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People as Props: New Fad or Old Habit?

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People as Props: New Fad or Old Habit?

By: Maggi Quigley

Swirling media coverage and frenzied social justice bloggers alike have been given many an addition these past few months to their crusade of questioning and critiquing using people of a specific group as a prop in performance art. While some artists are intending on helping communities, others are alleged to be exploiting them just for the purpose of gaining coverage and notoriety. Whatever the reason, this practice has been used in politics for years, and has now just resurfaced and become the forefront of discussion.

Miley Cyrus is possibly the most notable for the use of people as props. Many groups have said she is exploiting black culture on her rise to the top. However, another demographic feels slighted as well. Little people that Cyrus hired to perform as bears in her now infamous Video Music Awards performance, and also in her New Years Eve performance, have spoken out.

Hollis Jane, a 24 year old back up dancer for the VMAs, posted on her blog an open letter to the pop star. Jane wrote, “I will never forget that performance because it is what forced me to draw my personal line in the sand. After our first dress rehearsal in the costumes with the crew, publicists, performers etc watching us, I walked out of the Barclay Center shaking and crying… I was being stared and laughed at for all of the wrong reasons. I was being looked at as a prop…as something less than human.”

She continued on a sobering note, “If the little person community continues to do performances like this, it is my belief that we will continue to only receive maybe 2 percent of the auditions and opportunities of our average sized friends. Society will think we’re OK with being laughed at because we still continue to do things that allow them to laugh at us or look at us as props.”

As stated previously, the 20 year old popstar is accused of appropriating black culture to garner attention in the media. In an interview with E Online, Cyrus was quick to dispel such an idea, saying “I’m from one of the wealthiest counties in America. I know what I am. But I also know what I like to listen to…I would never think about the color of my dancers, like, ‘Ooh, that might be controversial.'”

However many do not agree with her statement. One outspoken advocate against Cyrus, Jodi Rosen, said on Vulture that “Cyrus is annexing working-class black ‘ratchet’ culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies, to the cause of her reinvention: her transformation from squeaky-clean Disney-pop poster girl to grown-up hipster-provocateur. (Want to wipe away the sickly-sweet scent of the Magic Kingdom? Go slumming in a black strip club.) Cyrus may indeed feel a cosmic connection to Lil’ Kim and the music of “the hood.” But the reason that these affinities are coming out now, at the VMAs and elsewhere, is because it’s good for business.”

But Cyrus isn’t the only one accused of using people and identities as props. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have earned many an opinion piece online about their mass marriage, activists stating that participants’ sexuality was used as a prop.

President Obama has even caught some heat in the past week, accused of “exploiting Americans for the political fight” in his State of the Union speech. Aaron Hoddinott, writer for Capitalist Creations, a website designed for entrepreneurs, stated, “from a war hero, to a gay professional athlete, to a pizza boy, Washington politicians used various people as props in the 2014 State of the Union address.” Hoddinott continued, “Washington elitists seem to think it is okay to use people who have gone through tough times or displayed bravery to make a political point, or advanced their own agenda. It’s sad. It was very imperialistic, nothing more than showmanship.”

As part of political campaigns, several hardworking Americans are featured each round and attached to certain issues (anyone remember ‘Joe the Plumber?’). Nick Gillespie, writer for Time Magazine, wrote on this issue, addressing the newest American being used as a “political prop,” U.S. Army Ranger Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, injured while serving in Afghanistan. Gillespie writes, “Remsburg’s sacrifice is plain to see: He has a long, visible scar on his head and, the president explained, he ‘is still blind in one eye’ and ‘still struggles on his left side.’ Regardless of political affiliation and ideological positioning, all Americans can appreciate Remsburg’s willingness to serve while questioning whether President Obama is right to use such a soldier as an applause line in a political speech.”

However it is spun, society is still dictating whether or not the use of people as props is acceptable in some cases, and exploitative in others. Discussions have sprung up, but the results are unclear; only time will tell if this trend in entertainment and politics is any less than objectifying.

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