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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.