CGWS Summer School Notes – Celebrity Provocations Miley and Rihanna – Dr. Debra Ferreday and Dr Kate McNicholas Smith

Another really interesting session today. Both thought provoking explorations of the disruptive potential of artists such as Mile and Rihanna and uselful to think not just about representations, but interpretations and readings of these representations and how they re(produce) modes of oppression and even violence. My key thoughts arising from both of these excellent papers were-

  • If we accept that Miley/Rihanna can be feminist cultural producers who create potential to disrupt dominant readings of pop culture, femininity etc (which I do), what does this mean?
  • How can we ensure that this disruption inspires us (rather than placates us) to demand/create ever more subversive material?
  • How are these representations actually read – how useful is the ‘disruption’ if one needs a PhD in gender theory to access disruptive reading?
    • Kate answered this well by explaining that even as a teenager she felt the same way about certain celebrities such as the Spice Girls even if she didn’t have the words/experience to articulate it that she does now
    • I think this is a good point and acknowledges the meaningful value that young (girls) people find in their celebrity icons
    • I’m not entirely convinced though that a 15 year old Miley fan is empowered by the disruption created by miley as read in this paper as opposed to feeling empowered by an understanding on some level that Miley is breaking ‘the rules’
      • Does this matter?
      • What is the value of these disruptions if they are not accessible to the majority of fans?
        • Is there a problem with my assumption that these readings are not accessible – is that in itself patronising/ devaluing?
  • Is it possible to utilise the really important perspective that the ‘turn to the body’ gives us and still have legitimate feminist concerns about the power structures in play? – Can this structuralism and cultural disruption be reconciled to give a better picture than either reading is able to achieve on its own?
  • Can we acknowledge the genuinely disruptive potential of artists such as Miley and Rihanna without silencing legitimate critiques of them?
    • Ie in relation to sexualisation the moralising and panic is obviously problematic but there is meaningful discussion to be had in relation to the lack of diversity in sexualised imagery which Miley and Rihanna are not responsible for but are part of
  • Why are the disruptions these artists create not more radical – ie they still depict a narrow view of able-bodies, slim, hairless sexiness
    • Again, this is not to say that Miley/Rihanna are responsible for righting all of the wrongs of patriarchal cultural production, but to ask what the barriers to more radical mainstream depictions are – where do they come from? How are the produced and reproduced and how can we subvert them further?

Lecture notes below, my own thoughts in purple italics otherwise the notes represent work presented by Ferreday and McNicholas Smith or others cited by them but reproduced below without proper citation as for own personal study.

Rihanna Unchained: Media, Violence, and the affective politics of White Feminism – Feminist Theory Journal

  • Not just about looking at Rihanna as example of how women of colour are represented but also how white feminism is constructed in relation to her
  • Silencing and misreading of black women’s’ cultural production
  • The politics of reading/ scandalising
  • Video – ‘The bitch better have my money’
    • Imagery – Rhianna as the leader of a girl gang – Bratz dolls style fashion
    • Rhianna is cheated by her accountant
    • The girl gang kidnap the accountant’s white girlfriend
      • -Republican white wife – fur coat, little dog
    • Alluding to sexualised violence
    • Cross cut with swagger and posturing
    • The accountant doesn’t pay up so Rhianna’s gang turn their violence on him


  • Why is the critical gaze of white feminism so often focussed on the cultural productions of women of colour?
  • A white feminist ‘field day’
    • Links with war and hunting
  • ‘Repugnant’, ‘Seeping’ ‘Sub-snuff’ – link with notion of ‘abject’
  • Meaghan Garvey in Pitchfork magazine, Helen Lewis- new statesman
  • Celebrations of white feminists

Rihanna Unchained – Claiming artistic genealogies

  • Read predominantly as a piece of video
  • Link with other ‘genius’ male depictions of violence and revenge- particularly Tarentino
    • Djago unchained
    • Kill Bill
    • Inglorious Bastards
  • Dichotomy between calling her video ‘art’ vs ‘danger’
  • Politics of reading
  • Man Down video – previous
    • Rhianna shoots a man who has raped her
    • Rhianna is lighter skinned and shown with darker woc behind her
    • Misread as a video about victim blaming
      • ‘telling young survivors to go out and shoot rapists’
    • BBHMM as an escalation of man down after not being heart
    • Shame and voyeurism
      • Pleasure of censure
      • White feminism – you make me feel ashamed, you make me complicit- you should be ashamed
    • ‘The victim gets punished over and over again’ Rihanna 2017
      • Rihanna’s work is subjected to more scrutiny than Chris Brown’s
      • Images of Rhianna’s bruised face were leaked by the police to the press for money
      • Her interest in BDSM is taken to negate questions of consent

Consuming victimhood

  • Rihanna is not a ‘good victim’
  • She doesn’t fit the accepted victim narrative
  • Empowerment ‘about accessing one’s own life as material’ – Mardorrosian 2014 – not necessarily intelligible in stereotypically feminist terms
  • White feminism is used to contain black women via tone policing and moralising around decency
  • Ethans 2015 – ‘Could it be we are all shifting in our seats because a black woman made this?’

Introducing: Miley Cyrus

  • 2013 VMAs – Miley emerges from inside of a giant teddy bear, dancing bears and women of colour
    • Twerking, sexualised racialisation, appropriation
    • Blurred lines with Robin Thicke
  • Controversy
    • Feminist critique
    • Parental outrage
    • Sexualisation of culture thesis

Sexualisation or the queer feminist provocation of Miley Cyrus?

  • Obscuring popular culture as a site of struggle
  • Cyrus, exceeds the constraints of the sexualisation debate
    • Need to pay attention to the ‘spectacular excesses’ and engagement and mobilisation with queer
  • Cyrus – the bad role model
    • Starting as Disney’s Hannah Montanna
    • Concern about her embracing of sexualisation
    • Cyrus voted worst celebrity role model
    • She is the ultimate ‘go to’ bad object
  • Cyrus’ queer visibility
    • ‘I don’t relate to being a boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relation to boy or girl’ – Cyrus 2015
    • Instapride and Happy Hippy Foundation
    • Does Cyrus radically disrupt heteronomativity or co-opt queer identity?
      • Long history of disruption make it appear to be more than a ‘Lesbian-chic’ temporary idenitity
    • Cyrus’ Excess Femininity
      • Via Social Media
      • Hypervisibility and excessive use of extreme representations of the body
    • Cyrus’ pop femininity – drag -2015 VMAs
    • The ‘pornicorn’
    • Finishes with removal of strap on dildo – link to castration complex
  • This is all well and good but have we lost something in abandoning structuralism
    • Miley makes a fortune from the imagery she creates
    • Do viewers read Miley in this ‘disruptive’ way? – if not then does it matter?
  • Appropriation of black and queer culture
    • Miley expunges a ‘post racial discourse’
    • Nicki Minaj debate with Taylor Swift
  • Brady on Miley Cyrus
    • Miley as the failed endpoint of the fight against sexualisation
    • More complex than this
      • Cyrus as a resistence to discipline required of young women

Miley = not a coherent feminist role model, she is a mobilisation of contradictory femininities

Defy structural interpretations? Can we reconcile the turn to the body with structuralism?


  • Need to make sense of people like Miley and create Grand Narratives and she and her image changes too fast and is too messy



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