Miley Cyrus performs onstage during the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on the Miley Cyrus complex - an ontology of slut-shaming

Sexual performance is still the only power this society grants to young women, and it grants it grudgingly, rushing to judge and humiliate them whenever they claim it.

What does empowerment look like for young women today? That’s the debate du jour and, as ever, it stars a pretty young pop star in her pants. It all started when Sinead O’Connor wrote an open letter to the perennially halfnaked sexpot of the moment, Miley Cyrus, advising her not to let the male-dominated music industry “make a fool” of her.

Cyrus responded, as she usually does, by sticking out her tongue and taking off her clothes. Other female rock stars weighed in: Amanda Palmer wants O’Connor to respect Cyrus’s integrity as an artist. Annie Lennox is disturbed by porny music videos. Whose camp are you in? And who is being exploited – apart from the millions of readers who have flicked guiltily through endless snaps of Miley Cyrus in her scanties just to check how shocking they really are?

Nobody has covered themselves in glory in this insalubrious episode. Not O’Connor, whose “motherly” advice strayed into slutshaming, as she warned the younger singer about the dangers of being a “prostitute” and advised her that “your body is for you and your boyfriend”; not Cyrus, whose response was a cruel jab at the older woman’s mental health history. Nor the rest of us, the clickbait hunters and tabloid outrage merchants rubbing our hands with glee.

This is a familiar discussion. On the one hand, the worried middle-aged woman lecturing the ingénue on the importance of wearing clothes in public; on the other, the girl who is sick of being cast as a pure and perfect princess, who wants to have fun and feel powerful and has limited options for doing so in a society that remains intolerant of women trying to claim space as anything at all except hot and half-dressed. Miley Cyrus grew up in public as the Disney Channel’s tame tween everygirl, Hannah Montana – a role every bit as artificial as the power-toolhumping sexpot pose. In a recent sketch for Saturday Night Live, Cyrus declared that Hannah Montana had been “murdered” – and her glee was obvious.

So, is Miley Cyrus empowered or is she exploited when she wriggles around naked on an enormous wrecking ball, smashing into a music culture already saturated with images of slender girls in tiny pants? Is Sinead O’Connor being selflessly brave, or is she a hectoring, prudish old hag? Are young girls better off stripping and twerking for money, or covering up for fear of being judged, exploited or attacked? Should they be allowed to make mistakes in public in a society whose horny hatred for young women’s real bodies is so treacherous to negotiate, or should we just lock them up for their own protection? On and on and on. The debate has been raging for years and it will continue for as long as we continue to treat young women as commodities, rather than human beings.

When you are a young girl in a world that hates women’s bodies, your developing sexuality is a loaded weapon and your parents, peers and teachers line up to make sure you never learn how to use it. Instead, you are meant to polish the thing to a shine, twirl it about; perform sexy but don’t actually have sex. You can play with power, as long as you never claim it; you can enact desire, as long as you don’t act on it. All the while, you’re told that being young, beautiful and vulnerable is still the best thing that a woman can possibly be – that you’d better grab what power you can right now, before time and gravity take that away, too.

How are young women meant to grow up free and brave in a world that covets our commercial potential and despises us when we demand control of our destinies? It would help if we stopped speaking of “empowerment” and “exploitation” as if those things were mutually exclusive. When a young woman puts on latex panties and grinds with a middle-aged creep on stage, because she knows that doing so will get her money and attention, is there power there? Hell, yes. Is that power bounded on all sides by patriarchy? Yes, again.

When I was 20, I did some very silly things in search of that brief, thrilling sexual power that is the privilege of the young, drunk and naked. I stripped and bounced and let myself be exploited by older, more powerful men who couldn’t care less about my inner beauty; I danced half-naked onstage with fabulous drag artists in purple suspenders and I looked ridiculous and had a lot of fun. I am lucky to have more scars than I have regrets. Now, when I see younger women I love and admire trying to negotiate that vanishing territory between slut-shaming and self-objectification, it makes me want to cram my whole fist in my mouth – but I will swallow it before I judge them.

Sinead O’Connor is right about one thing: the music industry does not care about young women. Society does not care about young women – not, that is, about female people who just happen to be young. Rather, it cares about Young WomenTM as concept and commodity, Young WomenTM as pose and performance, Young WomenTM and how much money you can squeeze out of them before they turn around and demand to be treated like human beings – which is still the most shocking thing an actual female person can do.

The problem is not that we cannot decide whether nearly-naked pop stars are empowered or exploited. The problem is that bland sexual performance is still the only power this society grants to young women, and it grants it grudgingly, rushing to judge and humiliate them whenever they claim it. Rather than condemn girls as they try to negotiate this strange, sexist society – a society that offers temporary, dazzling power to those who play the game –we should be supporting them as they grow up, make art and stick out their tongue at the whole stuck-up world – and that starts with a stand against slut-shaming.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.