What Miley Cyrus and Detroit's "Ruin Porn" Have in Common

What Miley Cyrus and Detroit's "Ruin Porn" Have in Common

Admit it, America: Miley Cyrus “won” 2013.

At least that’s what the news told me. From the moment she twerked her way into notoriety at the Video Music Awards in August, the tongue-wagging pop star has taken center stage in a feverish debate about race, wrecking balls, booty-shaking, and “cultural tourism.” We’ve paid her so much attention that TIME considered naming her “Person of the Year,” an honor usually reserved for Popes, astronauts, and mass murderers. But “Mileygate” is also distracting us from a different kind of cultural tourism: one with far greater stakes, and more insidious implications.


Haven’t you heard? Detroit is no longer the apocalyptic shithole you thought it was! The Los Angeles Times reports that for the low price of $45, you and your family can enjoy a safely guided tour of the city’s architectural “ruins.” Just imagine: grand auditoriums and schools where kids used to play, reduced to Dresden-like rock heaps and piles of debris. And don’t forget your camera – you won’t want to miss a photo-op with a disgruntled local!


Image Credit: AP

It’s heartwarming to see profit reaped from the devastation of #Amurica’s heartland. After all, what good is the free market if you can’t love thy neighbor’s misfortune and make a quick buck? But compare Miley’s “cultural tourism” to Detroit’s “ruin porn” tours, and things get complicated: both raise questions about privilege and exploitation, but when the media makes Miley the issue’s poster child, Michigan's less glamorous example gets lost in the shuffle.


Courtesy Vimeo

This is unfortunate, because both share important similarities. Detroit has emerged as the Great Recession’s most visible victim, a proud Midwestern metropolis that’s experienced a 26% population drop since 2000. Jobs are scarce, violent crime is high, and in mid-July, it became the largest municipality in U.S. history to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

It feels wrong to make this economic disaster a tourist destination. Right now, it’s a short-term cash grab, providing fast money for a few enterprising residents. But with no sustainable profit generated for the city itself, the tours come off as mere exploitation: low-budget safaris, with poor people and crumbling buildings as the main attractions. And no on is talking about it.


Image Credit: AP

Meanwhile, critics have spent countless hours discussing the Artist Formerly Known as Hannah Montana. They’ve focused on the liberties she’s taken with black culture, painting her as a cultural “tourist” content to skim, borrow, and exploit, while ignoring the racially charged context of her actions. Because of this debate, Americans improved vastly in one notable area through the course of 2013: we got really, really good at talking about Miley Cyrus.


The problem here is simple. Tourism creates a relationship of inequality – it transforms homes into amusement parks, and turns people into sources of entertainment for (mostly wealthier) visitors. Yet the more we use pop creations like Miley as examples of tourism gone awry, the worse we become at discussing the real thing. Miley is happening online. Detroit is happening in real life.

So when we concede that Miley Cyrus “won 2013,” we’re really admitting that she made us pay more attention to her than other way more important things. Miley’s “cultural tourism” is problematic, I suppose. But ask yourself how you’d feel if your pain and devastation were literally monetized for profit. Imagine if people started snapping photos of your crumbling home, instead of helping you rebuild it.

This is Detroit today. So if we want an America we can be proud of, we should make sure places like the Motor City emerge victorious in 2014. I’m not sure how many more Miley “wins” this country can handle.