NPR’s Steve Inskeep asked the singer, “What has made you comment on a lot of modern music today that is being put out by women as being over-sexualized?” “Well you’ve said it in the question,” Lennox replied. “The reason why I’ve commented is because I think that this overt sexuality thrust — literally — at particular audiences, when very often performers have a very, very young audience, like 7 years older, I find it disturbing and I think its exploitative. It’s troubling. I’m coming from a perspective of a woman that’s had children.”
Interestingly, I myself was a child when Lennox was in her heyday and I can safely say that the sexual provocation in her videos, particularly the one for “Sweet Dreams” made a big impression on me. Sure, simple-minded idiots might pretend that video isn’t sexually provocative because no one gets naked. But let’s get real here, this screenshot is enough to single-handedly awaken all sorts of uncomfortable questions about gender, sexual desire, and kink.
I didn’t even really know what sex was when I saw this video for the first time, but somehow I grasped its overt sexuality. Being whipped—literally—into us.
The discussion then moved from over-sexualization more generally to focus on Beyonce. “Some people will know that you specifically criticized Beyonce for this the other day,” prompted Inskeep. “Well, I didn’t specifically criticize Beyonce,” noted Lennox. “I was being asked about Beyonce in the context of feminism, and I was thinking at the time about very impactful feminists that have dedicated their lives to the movement of liberating women and supporting women at the grass roots, and I was saying, ‘well that’s one end of the spectrum, and then you have the other end of the spectrum.'”
This is the fake geek girl argument, but for feminism. No, Beyoncé is not a feminist activist, though she has done some work besides just throwing the word out. She is a pop star. But I reject outright this notion that “feminist” should be an elite category that is only earned through hard work. If we want it to be a successful movement that changes the world, ordinary people need to have a stake in it. You need to feel that just because you’re a nurse or an accountant or yes, a pop star, doesn’t mean that you don’t have a part to play, even if it’s just donating money or talking up feminism on Facebook or voting for feminist candidates. Movements live or die by whether or not they achieve mainstream success, and you can’t get that if you treat feminism like it’s too precious for the masses.
“Listen,” said Lennox, “Twerking is not feminism. Thats what I’m referring to. It’s not — it’s not liberating, it’s not empowering. It’s a sexual thing that you’re doing on a stage; it doesn’t empower you. That’s my feeling about it.”
No, twerking is not feminism. It is, last I checked, a dance move. So what? Breakfast isn’t feminism. Cats aren’t feminism (and get confused if you suggest they should be). Staircases are not feminism. I could go on all day. The point is that most things are not feminism, but that doesn’t mean that feminists should refrain from eating breakfast, owning cats or climbing staircases. This is a non sequitur.
Look, I get it. Lennox is basically trying to suggest that twerking is somehow antithetical to feminism because it is, in her eyes, too sexual. (To which I refer readers again to that amazing screenshot from the “Sweet Dreams” video.) On its surface, this is a troubling statement because it implies that feminism should be anti-sex and anti-fun, which is exactly the sort of lie that our opposition is trying to spread about feminism. It’s also kind of bizarre to feed the anti-twerking panic. You’d think people just discovered that sometimes the booty does move when one is dancing. It’s really not so shocking that someone would make a dance move that focuses specifically on that aspect of dancing.
But on a deeper level, this is even more disturbing than that because the anti-twerking hysteria is just another flavor of the sexualized race panic that happens every time some cultural phenomenon that was invented by black people becomes popular with white kids. It happened with jazz and it happened with rock music and now it’s happening with hip-hop. I mean, adults always flip the fuck out over what they consider some oversexed thing the kids are doing these days—there was a hysteria over the waltz being too sexual when it was first invented—but this sort of thing is made even uglier because of the undercurrent of racism that feeds so much of it. Dancing is erotic, always has been and always will be. This is a good thing. It lets teenagers work out their feelings about and energies on the dance floor before they make the move to actual sex. It allows sexually active people to keep their energies flowing outside of the bedroom and makes for better sex in it. (Beyoncé’s latest record has probably saved more marriages than Dr. Phil ever did.) It’s just plain fun. What’s wrong with that?
So please, Annie Lennox, leave Beyoncé alone. Or, if you won’t, I also want to hear your thoughts on how the Charleston was the death of everything the suffragists worked so hard for.