Can the White Girl Twerk?

image by imp kerr

The presumed generic whiteness of the mainstream U.S. audience means that white consumers decide not only what blackness is, but also what they want out of it

There's a famous scene in the 2004 Wayans brothers’ comedy White Chicks: The opening bars of piano introduce Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” and the car full of white girls squeals in delight before launching into the cloyingly earnest lyrics. Later a black man sings the song and, that’s it, that’s the whole joke.

Like the late aughts’ “hipster,” “white girl” is a label applied either dismissively or self-consciously. The tastes, habits, and concerns of the white girl, like those of the hipster, are often punch lines used as self-evident definitions for the label. Like a hipster’s, the white girl’s class status goes without saying—there is no Twitter account for ­PoorWhiteGirlProblems.

Historically, white girlhood stood for the preservation of whiteness. Not just reproductively but as future missionaries, schoolteachers, moral custodians of the dark frontier—Columbia leading the way. Today the symbolic potency of white femininity is shifting.

Only outprivileged by white men, the white girl’s assumed universality lets us project onto “white girl” our attitudes about race, gender, class, and the behavior appropriate within those parameters. The girlhood implied by the label is central to understanding how it regulates not only white girls’ behavior but everyone else’s too.

The straight American “white girl” serves as the normative gender performance, the femininity from which all femininity deviates, through which all women of color are otherized. As the default, heteronormative white femininity must provide the ultimate foil to patriarchal masculinity. The “white girl” is vulnerable, trivial, and self-involved. Above all she is mainstream, either by consumer habits or design. Any resemblance to real-life white girls doesn’t matter; all exceptions are exempt from consideration. For every witchy, androgynous Rooney Mara, there’s a Taylor Swift, a Zooey Deschanel, and a Miley Cyrus. At least there used to be a Miley Cyrus.

Her loyalty to the white girlhood she was born into via Hannah Montana is under scrutiny. No longer confined to a Disney contract, she dresses in cropped shirts, leather bras, and bondage-inspired Versace. She’s taken cues from Rihanna and hip-hop culture at large and added gold chains, even a grill. Sixteen-year-old Miley had never heard a Jay Z song (despite the name-check in her hit single “Party in the USA”). Twenty-year-old Miley tweets screengrabs of her iPhone, boasting songs from Gucci Mane, French Montana, and Juicy J. She’s recorded with the latter two.

It would be unfair to demand Miley remain faithful to her teenage aesthetic when no self-aware person does. And it would take a dull palette to assume she couldn’t sincerely recognize the appeal of rap music and gold accessories. Her sincerity, however, is ­irrelevant. Charges of cultural appropriation and the rampant slut shaming she now faces draw a narrow lens to her actions. In truth, Miley exemplifies the white impulse to shake the stigma its mainstream status affords while simultaneously exercising the power of whiteness to define blackness.

She ties a bandana across her forehead like Tupac, or struggle-twerks—her ever-present tongue lolling out in challenge as she looks back at us. Each time it’s a statement declaring this is cool because it’s atypical, and it’s atypical because according to her, it’s black. Miley’s look exists because racial drag carries cachet in cultures that commodify difference.

For all its black performers, the rap industry has been run by the white establishment and caters to the white consumer. The commercial success of gangsta rap wouldn’t be possible without North America’s largest demographic buying in. The commercial demand for sexually aggressive and violent rap is appreciably shaped by white teens in the suburbs looking to live out their fantasies via imagined black bodies. And in guiding the market, white consumers dictate the available imagery of blackness.

In the context of this limited representation, black people are cornered into owning all the stereotypes white consumers afford them, particularly when these consumers allegedly “act black.” Black girls who don’t twerk are made invisible because white consumers decide not only what blackness is but also what they want out of it.

Quoted as wanting something that “feels black” for her new album, Miley Cyrus switches between embracing and distancing herself from the genre she seeks validation from. In a severe overestimation of her abilities, she said, “A lot of people wanted to try to make me the white Nicki Minaj. That’s not what I’m trying to do.” A month later: “Lil Kim is who I am on the inside.”

