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.

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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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