Guest Op-Ed: Was Miley Cyrus' VMA Performance a Parody?

A feminist critic wonders if the exaggerated spectacle was meant to subvert pop-culture sexism

miley cyrus
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for MTV
Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke perform at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.
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File under "wishful thinking" if you must, but hear me out: What if Miley Cyrus' divisive performance at the VMAs on Sunday night was a parody? A willful, rueful parody – of herself, of VMA conventions, of the demands on female performers, even of her fellow performer Robin Thicke?

Take the moment that many viewers (including me) have viewed as the most disturbing: the part where Miley mimed analingus on an African-American dancer. Miley is hardly the first white pop singer to employ women of color as backup dancers, using the centuries-old stereotype of black women's loose sexuality in order to add an erotic frisson to the stage. She just did it more grotesquely than most. It was a wretched, racist move – but milder variants occur regularly, with hardly any protest at all. Sometimes it takes an extreme version to make a whole flawed structure visible.

Read Rob Sheffield's Take on 'The Tongue That Licked the World'

After watching the VMA performance, I went back and watched the two videos that the onstage mash-up was riffing on. In the video for "We Can't Stop," Miley spanks a pal, grinds her butt on some girls' crotches, dances with furries, waggles her tongue and twerks in a gym as black women look on admiringly. In other words, she does everything she did at the VMAs. There was some outcry, but somehow, by the bizarre standards of our culture, that video was OK: She was just doing what girl singers have to do. In light of that, her VMA recap starts to look distinctly parodic.

In the video for Thicke's hit "Blurred Lines," as we all know, topless women in barely-there panties bounce their boobs around the singer as on-screen text announces an alleged consonance between Thicke's surname and his ding-dong. It has been suggested, tantalizingly, that Miley's performance offered a critique of that video: "You like naked girls? Here you go!"

Most people seem to assume that the tongue-twerk travesty was another case of a young female singer trying to sex-shock her way into a grown-up career. Miley just did it wrong. Oops! The thing is, Miley failed so spectacularly that it's almost easier to believe she screwed it up on purpose than to accept that she really thought she was being hot. "How could she think that tongue business was sexy?" people ask. Maybe she didn't. Maybe she – or whoever directed that segment, or both – knew full well that it was so exaggerated, so over-the-top, that it would completely fail as a performance of sexiness, and make us see what's wrong with the way our culture requires female singers it can objectify and uses women of color as accessories.

So everyone's up in arms about Miley going overboard. Well, that's parody doing what parody is supposed to do: blow something up into its most extreme form so it becomes impossible to ignore. Instead of talking about Miley, maybe it's time to talk about the issues Miley's rubbing in our face.

Sara Marcus is the author of 'Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution.'