Like most dress-up games, racial drag is an exercise in fantasy, one that can exist only when femininity is constructed around whiteness, which in turn is constructed around purity. A desire to rebel against such a buttoned-up ethos leaves the white girl desperate for an identity through which to distinguish herself. To this end, white Americans have always been able to use black people.

Black women’s sexuality has been historically presented as deviant and exaggerated, somehow more “primitive.” The thrill of appropriation lies in accessing the perceived authenticity of black sexuality, the success of appropriation lies in abandoning its natural form. Transfer to a white body elevates the action. It’s no longer primitive because while nonwhite culture is assumed to be rooted in instinct, white culture is one of intent. Elaborate nail art, like the kind Miley wears now, appears stylish on a white girl but described as “ghetto” on a black girl because on the white girl, it’s an aesthetic choice whereas black girls just don’t know any better. White people clamoring to up their cred by appropriating nonwhite culture do so hoping to be rewarded for choices that are falsely seen as inherent in people of color. It’s this savvy that Miley wants us to be convinced of.

Like white musicians before her, Miley stands to reap massive profits by straddling an insider-outsider status. Her video for “We Can’t Stop” doesn’t just reduce twerking black people to accessories; it’s a traditional relegation of roles. The lowest laborers in the cultural production of cool are black, and the (white) customer knows best. It’s a transaction predicated on pretending whites are outsiders to hip-hop culture. Therefore their participation distinguishes them as savvier than the average white or even black person. Meanwhile many can’t help but roll their eyes at a white girl fawned over for barely imitating styles and dances that many black women do better. As Azealia Banks put it on Twitter: “can this weird obsession white girls are having with being ‘ratchet’ go away???..… its actually rather embarrassing.”

The “obsession” results from the awkward sexism of white supremacy. If masculine aggression and blatant sexuality appeal to a white girl— maybe a white girl who spent her childhood on a Disney show—it’s only natural for her to appropriate the culture that’s been defined almost exclusively that way. And a society that has systematically devalued black women for centuries will again ignore them to satisfy a white girl’s grinning, self-conscious plea for attention.

Even rappers reserve a special place for the white girl. With so many of America’s racist policies motivated by a fear of miscegenation and a desire to protect white femininity, what better way to antagonize white men than through “their women”? Ice T gets “buck wild with the white freaks” while Kanye makes “champagne wishes” for “30 white bitches.”

Miley—whose name has become synonymous in rap music with both white girl and “white girl,” the slang for cocaine—will soon release an album with hip-hop’s biggest names: Future, Big Sean, Tyler the Creator, and Pharrell Williams are all listed as features, with production from Mike WiLL, famous for his trap beats. In the past year Miley has danced onstage with Juicy J, featured in videos for Big Sean and Snoop Lion, and rapped on a French Montana song.

When Miley surrounds herself with black men, she stares up at the cameras, ­daring us to voice a reflexive concern. It isn’t just black women’s sexuality she plays with but the men’s as well, hinting at a risk she wants credit for not fearing. Miley never looked more like Billy Ray’s insolent daughter than under Wiz Khalifa’s tattooed arm. When there isn’t a black rapper around to Instagram with, Miley posts selfies in a T-shirt emblazoned sex, drugs, and rap, a trifecta that might just as well have read dollar sign dollar sign dollar sign. In interviews she says “ratchet” instead of trashy and “weave” instead of extensions, self-consciously spitting out the words like cherry pits and seeing how they land.

Aping the styles available in pop culture shouldn’t shock the way it has, but in contrasting so deeply with the “white girl” she’s supposed to be, Miley earns both praise and scorn. If Miley’s new look is acceptable, it requires a tolerance for undermining black women. If it is unacceptable, it means demanding an identity, sweet and unsexed, dictated by the anxieties of white patriarchy. And a country that commodifies blackness compromises its ability to judge those who try to buy in.