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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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem