09/01/2013 03:01 EDT | Updated 10/30/2013 05:12 EDT

Miley Cyrus, White Feminism, and the Dance of Oppression

Let's just square this away up front. I am white. I am so white. I am privileged and comfortable and safe and squarely middle class. I'm a feminist. I'm a stay at home mom and "homemaker" (among other things).

Okay, got it? I'm a white, middle-class, home-making feminist.

Nice to be me, right?

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about what I do. I blog. I'm a blogger. I write. I'm a writer. And I think. I'm a thinker.

And I can do all of these things for no money because I live in a bubble where shit is taken care of, because of my position -- the one I was born into, the society in which we live today.

Add all that to the privilege of the Internet, the privilege of higher education, and the privilege of knowing hundreds of amazing people from all walks of life, and I know very well what I can and cannot talk about. Racism is one of those things. And I understand that. And I agree with that.

But I still talk about it. Because I'm a blogger. And a writer. And a thinker.

That said, I have no thoughts on Miley Cyrus or her performance at the VMAs. As one commenter on The Huffington Post asked: "Why does a little girl doing a dirty dance on the MVA's warrant such analysis?"

The answer is because these things do not happen in a vacuum. They are not isolated incidents, and, academically, if not socially, they tell a story about the world around us, a world in which marginalized voices struggle to speak out and be heard.

This is not about Miley. It's not about back-up dancers. It's not about one entertainment show that happened one night in August 2013. It's about an institutionalized thought process that is subtly reinforced at every given opportunity.

So that when Anne Theriault writes about her interpretation of the racism in Miley's performance, and Angelina Chapin writes about Anne Theriault's interpretation of the racism in Miley's performance, and I then write about Angelina Chapin's interpretation of Anne Theriault's interpretation of the racism in Miley's performance, we are not doing anything new.

We are simply restating what bell hooks stated in the early nineties.

For instance, hooks introduced an issue of Tweeds fashion catalog in her work "Eating the Other" for its focus on "Otherness" as a selling point in its advertisements in 1992. In this spread, white and black models seemingly coexist in an Egypt from long ago. She writes:

"For 75 pages Egypt becomes a landscape of dreams, and its darker-skinned people background, scenery to highlight whiteness, and the longing of whites to inhabit, if only for a time, the world of the Other.

"The point of this photographic attempt at defamiliarization is to distance us from whiteness, so that we will return to it more intently" (1992).

She asserts it is the mainstream's -- the whites' -- desire for the romanticized primitive that propels these ads and this imagery forward. She notes that the Egyptian people's faces are blurred by the camera, their pictures serving as a backdrop to the focal whiteness.

And isn't this, 20 years later, what we are all trying to muddle through right now? All of us simply gnashing our teeth, trying to get at the kernel of an over-arching problem of marginalization in our society. What we have in common with hooks is that we're striving to understand our part in this Patriarchial puzzle. The difference is we are white. And that's a big difference.

It also hearkens back to the now tired problem of post-third-wave feminism. If feminists fought as a unified movement to give individual women the choice to define themselves as they so choose, how then can feminists rally against those choices. If the model in Robin Thicke's video doesn't feel objectified, we cannot then say she was objectified. Or can we?

As another commenter here on HuffPost aptly pointed out, "Objectification doesn't mean 'makes people feel bad about themselves.' Objectification means, 'causes the viewer to see the performer as an object and not a person.' It is completely irrelevant whether these dancers felt objectified, whether they were happy or sad to be objectified, or whether anyone at all, performer OR audience, was offended by the performance."

Still, if these women are people and not objects and they don't feel objectified, shouldn't we, as people recognizing people, recognize their feelings on the matter?

Or at least, shouldn't we let someone of the race involved speak for the feelings of the black community like Big Freedia?

Yes, we should.

But that doesn't mean we cannot talk about, don't have the right to talk about, objectification, racism, skin colour, and feminism, does it? It goes back to that wonderful concept fleshed out by Jezebel in an article earlier this year -- mis-kevin-dry. Just as feminism is not an attack on individual men, but a statement against the institutionalized marginalization of women in a broader society, the cry against objectification is not a way to tell people how they should feel about themselves, but a broader call for society to end the disassociation it allows itself when viewing as a collective audience a message such as this.

In short, it's not about the individual. It's about the institution. And if we stop writing about the institution, if we assume the battles have been won and we can go back to our white, blogging, middle-class, homemaking ways, well, aren't we doing society a disservice?


Miley Cyrus' Transformation