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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, nurturingand 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 dangerousBritish 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!


I wasn't expecting to have to censor myself at an event on freedom of expression. But just at the moment when the words fuck and off coalesced in my brain, I suddenly remembered there was a wee girl of about four in the audience. Having to search for the more discreet alternative of Get lost was a reminder that freedom of expression is not an absolute and that all societies have boundaries.
The event was at the Saltire Society in Edinburgh, the launch of a new pamphlet, Freedom of Expression in the New Scotland, written by me and the novelist, Alan Bissett. Where Scotland's boundaries will be at this crucial moment in our history, the moment when we must choose what we'll be as a nation, was what Alan and I had to wrestle with in the pamphlet, a new joint venture between Scottish PEN and the Saltire Society, who aim to stimulate debate about important issues in our culture. Ours was the third in a series. (The other two are A Plea for a Secular Scotland by Dr Richard Holloway and The Artist and Nationality by Meagan Delahunt.)
I hadn't met Alan Bissett before we started our dialogue, though knew he'd be fun as he describes himself on Twitter as your friendly neighbourhood Falkirk novelist. It was like meeting Tigger. As a child I refused to let my mum read me AA Milne's books, which I considered silly, (Ed. This seems like a rather draconian act of censorship from a champion of free expression.) but Alan, warm, unquenchably enthusiastic, and eminently likable, made the concept of the bouncy Tigger seem absolutely plausible.
We met up in a couple of trendy Glasgow cafes and chewed over Leveson, the McCluskey Report, phone hacking and football chants as well as halloumi salad and tiger prawns in garlic butter. PEN President Drew Campbell directed the discussion, otherwise known as refereeing.
Actually our views weren't so far apart that we had major disagreements, but we did initially approach the subject from different viewpoints. As a former journalist who often saw her best work dropped or altered for economic reasons, I'm dead against state regulation of the presswe censor ourselves enough already. Alan, on the other hand, was deeply concerned about some of the grotesqueries committed by the tabloids prior to the Leveson Inquiry. 'But freedom of expression is like a thread on your jumper,' he said. 'The more you unravel, the more you see how important it is.'
Just how important was flagged up by our chair for the event, PEN President Drew Campbell, who had recently attended PEN International's Congress in Reykjavik. He relayed the inspiring news that PEN America has instigated legal proceedings against the US government for breaking the Constitution by illegally spying on its own citizens. A number of European PEN centres, including Scottish PEN, are exploring European law for the possibility of pursuing their own governments for similar abuses of power. If there's one thing the Bissett and I agree on, it's that we don't trust governments.
Perhaps because the Saltire Society thoughtfully included a glass of wine in the price of the ticket, our audience needed no invitation to indulge in their own freedom of expression. 'Hmm, I thought we'd just have a question and answer at the end,' said Drew Campbell. He was wearing a tie for the first time since I've known him, but a tartan one in deference to the Saltire Society.
Richard Holloway made the point that laws are a blunt instrument in dealing with matters of freedom of expression, one we make in the pamphlet too. More startling was the fact that UEFA had consulted him about whether football supporters' songs were hate speech. I'm still trying to get my head around the thought of the former bishop standing on the terraces with a meat pie in his hand.
Donald Smith of the Scottish Storytelling Centre commented that freedom of expression is not an absolute and is defined by each society at a particular point in time, which is why it's so important to us now, at the moment when Scotland will make itself anew, whatever choice it makes about independence.
There was much discussion on the future of the internet, with Ruth, the mother of the little girl who raised standards among some of us, deeply worried about the amount of pornography constantly being directed at us. Alan Bissett agreed. 'I'm particularly concerned with the pornification of mainstream society, since much of what we call pornography is in fact misogyny,' he said. 'But I can't work out how to resolve that with freedom of expression.'
My fellow pamphleteer had been the victim of extreme internet abuse, with some radical feminists objecting to him writing about the late Andrea Dworkin, whom he impersonates in his show, Ban This Filth! For daring to embody a female icon (otherwise known as acting) they had even branded him a rapist. Ironically, he was performing later that day in aid of the Edinburgh Women's Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre. Depending on his audience's reaction, he might or might not be stripping off. Pornography or art, who gets to decide? Sounded like it might be Alan himself, working out where the boundaries were with his particular audience.
If the multiplicity of voices at the pamphlet launch is anything to go by, Freedom of Expression in the New Scotland is only a starting point for discussion. In Scottish PEN we're proud to be taking part in it and to be working alongside the Saltire Society.
'It feels like a natural fit,' said Jim Tough, the Society's Executive Director.
It feels too like an exciting opportunity for us in Scotland. Not many countries have the chance to consider the basic freedoms they want in their society. We do. I hope people will read all of the pamphletsand keep talking.
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