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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era