Saturday, March 9, 2013

Twerking and Feminism

On Friday, some of my female students showed me videos of twerking (about 3:30s in will give you an idea if you're unfamiliar) and this under-18 dance-thing they go to called Freakquency.  It was . . . disturbing.  

I talked to them about objectifying themselves, and how twerking is basically a lap dance, and how just . . . ewww!!!  They assured me it's not like that, that only trashy girls actually make contact with the guys and that it's just all about the dancing (really, they were just more excited about showing me weird stuff on YouTube to do much arguing).

Anyway, I was thinking about it this morning and looking for whether there had been any feminist comment (I'm old, whaddya want) on the dance, and I came across this piece (copied below), which was not what I was looking for, but it's interesting. 

First, I don't like the bit at the end in which the male author claims to not be imposing a patriarchal or post-colonial gaze and yet casts the women as powerful goddesses breaking off his penis.  I mean, it seems to me that by casting them as something far-off and inhuman, he might be flipping gender power roles but certainly not an "unraveling" gender power as he claims.  Casting them as goddesses, although arguably empowering, still seems objectifying to me.  It's not taking them on their own terms as fully fleshed out humans.  And him "bow[ing] to them sexually" and being reduced to a "weak lump of ligaments" seems fetishistic.

On the other hand, his discussion about the empowering nature of the display of the girls' sexuality and their power to keep if from men made me rethink my initial evaluation of the dance as totally objectifying.  I'm still working through it, but I'm happy to be forced to work through it rather than just reacting.

I'm not generally down with the whole stripping, etc. as empowerment argument.  I think too much of the sexuality that is being "embraced" and "controlled" in fact arises out of media-determined (and male-determined) notions of femininity and sexuality, that there is not a lot of control when you've been brainwashed to believe that this is what sexy is.  Sexuality becomes about being desired rather than desiring.

On the other hand, where do our notions of beauty come from if not from culture? Is there some point at which we can say that we're no longer being "brainwashed," it's just the current state of our culture's notions of beauty?

I keep trying to go further with that argument and getting stuck.  I find it pretty flimsy when interrogated, but I want to give that side a thorough analysis before I just dismiss it.  Any ideas?

"Review On Twerking," Thought Catalog
JAN. 2, 2013 By JIMMY CHEN  
To “twerk” — etymologically a contraction of twist and jerk — is to rapidly jiggle one’s buttocks using forceful pelvic grinding motions in a sexually provocative manner. This is most often accompanied by rap music, with which said movements are in precise time, whose patronizing authors solicit such behavior with predictable misogynist entitlement. If feminism is cordoned off by class, i.e. in seminar rooms and ponderous books, twerking seems to find some kind of post-feminist resolve in the self-objectification of its performers, perhaps now formidably empowered. 
The twerker’s hands leaning on a wall, as she bends over at a 45° angle, an easy allusion to sexual availability; other times, her hands are on the ground (similar, however culturally disparate, to the “downward dog” in yoga) and she twerks her buttocks into the air. Other times she stands upright, her buttocks naturally more tensed, and continues to twerk. Most impressive is the hand-stand. In short, the twerking is not contingent on one’s posture. The twerking, once began, does not stop. Part of twerking’s conceit is the unconditional excessiveness of its very employment. It is very important that the twerking be ceaseless.
The ultimate move is the sudden split, followed by a twerking which seems impossible. 
The woman will jump in the air and land in a perfect gymnast’s split (some of the statelier ones making a loud “thump”). The viewer is somewhat stunned, and before fully acclimating to what he saw, she starts twerking, at times even more intensely, somehow able to control and heave her buttocks in such a difficult position. It’s mind-blowing and divine. One less fortunate move, however, is when they grab their shorts out of the creases of their ass which have inevitably gotten bunched up by all the twerking. This is not an elegant moment for the twerker. 
The mean range of a twerking video is around 3:00 minutes, generally well-received with a like-to-dislike ratio of 10:1, anywhere ranging from ~20,000 to +2,000,000 views. In short, the public has gladly accepted twerking into their lives. The videos are all amateur clips made with either Mac’s Photo Booth or a standard digital camera. The twerker will place the laptop or camera on a chair or table approximately 10-15 ft. from the intended area of twerking. Short of a steady tripod, twerking has caused some shaky footage. Despite the urban demographic — or at least subconscious aesthetic — of twerking, most recordings are done in suburban homes with soft white carpet, often performed in empty rooms apparently designated for such accounts. 
A twerker, as mentioned, is likely an African-American female between the ages of 18 – 24 with a very toned build. She sometimes performs next to a friend, or they take turns in front of the camera. The implication is that they are either single and attempting to hypnotize potential mates, or in steady relationships and flaunting inaccessible goods. The twerking ass, essentially, is a hardened mound of utter superiority. The hydraulics seem inhuman; and yet, we catch a glimpse of tender earnestness in the concentrated eyes of the twerker. I have never seen anybody do anything with their bodies as impressive as twerking. And should the reader think I am sexualizing them, or imposing some patriarchal (or worst, post-colonial) gaze, let me assert that my inclinations are completely asexual and of aesthetic devotion. 
When I see the ongoing pelvic explosion of a twerking fit, I briefly imagine my penis (this is a tic — imposing it on various worldly situations which have little to do with me) snapping off inside them, which I suppose a physiologist or mechanical engineer could choose to clarify. I bow to them, sexually unworthy, a lump of weak ligaments. Twerking is more than a courting dance; it is an assertion of complete physical and metaphorical power, one which unravels gender power at its shaky base. These misogynist rappers, should they be so presumptive to brave the darkened nebula of these goddesses, would find their shafts likewise snapped off, or at least fractured inside them. Of imminent castration, they are left with merely rhetoric, unrealistic lyrics describing what they’d do to them. Yeah, right. We all know their dicks would break, and that’s a good thing. 

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