Twerking Girl: Femininity and Sex in 2013 Pop
by Rachel Devitt | December 29, 2013
At some point this year, it started to feel like we'd all been licked by Miley Cyrus, didn't it? The girl -- and her tongue -- seemed to be everywhere, getting cozy with foam fingers, not wearing pants and, of course, twerking. And everyone had something to say about it. Granted, much of the discussion and debate was cultivated by Ms. Miley herself. But we also played along due to a sociocultural propensity to set off serious alarm bells whenever a young woman overtly expresses her sexuality.
Miley's performances in her videos, at the Video Music Awards and pretty much everywhere she stuck that tongue out generated everything from concerned soundbytes about her mental health by media pundits to news feeds stuffed full of "slut" accusations. Then there was Sinead O'Connor's open-letter-turned-all-out-media-war with Cyrus over what constituted strong, self-actualized behavior for a woman in the music industry. Meanwhile, Cyrus' partner in VMA performances and generally sexed-up crimes, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," generated a fraction of the alarm -- despite the fact that its video presented women in equally (if not more) sexualized ways, complete with borderline-rapey lyrics and a leering male gaze.
Miley's new unstoppable persona has its difficult-to-swallow elements, to be sure. Much more socioculturally problematic is her appropriation of African American culture and use of Black women as props in her performances (think: the masked/faceless African American dancers whose booties were positioned for Cyrus to slap at the VMAs). And on a shallower level, there's just the sheer obnoxiousness of it all.
The concerns expressed by O'Connor and others about the mistreatment and exploitation of women in the music industry are well founded. But by assuming that Cyrus' performances and persona aren't her own self-actualized choice and that expressions of young feminine sexuality must, by definition, be dangerous and degrading, we're just reproducing the power structure that exploits women as manipulatable objects incapable of making decisions for themselves. (Not to mention that the idea that Cyrus' performances aren't entirely her own calculated choices is pretty laughable.) And anyway, given that scenario, why is our ire directed at female pop stars instead of at the industry that manhandles them? To put it another way, maybe we should devote our five-alarm energy to figuring out why performances like Thicke's get read as rakish perhaps but certainly not worrisome, while Cyrus' is cause for an avalanche of open letters and attack-tweets.
In that interest, we've put together this playlist of songs that tackled feminine sexuality in 2013. The first half features female artists expressing their own sexuality, while the second focuses on depictions of female bodies and sex by male artists. No judgment or moralizing here (hey, we liked "Blurred Lines" in spite of ourselves, just like everyone!): We just want to create a musical space for thought and debate. Get down with your bad selves.