Twerk Miley Twerk: Challenging racism and sexism in music videos
In the work towards equality, we must remember that racism and sexism are perpetuated by people all ages, and are not the consequences of social media.
Ikamara Larasi, Imkaan
As a serious music lover born in 1989, I was so excited when at age 11, my household caught up on the digital television revolution and I had access to music videos on tap. Just six years later I stopped actively watching them, sick of the blatant misogyny, racism and lack of imagination (or sometimes scary imagination) I was seeing. Women are usually depicted as objects and sexually available for men at all times. Within this, the bodies of black and minority ethnic (BME) women are sexualised in specific ways - seen as inherently sexual, animalistic, and a lower class of woman, with a heavy focus on body shape, particularly the posterior. The black woman’s ‘butt’ has been considered a distinct point of fascination and sexual gratification for centuries, just search Saartjie Baartman.
The internet exploded over Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMA’s, which was a perfect example of this. While she was herself sexualised (and goes on to be the accessory in Robin Thicke’s performance), the performance perpetuates a hierarchy where she in turn is sexualising the faceless black women in a way which specifically pertains to race; with a strong and intentional focus on their ‘butts’.
Similarly, in her video “Work”, Iggy Azalea (a young white Australian woman) is sexualised, however her status is visibly elevated in a way that creates a ‘pimp-ho’ dynamic between her and the black women in her video. She is front and centre in a fur coat, while two black women twerk behind her on a truck, a clear example of accessorising with black women’s bodies.
Another important point is the segregation of black women in music videos, for example Calvin Harris ‘Drinking from the Bottle’and Miley Cyrus ‘We Can’t Stop’, the black women in the videos appear (often twerking) in scenes which are separate to the rest of the story, plot or sequence of events. This is also true of Iggy Azalea’s music videos.
An example of the animalistic way black women are portrayed is the video for Major Lazer “Bubble Butt”, which depicts a giant godzilla-alien-black-woman coming down from the sky and inflating the buttocks of three white women, via the anus, with tentacles produced from her mouth. What ensues is what appears to be a twerking competition. This type of depiction is coupled with the invisibilisation of other BME women who, if present at all, become a homogenous group of exotic, ethnically ambiguous women.
It is important to note that these representations are not limited to one genre of music. The video for Wraith by Peace, depicts racialised sexual objectification in such a blatant way. The four white male band members are sitting, blankly staring at two scantily clad black women, with heavy camera focus on their ‘butts’. The video is shot in such a way that the men are looking but not looking at this hypersexualised performance which serves to simultaneously focus in and invisiblise the performers.
This is not a competition of ‘who has it worse’. However, it’s important to recognise that as human beings we have complex, multiple, inseparable identities and as such, will experience discrimination in different ways. As a young black woman, my experiences of racism and sexism are not mutually exclusive.
The trouble is, the problem doesn’t begin here. This is not about individual music artists or directors. We are living in an inescapable global context of gender and race inequality. It’s not new, and while there has been amazing, committed work to tackle these issues, they continue to manifest in new and different ways. This is compounded by instances where manifestations of racism and sexism are considered arty, fashionable, pastiche, ironic or funny (for whom?). For example, Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, containing topless women, was banned from YouTube, whilst Justin Timberlake’s “Tunnel Vision”, containing fully naked women, had its ban lifted on the grounds of artistic nudity.
This context of inequality has been exacerbated, rather than created, by social media and new technologies. Music has long been a way of communicating to the masses, and with social media, we are more connected, and to more people, than ever before. Fortunately, we can also use this to create positive change.
Rosa Fund UK has funded EVAW, OBJECT and Imkaan to deliver a project for young women to tackle racism and sexism in music videos directly. So far, a diverse group of young women aged 17-24 have met to identify and discuss the issues through focus groups facilitated by Imkaan. They will also be involved in the development of a website and mobile app to highlight dedicated to this issue. They have told us they value the space to explore the issues, in some cases for the first time, and look forward to targeted campaigning actions. We see this as a valuable and timely step in the work towards equality.
Note: this article was first published in The Guardian here.