In a recent interview with “Cosmopolitan” magazine, Miley Cyrus, former Disney princess and current link-bait extraordinaire, declared herself “one of the biggest feminists in the world.” Obviously any time any person makes a hyperbolic declaration like that, eyebrows will raise and tongues will wag. But before you lick your chops and feast on the dragging Cyrus is currently taking on social media and the comments section of every other think piece administering a firm spanking to her twerking behind, let’s pause for a moment and think about what it is we’re doing here.
First, because feminism is not simply about gender, but also race, class, ethnicity and sexuality, Miley Cyrus’s blatant and offensive racial appropriation over the last year or so certainly compromises her position as a self-described feminist. Cyrus’s new “hardcore” image, her “We Can’t Stop” video and her much-discussed VMAs performance with Robin Thicke are yet another high-profile instance of white women picking and choosing pieces of African-American popular culture, in this case “ratchet” culture, and using those stolen images to give their own images more “edge,” while abandoning the aspects of ratchet culture that working-class African-Americans cannot (racism, classism, etc.). Numerous critics and scholars have covered this topic, and I’ll direct you to check out their work.
My interest here, though, lies in the very public debates about whether or not Miley Cyrus, or any other pop star/starlet/model who doffs her clothes and makes with the sexytime dancing, is a feminist. Let me be very clear on this point: Miley Cyrus is a feminist.
A feminist, simply put, is any human being who believes that every human being, regardless of their gender, deserves equal rights, equal pay, equal treatment. That’s it, folks. Sticking out your tongue, dressing like a “slut,” and straddling a large, cold piece of machinery in the nude doesn’t kick you out of the feminist club. Does this behavior send mixed messages to Miley Cyrus’s legions of young, adoring female fans who see her as a role model? Yes. Would I be upset if my daughter dressed and danced like Miley Cyrus? Absolutely. Would Miley’s message of female empowerment be stronger (and more honest) if she stopped relying on signifiers of African-American culture as a backdrop for her own feminist performances? Lord, yes.
But still, Miley Cyrus is a feminist. I can criticize her sloppy misappropriation of racial signifiers as offensive (not just to African-Americans but to anyone who believes that our country is incapable of having a serious conversation about race and privilege) and I can criticize her equivocation of sexual display with power, but one thing I’m not going to criticize this young woman for is declaring, openly and happily, that she is a feminist.