Memo to Miley: twerking is not a feminist statement

Freedom of choice for women is central to the idea of gender equality, but that doesn’t make every choice a woman makes inherently feminist.

There comes a time in any young woman’s life when the paper thin membrane standing between what constitutes dancing and what it commonly known as ‘dry humping’ is transgressed. In Miley Cyrus’ case, it happened last weekend at the VMAs, with her performance (during which she bent over and rubbed her arse against Robin Thicke’s crotchal area in a move commonly referred to as ‘twerking’) being dubbed ‘shocking’ by people on the internet you don’t care about. A tedious slut-shaming narrative emerged, with certain tweeters falling hook line and sinker for Cyrus’ publicist-mandated ‘transformation’ from Disney virgin to whore, and others demanding why the 36-year-old married man allowing a young woman barely of age to grind up against his stripy Beetlejuice suit-trousers should be off the hook. Especially when he’s responsible for what is officially termed ‘the rapiest song of the summer’ (although, in fairness, it was nice to see a woman singing half the ‘I know you want it’ part for once).

But we’re not here to point out what a drag the sexual double standard can be (duh), or even to talk about how watching the whole teddy bear routine that preceded her duet with Thicke makes you feel like you should be on some kind of register. We’re not even really here to to respond to the charges that Miley has faced of cultural appropriation (read this instead). Yes, twerking is a move taken from hip-hop, via the strip joints of Houston and Atlanta, and yes, some of Miley’s aping of that culture has been problematic in the past. Aspects of her performance that night were also problematic (using black people as props, even smacking a dancer's ass.) But, despite the sad fact that not a single black artist won an award this year, hip-hop and R&B are generally massively dominant within the music industry, so it's no surprise that certain dance moves are being copied (hell, everything is being copied), and, while Miley contributing to the commodification of black women's sexuality is not ok, does this mean the simple act of rubbing one’s tushie against a man’s groin while shaking it like a Polaroid picture as off limits for white women?

We learnt from the Harlem Shake that the ability of white people to take any dance trend, commodify it, and render it bullshit knows absolutely no bounds. Bullshit Miley’s kind of dancing may be, but does it follow that a kind of dancing so popular among the general population should remain the preserve of any one group of people? (However, arguing that the concept of Thicke’s "Blurred Lines" should remain the preserve of the late Marvin Gaye might prove much more fruitful. Ask Thicke about cultural appropriation, too.) Just go to any nightclub frequented by people in their teens and twenties, especially those ones that are commonly referred to with a definite article (as in ‘The Club’), and you’ll see exactly how ubiquitous what R Kelly was singing about all those years ago has become.

Yes, people. We’re here to talk about grinding.

From the looks of some of the responses to the skank-shaming of Miley, you’d think that grinding a guy in public was some kind of feminist statement. ‘She’s just expressing her sexuality in a healthy way’; say those who have absolutely no concept either of the impact of market forces in popular music or of how Miley has been cultivating this raunchy change of branding for some time now. Rest assured, sex positive feminists, we’re sure Miley has been in the fame game long enough that any genuine expression of her sexuality is unlikely to take place anywhere near the world’s media, though I’m sure there are some fat cat music execs rubbing their hands together at the thought of you buying into the myth (oh yeah, and ALSO, not strictly HER sexuality). Sadly, the kind of manufactured ‘sexual expression’ that popular culture currently prizes usually involves a camera and a dubious male to female clothing ratio (namely, he’s wearing trousers and she’s probably not), and, as every feminist ever keeps reiterating: if you guys aren’t doing it, it’s probably sexist.

The same is true of pretty much any grinding, anywhere. Take a look around next time you’re drunk enough to find yourself in one of these establishments, and note how many guys are on their knees in front of their dance partners, rubbing their arses slowly up the ladies’ legs like a cat using a scratch pole to caress its fluff-ridden anus. How many of them are ostentatiously panting as they do it, perhaps grazing their lips with their fingers and running their fingers through their luscious locks? Not very many, we’d wager. Indeed, if you want a prime example of how female sexuality is packaged as performance, just head down to Tiger Tiger tonight.

Of course, many of us have fallen victim to the urge to grind every now and again, especially with someone we’re keen to sleep with. Indeed, grinding is frequently interpreted as ‘dancing with someone in a way that indicates you are interested in fucking them’, though whether or not you actually are is another matter entirely. Male friends have told us that the whole thing can be a bit of an embarrassment, and may have had to shuffle away following the emergence of an erection that neither the bloke nor his partner were bargaining for. Indeed, the seeming popularity of grinding in nightclubs has led some men to come to the illogical conclusion that women love nothing more than having an unsolicited stiffy shoved against our cracks, hence the reason so many of us have a circle of protective girlfriends around us at all times on a night out. If that’s what gets some gals off, fair enough, but from the looks of any given music video you’d think a woman’s g-spot was in her arse cheeks.

So by all means grind away, if that’s what gets you going (we’re not the sodding dance police), but don’t pretend that gyrating against a decidedly stationary man is anything but the product of a culture where male sexuality dominates. Freedom of choice for women is central to the idea of gender equality, but that doesn’t make every choice a woman makes inherently feminist. Whether or not you want to butt rub a guy’s erection to a soundtrack of Usher is your decision, but powerful feminist statement it is not (and guess what, folks, not everything has to be). Indeed, Rhiannon’s mum once remarked that one of the things she liked about the younger generation was that the men danced, because when she was a girl all the men just stood and watched while the lasses danced around their handbags. Unfortunately, not as much has changed as would initially appear. Instead, we seem to have merely substituted ‘handbags’ for ‘strangers’ cocks’, and if that’s progress then cloak our fannies in sequins and sign us up to Strictly (please don’t). That’s not to say that there aren’t guys out there with incredible moves, just that, as things are, they’re expected to stand there with a semi while a woman tosses her hair. We may thank God for Madonna’s backing dancers, but until we see Thicke or Kanye or any other proudly heterosexual man bumping and grinding at the VMAs, we have yet to achieve dance equality.

Miley Cyrus grinds on a teddy bear. Photo: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.