More than Miley: Disney Stars Ride Black Bodies to Adulthood

Miley Cyrus, trap queen, and twerk team champ released a new album this week along with a new persona: country Miley is back! Gone are the gold chains, grills and booty shorts.  Instead, Miley is rocking country ruffles, cornsilk skin and white supremacy–guess White is in for summer!

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To be clear, Miley has made several statements about this radical brand realignment, saying that she doesn’t listen to hip-hop because, basically, of people like her.

Wait, this is Miley, right?

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Cue the outrage and the twitter dragging–well deserved.  After copulating with hip hop to birth herself a new career, Miley was public-shaming her fling and claiming her roots didn’t include them-over-there black people.  The think pieces started to look more closely at Miley, who she is and why she as an individual decided to ditch hip Hop for the white right.  But like Dead Prez sang, it’s bigger than Hip Hop–or just Miley.

Young white pop stars have been using black culture and black bodies as a PR rite of passage into an adult career for years.  It goes like this–say you’re a producer looking for the next big pop star.  You want someone as palatable as possible so you can reach the widest audience.  You want that squeaky clean all-American look, like a Mouseketeer look.  You audition hundreds and hundreds of kids to find those magic ones that fit the image of American teen idol.  They sing and dance their little feet off for you.  For years. But they’re getting older, and their fans are getting older too.  Hanah Montana’s fans now are wearing makeup,  now dating.  How can Miley be their idol if they are growing faster than her?  How can Justin still be sexy if he’s just so wholesome? If you want that star you invested all that time and money in to keep paying dividends you have to shake them clear of their childhood image, sever them from their innocence and make them seem edgy enough to appeal to twenty-somethings who often love risk and seek danger.  So you black them up, even the ones that are already brown or black–change their friends, change their look, change their sound, sometimes even darken their skin.

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Now look at your favorite pop star, fans. They smoke weed, they sag their look, they hang out with those boys your racist dad told you not to hang out with.  They’re getting wild. They’re growing up faster than you. They’re doing all the dangerous shit parents warn you about. You, fan, pay attention to ads or articles they appear in again. Their songs go back in your rotation.

But you, fan are maturing too.  After a few years, that pop star making bad decisions is like a lot of your friends who aren’t doing too great–getting too high, acting stupid in public.  You start to lose interest, again.  Luckily the PR machine is here to remind you that that pop star is just like you. Ethnically cleansed and fresh from rehab with a mea culpa in hand, they’ready to be a mature star now, earning again for investors, and paying dividends to companies that have been banking on them since their Mouseketeer days.

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It wasn’t that Miley, or Justin or Brittany or Christina were brilliant brand strategists–they were just the star shining on stage.  The puppet master lurks above, pulling strings in a shadowy world driven by profit, data, and research as much as ideology.  What many of theses stars have in common is their parent company: Disney.  This PR path over black and brown bodies to the bank is part of the Magic Kingdom.  Think about that–the company that so many parents trust their children’s hearts too has repeatedly used a calculated racist process to drive profit into their pockets and ideology into the hearts and minds of their customers.

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Disney has long had a reputation for being racist.  Walt Disney himself was a racist and many early Disney movies and cartoons were also racist.  Song of the South and Dumbo have never been rereleased unlike many other titles in Disney’s catalog because they are so racist.  Even Disney’s greatest hits are packed with stereotypical characters, and reinforce dominant ideology about race.

Look, I know you love Disney and here I come to shit all over your mouse parade.  But the fact is that this is important.  Disney has a mainline into American children, pumping not just Frozen song lyrics, but ideas about what–and who–is right and wrong.  Disney shows, movies, and stars are vehicles for communicating ideas about how to be a good friend, good person, how to be a good girl or boy (how binary). Disney media shows us how to fall in love, how to fight for what’s right, and who the bad guys are.

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It’s more than Miley.  It’s that Walt Disney Company, one of America’s largest purveyor of ideology, has a long-standing widespread practice of using black bodies as the stand in for wildness, incivility, hypersexuality and violence.  With America’s–and some of the world’s–children fed at the tit of Disney since birth, this equates to a silent symbolic war where one side has all the weapons.  How can black people, already underrepresented in front of and behind the camera, battle a Kingdom complete with land, legal protection as a corporation and a legion of children ready to scream “Acuna Matata”?

The Miley Cyrus story has raised cries of cultural appropriation.  Miley’s use of blackness, now discarded and demonized is a clear case for how cultural appropriation winds up hurting black people.  But I believe when we move up the food chain, there is no personal fetishization of blackness, as much of the analysis suggests with Cyrus. Instead, blackness functions as a code to indicate a pop star experiencing a wild awakening.  Blackness is there merely to represent the dark, seedy, undesirable side of America that is valuable only as a rumspringa for white American youth.  They aren’t stealing your beauty or your swag–they grant you neither.  Instead, they are stealing only their vision of you: raw animal aggression and untethered sexuality that they project onto black bodies so they can touch it, sell it, without taking any ownership of their own dark side.

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For decades, from Annette and Frankie to Miley and Justin, Disney has used black bodies to flip child stars into adults.  If you think they couldn’t have meant to–the old argument that their intentions were not racist–that still means that Disney has perpetrated years of cultural war on blackness without any concern for those represented or hurt.  If you like your theory with a healthy dose of paranoia reality, maybe you believe Disney is intentionally vilifying blackness in the representational binary with their innocent white stars, then we agree on nothing less than symbolic genocide and ideologically armed racism delivered in brightly colored costumes.

Either way, Miley is just the tip of the cultural appropriation iceberg.  Disney’s pattern of using blackness as a code shows that the ultimate result of cultural appropriation isn’t the inappropriate use of cornrows or coochie shorts but symbolic annihilation. Remember that the next time someone tells you to let cultural appropriation go.

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