For artists like Miley Cyrus, blackness is an outfit. She made money from treating black women and femmes like props, and used hip-hop to appeal to the white kids her age.
There comes a time during a celebrity’s career when they shed one persona for another. This isn’t uncommon; artists need to evolve and grow with their audiences. As their lives shift, their appearances or performances change, the marketing around them changes with those shifts.
We saw this happen with Angelina Jolie, who perhaps pulled off one of the most drastic and notable evolutions in pop culture. Jolie went from making out with her brother on the red carpet to UNHCR ambassador, philanthropist, professor and mother. Jolie is masterful at evolving and growing — and with that, controlling the narrative around her.
Beyoncé is another fascinating example. Beyoncé says everything without saying anything at all, and her use of social media is a master class in exposure without over-exposure.
So now we come to Miley Cyrus, who has seen multiple lifetimes as an artist and actor. However, her youth and her whiteness add layers that I want to peel back in order to explore how white women shift in and out of phases by sometimes using blackness when it is useful — and then shedding the appropriation when it is time to appeal to a mass market for other opportunities, including film, awards and marriage.
In a recent interview with Billboard magazine, Cyrus was quoted as saying, “I also love that new Kendrick [Lamar] song [‘Humble’]: ‘Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks.’ I love that because it’s not, ‘Come sit on my dick, suck on my cock.’ I can’t listen to that anymore. That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’ — I am so not that.”
But the thing is, she was so that — until it didn’t suit her anymore. The accompanying pictures are quite a departure from the looks she was sporting over the past couple years during her Bangerz album release and post break-up with off-and-on-again fiancé Liam Hemsworth. Cyrus intended to leave behind her Disney-kid years, and she did so by using her idea of blackness in order to break away from her childhood. But now Cyrus has grown her hair out from the undercut she used to have (as well as the appropriated dreads, corn rows and grills she wore on and off), and she’s wearing barely-there make-up instead of bright colors.
The coding and symbolism of these photographs is a careful PR move meant to reimagine Cyrus as pure and more palatable for the average American. Cyrus is putting together an album for her original pre-Bangerz audience, and with that, she needed to leave behind her co-optation of blackness. Cyrus’ perceived idea that blackness is inherently hyper-sexual now means that she is has to veer into hyper-whiteness in order to be considered more seriously by the public for the next steps in her life.
For artists like Miley Cyrus, blackness is an outfit. She made money from treating black women and femmes like props, and used hip-hop to appeal to the white kids her age. That was during that particular moment of her life when she was in her “rebellious” stage, and now she’s done and ready to settle down.
So that means appealing to what Elaine Lui from Lainey Gossip calls the “mini-van majority” — the women who are middle-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual and have nuclear families and called Miley a slut when she was using a giant blow-up dick on stage and motor-boating a black woman’s butt. The mini-van majority is offended by the wrong things — racism was OK, but hypersexuality isn’t.
What does this mean, from a publicity standpoint? Well for one, if we base this on what we saw happen with Jolie and even Nicole Richie, this newest Miley phase is the first step to her auditioning for potential film offers. Her future musical endeavors are shifting back to acoustic pop/rock and perhaps even a “lifestyle” brand like so many other celebrities, including Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reese Witherspoon, Kate Hudson, Blake Lively, Jessica Alba etc. Acting and performing isn’t necessarily sustainable, so using a changed image to boost a future brand in the works has been done countless times before.
But Miley can’t sell the image she had before, so making herself more palatable for the mini-van majority is the first step toward future opportunities. This includes making remarks about hip-hop and misogyny while ignoring the rampant misogyny and rape-culture imbued white country music, metal, punk and rock. Hip-hop is her easiest target, because demonizing blackness is easier to do than picking apart the misogyny present in most things produced and written by men.