In June 2013 Miley released her video for "We Can't Stop", drawing myriad criticisms for her appropriation of "ratchet" culture. Since then, many other female pop stars have engaged in culturally appropriative videos/performances, but to scant attention compared to Miley (Gaga's "Aura" or Katy Perry's geisha-inspired performance of "Unconditionally"). I argue that focusing on Miley's appropriation covers a deeper fear of queer sexuality.
Queer of color theorists (Puar, Ferguson, etc) have shown that race and sexuality are inextricable and how bodies of color are rendered queer. To exemplify the links between race and sexuality in Miley's case, we need look no further than "ratchet." Here I turn to Urban Dictionary for the word's popular usage. The first entry for ratchet is steeped not only in racial coding ("diva," "ghetto," "degenerate Chaka Khan look-alikes") but the definition also hints at the word's queer potential: ratchet women dress, look and act in ways that make them not "every man's eye candy"--they transgress white heteropatriarchal scripts of attractiveness and/or legibility. Miley embodies the queerness of ratchet in this video: she simultaneously sexualizes and infantilizes herself, simulates sex acts with inanimate objects, hints at auto-eroticism/masturbation, and in general transgresses sexual boundaries in queer ways.
Miley's performance is thus more troubling than Gaga's or Perry's because when Miley appropriates ratchet culture specifically she also simultaneously appropriates the queerness that ratchet entails; since ratchet is a kind of queer identity Miley "becomes" queer at the same time that she "becomes" ratchet. Certainly other racialized cultures are also sexualized, but they are sexualized differently in a US context. For example, Perry's "geisha" performance invokes US stereotypes of Asian women as sexually docile while Gaga's burqa-play invokes the Western perception of Muslim women as oppressed, passive, and unthreatening. Further, Miley appropriates ratchet culture in her off-stage persona as well. This consistent appropriation differs from Perry's "geisha" appropriation, for instance, in which the appropriated symbols become a costume that is worn and taken off again, allowing Perry to slip easily back into whiteness and the typical gender/sexual scripts that whiteness signifies in America. Thus, Miley's racialized/queered/classed performance threatens white heteropatriarchal norms in ways that Gaga's and Perry's performances don't, because their performances reinscribe white, hetero, male dominance. Until we recognize how sexuality and queerness inflect cultural appropriation, our critiques fall short and cause us ultimately to be more sensitive to certain kinds of appropriations over others.