as I read it, the gesture of Narcissus is always already an invitation, a skin-side-out (to crib from Sedgwick) performance of shame that effaces its desire for connection with the other(s)?

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