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What Miley Cyrus Teaches Us About Being Human

It’s time to transcend “old world” identity politics

I hate to jump on the Miley Cyrus, ratchet culture, commodification-of-the-marginalized-life bandwagon just as it seems that the flurry of posts and articles has died down. But I’m diving in. I’m putting my two cents down because I think the conversation that unfolded in the media is missing an essential point that has an impact on all of us.

What Miley did at the MTV Video Music Awards last week became such a spectacle not only because it was thought to be out of character, not even because it was not done particularly well, but it was this past week’s media circus because it pointed out how we as human beings—despite race, class, gender, and sexuality divides—are all more alike than we are different. A country darling turned Disney princess is attracted to and expressing herself within a ratchet culture image? How dare she break through those rigid identity camps!

The thing is, Miley Cyrus has been packaged for us her whole life. We actually have no idea what is authentic when it comes to her expression of self. She has been told what to do, how to act, and who to be by a team of adults making money of an image they created for her to represent. Now, at her coming out party, she has decided to immerse and express herself in a subculture of American society that is fundamentally about giving a big f-off to “the man.” This does not surprise me at all.

Ratchet culture came out of communities who have had to fight for every inch of social and cultural power they have; who have been rendered voiceless by structural violence; who have been politically robbed and stripped of being their authentic selves due to institutionalized oppression. And so people out of this lived experience have sought to empower themselves by amplifying their voices and claiming exaggerated elements of an expressive identity through ratchet culture.

Are we too obsessed with comparing our suffering and blaming the other to acknowledge that perhaps the individual human experience of not having the agency to be one’s self freely feels the same whether caused by centuries of structural violence or a handful of greedy Disney producers?

If we really want to have a conversation about what Miley Cyrus has triggered in this country, let’s talk about how we have become so attached to our culture and identity politics that we can’t see how Miley and the women she’s twerking with in her music video may all be looking to get and express the same thing out of ratchet culture despite the color of their skin or where they come from.

Jay-Z tweeted, “she [Miley] represents an old world’s worst nightmare,” and no doubt she does. I think in saying this he chose his words wisely. It’s an “old world” that keeps us married to our cultural and identity politics, not allowing us to see ourselves and others in full, deep, rich, and utterly human complexity. The idea that Miley Cyrus’ performance can somehow co-opt power from the marginalized groups of people who really belong to ratchet culture is only valid if we allow overly simplified identity groups to define and limit us. Maybe it is time we embrace that we are all more than the single story identity groups that we belong to? Could it be time to recognize we are more alike than we are different?

Miley can only threaten authentic ratchet culture if we assume that those who belong to it have no additional story, experience, desire, or depth. Miley can only threaten white Disney tween culture if we assume that those who belong to it have no additional story, experience, desire, or depth. If those are assumptions that you are comfortable making, then continue to waste time debating Miley’s transgressions. If not, let’s have a real conversation about the fact that all of us (those of us with power and privilege and those without) need to find a way of believing and acting as if we are more than some commodified caricature of the core identity groups we belong to. This requires us to know and accept ourselves deeply. This requires we orient ourselves to others with the recognition that first and foremost that we are all human. Thank God, we all have something in common.