Miley Cyrus at the VMAs: a six-minute guide to the prejudices of the entertainment industry

From Miley grinding Robin Thicke to smacking her backing dancer's buttocks, the VMAs showed that, once again, white men run the show, black men play support, all the women get mostly naked, and black women get to hold up the bottom of the objectification

Not to get all philosophical about pop, but when Miley Cyrus starting singing "It's our party, we can do what we want" in her MTV VMAs appearance, the question that comes to mind is: oh yeah Miley, whose party? Because by the time the We Can't Stop/Blurred Lines medley is up, Cyrus has been stripped down to a supporting role in Robin Thicke's show.

Dressed in latex pants and bra the colour of her skin, like the models in Blurred Lines' Benny-Hill-goes-to-American-Apparel video, Cyrus ends up bent over in front of a suited Thicke, wiggling and hanging her tongue out the side of her mouth. Is what you want definitely such a close match with King Leer behind you, Miley?

Mind you, it's turn and turnabout in the objectification stakes. Cyrus's segment of the performance includes her bending over a black dancer and spanking her while singing the weirdly slow and mournful line: "To my homegirls here with the big butts/Shaking it like we at a strip club." Oh we're doing the Hottentot Venus thing now, are we? I haven't run the full sums on my Is-This-Racist calculator, but preliminary estimates suggests that yes, this is pretty stinkingly racist.

In fact, if you wanted a six-minute guide to the prejudices of the entertainment industry, this performance has it covered: white men run the show, black men play support, all the women get mostly naked, and black women get to hold up the bottom of the objectification pile. It is, simply, horrible, and made worse by the fact that Cyrus looks wildly awkward. She's at her best as a clowning comedian, a Disney Channel Lucille Ball, and can't play the affectless wanton. No wonder Rihanna seems to be shooting her evils: Rihanna knows sexy, and this isn't it.

But it is one of the only roles that's available to female pop stars – certainly for Cyrus, who's trying to get away from the country-pop sweetheart persona of Hannah Montana that Taylor Swift now occupies. "You're a good girl," croons Thicke ironically over Cyrus's jiggling heiny, and what do ironic good girls do? They get nasty in exactly the way boys want them to, while the boys stay neatly clothed. It makes it drearily obvious just who's in charge.

In this tedious atmosphere where everything tends to women ending up in their bras and pants, even Gaga's giddying performance-of-performance for Applause ends up feeling null when it climaxes with her dancing in bra and pants. Hey, everyone's naked today, Gaga. Next time try blowing my mind by wearing a three-piece suit or something. If the endgame is always a skinny white woman in her underwear, it doesn't seem to make much odds what the hooks are or what wit and gameplaying goes into getting there.

Yes, but pop music is about sex, right? No: pop music is sexy, but that twitching force doesn't always have to be driven into a dull pantomime of rutting, with available female bodies and smugly self-contained male ones. I cheered inside last year when Cyrus spoke up, saying "it’s ignorant not to talk to your kids about [sex] or [not] make it seem as magical or cool as it actually is." The kind of sex on show last night? Not magical. Not cool. Not my party.

Yes, Jaden Smith. We know.

Miley Cyrus grinds on Robin Thicke. Photo: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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