A Girardian Reading of Miley Cyrus at the VMAs?

Social media was ablaze on Monday with reactions to Miley Cyrus’ performance at the Video Music Awards. There are a variety of angles to take with this, from photos of the Smith family reaction, to renewed conversations around cultural appropriation, to the double standard evident in the mounds of criticism directed at Cyrus and the comparative silence on Robin Thicke.

I didn’t watch the VMAs. Nor have I watched actual footage of the Thicke/Cyrus performance. I’m not sure if I really want to. Actually, I’m sure I don’t want to. But yesterday morning and throughout the day, it seemed as if I couldn’t escape reactions to and conversations surrounding Cyrus’ twerking, gyrating, stripping, etc.

I sure as hell had no intentions of writing on the event.

But Monday night, on a whim, I Googled “Miley Cyrus South Park” to see what, if any, commentary Trey Parker and Matt Stone had offered in the past on Miley Cyrus. The episode I was directed to was “Britney’s New Look”, an episode where the lidless public eye on Britney Spears results in dire consequences.

Halfway through watching the episode, I was prompted by the plot to furiously type out “Rene+Girard Miley+Cyrus” in the all-knowing search, and found nothing. And that’s why I’m writing this at 3 AM Pacific.

There are a few connections that can be drawn between the work of Girard and Cyrus’ recent antics. For starters, Cyrus’ appropriation of black culture can be read through mimetic theory, which postulates that humans naturally imitate each other, which then causes conflict born out of desire for the same things. That desire is known as mimetic desire.

And the collective reactions to/against Cyrus can be read as scapegoating in action. Now, I’m not trying to give Cyrus a free pass. But I do hope the attention on Cyrus doesn’t detract from examining the ecosystem that produces a former child star who turns to cultural appropriation (uh, among other things) for taking the next step in her career.

I’m struck by this quote on Girard’s work: “Former enemies now become friends, as they communally participate in the execution of violence against a specified enemy.” Since Sunday night, I’ve seen people as far right as Rush Limbaugh and Concerned Women for America hate on Cyrus’ act, to the writers at Salon, Colorlines, and other left-leaning publications. It seems as if everyone is hating on Cyrus, although their reasons may be vastly different. I’m not sure if Cyrus quite fits the criteria of “innocent scapegoat.” Perhaps the social media scapegoating of Cyrus keeps us from, I don’t know, further examining Macklemore’s appropriation. To his credit, Macklemore admits he is a beneficiary of white privilege.

But what makes Macklemore different from Cyrus? Aren’t both profiting from black culture? And if the game is zero-sum, then they’re taking somebody else’s shine, right? But is there ever room for cultural appropriation? Does my affinity for hip-hop make me no different from Miley Cyrus?

These are the half-coherent musings of someone who can’t sleep and is trying to get a taste of the glory days of writing papers at ungodly hours. But, in all seriousness, if somebody else wants to pick things up and further flesh things out, I’d love to hear it.



  1. That is a great (and prescient) South Park episode.

    I don’t think I have too much insight beyond what you’ve already said, but I do appreciate the Girardian take on all of this. I have been thinking that it’s interesting that the vast majority of the Miley Cyrus backlash has been focused on the tackiness/raunchiness of her performance, rather than on the cultural appropriation involved (although I think Robin Thicke is way more guilty of cultural appropriation than Cyrus). I guess it’s because salaciousness is far more obvious to casual observers than the subtlety that is sometimes involved in cultural appropriation. And also because at this point, Whites have been borrowing from Blacks musically since at least the Jazz Age, so it’s kind of old hat by now, whereas Cyrus’s performance was designed to shock.

    Anyway, thanks for an interesting read!

  2. Yours Truly · · Reply

    I effin’ miss you

  3. Jameisha Washington · · Reply

    I don’t know if I am really able to add to the conversation about the VMA’s or Blurred Lines, as intentionally wrote off the new record by Thicke. However, I think this a really good article. Thanks for making scholarly resources relevant to real life, that is indeed the goal of education, right?!

    Impressions of the VMA’s that I didn’t watch: 1. I’m so glad I didn’t watch this 2. I don’t care 3. What about the fact that there are actually important issues, Syria, Anniversary on the March on Washington, Egypt, etc.? 4.

    It seems that as a collective whole people chose the easy way out, and have scapegoated Miley.
    I’m bothered by people who are riding on the coattails of Miley’s mishap. Are we that much better than Miley at this point? Monday was like watching a horse race to see who could make the best quip about how dirty and trashy she is.

    Lastly, this article makes me wonder what would’ve happened had it been Nicki Minaj or Beyonce? What does Miley gain by imitating black culture? It seems that there’s something even bigger at stake. Men dictate a majority of acceptable female behavior. Sex sells. You’re welcome to refute that. Not that this legitimizes her actions, however, I think it could help us understand why, maybe?

    1. You know Jameisha I was reflecting on the same thing… your last point about what if the performance had been by Nicki Minaj or Beyonce, it was one of the first points that came to mind as immediate backlash began.

      I am 100% guilty of being sucked in by intrigue and when the VMA’s were playing on continuous loop on VH1 (not sure why/how) I ended up watching the whole show…

      Well for one, Lady Gaga had another avant garde performance that ended in her stripping down to a seashell bra and thong… which she wore through out the night. Comments on that were pretty much non-existent, besides a few compliments on her “nice ass”

      I also began to wonder what reaction would have come about if Ke$ha had been in Miley’s place… I imagine it would have been much different.

      While I agree that culture appropriate is present, I also think we judge different white performer’s differently. Because Miley has been in the lime light from such a young age, I think she also represented the white American dream. Even the premise of Hannah Montana – she played an incredibly successful and talented pop star who still went to school, lived with her family, always struggled to make the right decision, and was a “regular girl”. Pardon the pun, but she had the best of both worlds (just kidding, that was a great pun and I made it intentionally)

      So the national audience holds her to a different standard than other female performers, and we revel in the ability to see how the perfect child has fallen from her pedestal. We place blame on her, and not ourselves. And so she is yet another child star gone wrong.

      I can’t say I wasn’t shocked or disappointed by her performance… because I’m rooting for her.

      Just like I’m rooting for every teen I work with, every friend I know, every one of my family members, and every one of my enemies. I hope that we will be making decisions that are more like Christ than not.

      However, I also doubt that any slut shaming or clever meme is going to change Miley’s mind or the opinions of our culture. So I’m grateful for discussion that transcends the particular incident and tries to evaluate the whole picture.

      Also I think that my thoughts have veered from the original point your or Felix were making… but I type like I talk, rambling into who-knows-where land.

      1. I actually think that if Nicki Minaj had done a similar thing, she would not have received the same criticism, for reasons both good and bad. For one, she would not be practicing cultural appropriation, and secondly, she’s almost expected to do something provocative like that.

        My guess is that Beyonce would face widespread criticism because of her stature. Doing something like that seems incredibly beneath her at this point in her career, and would be a departure from the narrative we know of her.

        As for Cyrus, her race plays a large role, as does her age, and, as Kat pointed out, her background as a Disney star.

        And yes, there is a difference between good criticism and slut shaming. Given our cultural landscape, as ridiculous as Cyrus’ performance was, there’s no room for slut shaming.

        There are so many weird things at play in all of this.

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