What Miley Cyrus Can Teach Us About Queerness and White Privilege
By Megan Graham
When we think of Miley Cyrus, most of us think, “Hannah Montana,” not “queer icon.” This is especially true for people my age, who grew up to the soundtrack of “The Best of Both Worlds” and “The Climb.” In the 12 years since her breakout Disney Channel show ended, though, Cyrus has reinvented herself through albums in genres ranging from psychedelic pop to rock, appearing on TV and in music as an adult in charge of her own life. Through all of these eras, though, Miley Cyrus has remained committed to being open about her sexuality.
Cyrus, who came out to her mother when she was fourteen, has spoken publicly not only about the way she loves both men and women, but also about how she was still queer even when she was married to a man.
In a time when society still erases bisexual identities and accuses bisexual people of “going through a phase,” it is meaningful to have a powerful cultural figure assert her identity through multiple decades and relationships. It is even more powerful to have this example of bisexuality and constant reinvention come from a former Disney star.
Kids, myself included, were and still are taught to look up to the characters on the Disney Channel, to use them as role models in friendships and early relationships. Having a role model be openly and unapologetically bisexual gives younger queer people a chance to see themselves in pop culture. And seeing someone go through multiple reinventions on their way to find themselves lets us know that we can take our time and explore ourselves, too. Her latest song “Flowers,” is an unapologetic anthem about finding strength in yourself instead of depending on your relationship with others. The song has resonated with a generation. It is already the fastest song to reach 100 million streams on Spotify.
However, Miley Cyrus’ reinventions have also been met with a fair bit of criticism, especially from Black writers and artists. Her 2013 album, Bangerz, drew heavily from hip-hop culture in both its musical styles and Cyrus’ promotion of it. Since Bangerz was Cyrus’ first radical image change since her Hannah Montana days, many saw her as using a predominantly Black genre to make her seem “edgier,” while many Black artists would have been judged much more harshly for the behaviors that Miley exhibited (the best example of this being her twerking during the 2013 Video Music Awards).
Cyrus was further criticized by Black writers and artists for comments she made in a 2017 Billboard interview, in which she said that misogynistic lyrics “pushed [her] out of the hip-hop scene.” As Preston Mitchum wrote in The Root, Black women had been calling out the misogyny of hip-hop for years. Cyrus, according to many, used Black culture when it suited her and then discarded it. (It is worth noting that in 2019 Cyrus apologized in a comment on a YouTube video about her cultural appropriation.)
Miley Cyrus is not an anomaly in the music world. Artists from Katy Perry to Gwen Stefani have all come under fire for cultural appropriation. Even the rock genre, which Cyrus inhabited in her 2020 album, Plastic Hearts, has a long history of pushing out the Black artists who created the genre in favor of white bands like The Rolling Stones. The line between musical influence and cultural appropriation can be hard to find, and Miley Cyrus is neither the first nor the last artist to misstep.
This is not just an article to criticize Miley Cyrus — in fact, I’m a fan. But when we think about all that Miley Cyrus has done to normalize bisexuality, we should also consider the white privilege she has. People of color’s bodies and sexualities are always policed more harshly than white people’s, meaning they are allowed less grace and space to experiment. As we look up to Miley’s openness about her sexuality, let’s also ask what we can do to make it possible for all people to be as open as she is. I firmly believe that we can admire an artist and ask them to do better at the same time. Cyrus has been an activist and a philanthropist, so it stands to reason that she can do more to advance the cause of racial justice in addition to her work around gender and sexuality.
These questions of how Miley Cyrus can be more mindful of her privilege as a white bisexual person are also good reminders to white fans like me. Even as I push for equality for queer people, how can I do a better job of acknowledging my privilege and working for all queer people? And as Miley continues to reinvent herself with her new album, we can ask: whose culture is she borrowing from?
About the Author
Megan grew up in the suburbs of Massachusetts, where she came out as queer before arriving at college. She is currently in her last year of her degree program, where she studies history and literature. She loves running, reading, and The L Word.