What a Puritan society we've become, when Miley Cyrus and her twerking can be considered the end of both civilisation as we know it and the end of feminism. I'm a lifelong feminist and I'm going to put my hands up here and admit I think she's fun. If nothing else, the way she has people falling over themselves to be either politically correct or prudish is highly entertaining.
Yes, the music business puts pressure on women to be sexual, but I don't think it's a coincidence that today's female performers go farther than the generations immediately preceding them. These young women are an assertive bunch who're not afraid to display their sexuality. So what if Rihanna and Beyonce and the rest strut on stage with minimal costumes? You'll see similar outfits on the streets of our big cities every Saturday night. And in the north east they wear pelmet skirts and bare legs even in winter.
What's particularly striking about the reaction to Miley is all the elder stateswomen of music weighing in with 'motherly' advice. Could the Cher criticising her for unprofessionalism really be the same Cher who bestrode a gun barrel on USS Missouri, singing 'If I Could Turn Back Time,' the Cher whose costumes for the video included a see-through black lace dress and a modest little ensemble featuring a transparent bodysuit, suspenders, a leather jacket and a thong that flashed all she had to offer every time she turned her back. If ever there was a female performer who colluded with male expectations it was Cher, yet no-one in their right mind could look at her sheer joie de vivre and accuse her of not feeling 'empowered.' Just a shame she had to be empowered by endorsing military values, the one obscene thing about her video if you ask me. Miley Cyrus looks positively demure in comparison.
Sinead O'Connor's sincere letter was a kind gesture, and correct in its assessment that the men running the music business care only for profit, not the performer, but her constant references to Miley as 'young lady' sounded like my old headmistress talking— and she was a nun. It's a very curious way to address a young woman when you're talking about sexism. If there's one role Miley Cyrus clearly doesn't want to be stuck in it's that of young lady. I never saw her Hannah Montana series, but I do know it was made by Disney and if it's anything like the bland slop they usually serve up as a representation of human experience, then the character Miley played was undoubtedly too cutesy to be tolerated by any red-blooded female.
In fact, the only shocking thing about Miley's performance at the Video Music Awards awards was the length of her tongue, a stupendously lewd and lascivious appendage that rivals Mick Jagger's lips for iconic value. Even the fabled twerking is just a new name for a fairly common dance move that's been around for years. In the inaugural issue of Feminist Times, musician Dana Jade of Clitrock (a charity to combat female genital mutilation) claims it for her native Trinidad, where it's called win'in', (winding) but I've seen it at parties, on music videos and have even been known to do it myself, though not perhaps in as empowered a fashion as Ms Miley.
Feminism is absolutely right in fighting the constant commodification of women, but what worries me about the response to today's performers is that instead of asserting one kind of power over women, we're simply substituting another, the fascism of good behaviour, which demands that every woman be kind, caring, nurturing—and ladylike. Miley Cyrus's dancing with Robin Thicke at the MTV awards was gangly, sassy and humorous, a point which seems to have been missed by those comparing it to prostitution. Anyone watching street women hanging round the cold streets of our major cities waiting to be picked up, whether by punters or police, would not see anything funny in it. Cyrus herself has said, 'If I wanted to do a raunchy sex video I wouldn't have come out dressed as a damn bear.'
Robin Thicke's own Blurred Lines video has been heavily criticised for its 'rapey' lyrics and the fact that the men in the video are fully clothed while the women are half-dressed and trot about like horses. But if you examine what's actually going on, the men preen and posture, ogling the women and bragging about their prowess and private parts. They get nowhere with the women, who strut about in see-through plastic mini-dresses, looking aloof. Even the suspect lyrics don't hold up: the singer has tried to 'domesticate' the woman but failed. She's the animal who can't be tamed, not him. He sees beyond her appearance and tells her she's not plastic. There's no excuse for the crassness of a line like I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two, but it's clearly the man bragging about the size of his organ, a point made in the video with the graffiti saying Robin Thicke has a big dick. In the end, You know you want me sounds like wishful thinking rather than a threat. The video was directed by a woman.
The surprising thing about the recent controversies is that women have been taking their clothes off for entertainment for hundreds of years. In Belle Epoque Paris, more than a hundred years ago, women danced the can-can wearing split crotch drawers that revealed their private parts. In nightclubs from Paris's Crazy Horse to the nude tableaux of the Windmill Theatre to the spectacular strip shows of Las Vegas, they go topless or bottomless. Some women have brains or personality to offer but there is no shame in offering beauty, a wonderful gift in woman or man. Yet we get ourselves in a moral frenzy over a young woman clowning around in elastoplast knickers and a sports bra, which is more than Kate Middleton wears on holiday.
Like most women I get fed up of gratuitous sexualisation from the advertising industry, which uses women's bodies inappropriately to sell all sorts of consumer goods, from the female bodies painted to look like a Fiat car to the American unisex shirt ads that feature fully dressed men staring straight at the camera in their tartan shirts while the women are half naked in theirs. I sympathise with the mothers who fear for their daughters in this normalisation of sexual imagery all around us, but if we're talking about really pernicious imagery, those in the fashion industry are far more dangerous—British designer Jenny Packham, beloved of the rich and royal, recently showed her collection of the most romantic, ethereal dresses, but the girls who wore them had frangible legs and scary-skinny arms. That seems more frightening to me than an athletic-looking young woman briefly showing off her healthy body or licking chains and wrecking balls.
Do we really want to say that naked bodies are pornography? Or that men and women shouldn't look at each other? A lot is said about the male gaze, but women look at men too. I remember a programme years ago where a middle-aged woman was unknowingly linked up to some kind of scan that monitored her eye movements when she met a young man. She was mortified when it was revealed that her gaze constantly returned to his crotch. The naked body has its own power and to say that a young woman displaying the beauty of hers is a victim is just disingenuous.
I was a teenager in 1960s Scotland, which had heard about Swinging London but hadn't quite caught up. The pressure to conform to the good girl template was stultifying. So when I hear women of my generation tut tutting about the drunken ladette behaviour of some young women today, I just want to remind them how far we've come. Women may still not have caught up economically with men, but we certainly have more personal freedom, more space to dream of lives other than those of wife and mother than we ever had in the past. Miley Cyrus clearly knows what she's doing and is determined to follow her own path. I'd like her to be a little kinder to Sinead O'Connor, but niceness is not mandatory in a performer or a woman.
However, as it seems to be the fashion for older women to give Miley Cyrus advice, I do have one thing to say to her. Take a look at Josephine Baker dancing her sensual, comic numbers in the 1920s and know you're in a proud tradition. Baker was one of the most iconic women of the 20th century, a performer whose mixture of erotic and eccentric (and topless) dancing won her admirers all over Europe. She was one of the rare few who have brains, personality and beauty. Courage too. She helped the French Resistance during the Second World War and fought racism in her native US after it. Her adopted family of children was known as the Rainbow Tribe because she chose them for their differing races and religions.
But Miley, she wouldn't have dreamt of wearing that ugly underwear. Shake a tail feather, baby!