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 to politicians, the music industry and regulators.  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.

Having long abandoned the pretence that “we’re all in this together”, David Cameron is preparing yet another raid on the welfare budget. In a speech today, he will announce plans to abolish housing benefit for under-25s and will indicate that the government is considering “time-limiting” Jobseeker’s Allowance, reducing the new benefits cap to £22,000 and restricting payments for large families (specifically, limiting child benefit to three children, although this proposal will not be mentioned in the speech).

As previously signalled by George Osborne, the cuts are designed to save the government £10bn but so far Cameron hasn’t chosen to focus on the alleged savings. Rather, he has argued that the plans are necessary to reverse a “culture of entitlement”. In his pre-speech interview with the Mail on Sunday, Cameron claimed that housing benefit “discourages” young people from working:

A couple will say, ‘We are engaged, we are both living with our parents, we are trying to save before we get married and have children and be good parents.’

But how does it make us feel, Mr Cameron, when we see someone who goes ahead, has the child, gets the council home, gets the help that isn’t available to us?

One is trapped in a welfare system that discourages them from working, the other is doing the right thing and getting no help.

With those words, Cameron perpetuated the biggest myth about housing benefit: that it is a benefit for the unemployed. The truth is that just one in eight claimants is out of work (not a statistic that you’ll find reported in most papers). The majority of those who claim housing benefit, including the under-25s, do so to compensate for substandard wages and extortionate rents. A recent study by The Building and Social Housing Foundation showed that 93 per cent of new housing benefit claims made between 2010 and 2011 were made by households containing at least one employed adult.

It is meaningless of Cameron to claim that the housing benefit budget is “too large” without considering why. The inflated budget, which will reach £23.2bn this year, is the result of a conscious choice by successive governments to subsidise private landlords rather than invest in affordable social housing. Yet rather than addressing the problem of stagnant wages and excessive rents, Cameron, in a bid to appease his querulous party, has chosen to squeeze the already squeezed. 

That he should do so by abolishing housing benefit for under-25s is particularly egregious. Of the 380,000 young people who claim the benefit, a significant number do so because they have been thrown out by their parents. As Shelter notes, “Last year nearly 10,000 households in priority need were recognised as homeless after they were thrown out by their parents. Many more won’t have shown up in the statistics and will have resorted to sofa surfing, hostels or at worst the streets.”

Others may be unable to live at home after their parents divorced or downsized or, as Petra Davies previously noted on the site, may have been rejected due to their sexuality. As she noted, around 25 per cent of the young homeless population in urban areas is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. 

But such objections will do little to deter Cameron’s drive to shrink the state. With his latest attack on the working poor, he has finally outed himself as a compassionless Conservative.