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The Art Of Twerking: How Women Continue To Be Denied Bodily Autonomy

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The Art Of Twerking: How Women Continue To Be Denied Bodily Autonomy

Posted by Ester Pinheiro

In April 2021, the Miss Papua New Guinea was stripped of her crown for a TikTok twerking video. As shocking as that may sound, it seems women continue to be penalised for expressing their body autonomy. Not only was Lucy Maino criticised, judged and disrespected for twerking, but also punished.

In the beginning of April, Lucy Maino faced intense online harassment over a twerking clip that some say highlights misogyny in Papua New Guinea. Though twerking videos are common on the video-sharing application, Maino’s now-deleted video was judged by the Miss Pacific Islands’ committee as not fitting for a “role model”.

After a massive backlash on her social media pages, Maino was “released” from her duties as a miss in the country. The committee said in a statement: “Our core purpose is empowerment of women. We are a unique pageant style platform that promotes cultural heritage, traditional values and sharing through tourism about our country and people”. 

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Papua New Guinea is one of the most dangerous places for women to live which makes one question what culture it is being promoted in the country. According to the Human Rights Watch data from 2016, 2 out of 3 women are raped in Papua New Guinea, that means that 70% of the women have already suffered sexual violence. 

What kind of society works towards dismantling rape culture yet get upset when a young woman twerks in a video? How different do you think the reactions would have been if a male public figure had done the TikTok twerking video? If not for an active emasculation of the person (also a product of patriarchy), it would probably not be a topic even worth discussion. It seems normal that cis-het men’s bodies belong to themselves, but women’s don’t. 

In India in November 2020, while actor and model Poonam Pandey and her husband were arrested by the Goa police for shooting an “obscene” video at the Chapoli Dam in Canacona, Goa, actor Milind Soman’s photo of himself running naked on a beach in Goa did not lead to any such action.

In India in November 2020, while actor and model Poonam Pandey and her husband were arrested by the Goa police for shooting an “obscene” video at the Chapoli Dam in Canacona, Goa, actor Milind Soman’s photo of himself running naked on a beach in Goa did not lead to any such action.

In Oceania, a twerking dancing women troupe called 101 Dance Squadron performed at the launch of the Australian navy’s newest ship in April 2021. The women’s group condemned the Australian Broadcast Corporation as they felt ‘threatened’ after footage alleged to be shot in a ‘creepy’ angle. 

The video coverage of their performance contributed to the group feeling “exploited” in the wake of intense media interest surrounding their dance. Their video edition appeared to show inexact dignitaries’ presence during their performance. For the troupe, twerking “was meant to bring an informal sense of celebration; a gift from one of our community groups to open a modern ship, with a modern dance form.” 

Again, twerking is not the issue, but the way society sees it and how it relates to women, understands and explicates the complexity of gender. In the same month that the troupe was covered in a questionable perspective by Australian media, the country’s federal government taught students about sexual consent with an odd milkshake video and used the example of “borrowing leggings” rather than “touching your butt”.

Twerking backlash is not recent, Miley Cyrus felt sexualised while twerking during the MTV VMA 2013 performance. The term twerking dates to 1820 and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is a “word historically used in hip hop culture to refer to a type of ‘sexually provocative dance’ which involves thrusting hip movements and a low squatting stance.” 

The question is, for whom is it sexually provocative? The justification appears to be related to the idea that when it comes to sex, men are weak and gullible creatures: they can’t help themselves. Times may change and words may change, but what doesn’t seem to change is the story of the ambitious, manipulative woman and the man whose desire for her makes him putty in her hands. Common sense seems to continue working as an excuse for punishing, judging, shaming, criticising and discrediting women. Instead of questioning women why they are twerking, why not constrain men for harassing?

Instead of questioning women why they are twerking, why not constrain men for harassing?

But as the Australian dance troupe did, women have been responding to it. It is a movement which reflects the contemporary culture we live in, according to Naomi Wolf in Fire to Fire, 1993, this wave can’t be defined as a “victim feminism”, but a “power feminism” or also called “gender quake”. Women are now not only rejecting the subjugation at the hands of men, but also take control of their lives, bodies and analysing in a recent perspective, their virtual images. 

Beyonce is another public figure who was criticised for twerking. The singer Annie Lennox condemned Beyoncé, calling her a “feminist lite”, but quickly apologised. “Twerking is not feminism. That’s 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,” Annie Lennox had said.

It is not just about twerking. In 2019, the US Democrat Congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was criticised on social media for an old video of her dancing when she was at university. She ended up responding to people by posting a new video of her dancing. But, twerking or not, women find themselves being criticised for whatever they want to do with their bodies.  

In the same sense of what Wolf called power feminism, Cortez tweeted back: “I hear the GOP thinks women dancing are scandalous. Wait till they find out Congresswomen dance too! Have a great weekend everyone,” she posted with a video of her dancing outside her new office on Capitol Hill. Ocasio-Cortez has in the past called out a journalist who referred to her as “a girl” in a tweet judging her clothing.

Martha Nussbaum in her book Objectification,1995, has identified some features related to treating one person as an object and four of them could explain the roots to the question posed in this article. 

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The first point is the instrumentality: treating women as a tool for men’s purposes; Secondly, denial of autonomy: seeing women with no autonomy and self-determination; Thirdly, denial of subjectivity: perceiving women as ‘something’ whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account; Fourth, violability: the treatment of women as lacking in boundary-integrity, and this one is usually the final step after criticising women for a twerking video for example, the labeled “sexualized dance” is used as a justification for violence and abuses as women “were asking for it”. Anitta, a Brazilian woman singer who twerks in most of her video clips also positioned herself after intense criticism about the way she dances. “Short clothes, exotic customs and dancing do not authorise harassment of women”, she had said to Brazilian media.

What many people see as a ‘male chauvinist feminism’, Lucie Maino, 101 Dance Squadron, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Miley Cyrus, Beyonce, Anitta and many other women from around the world appear to believe that it is a matter of choice. It looks like for them to be a woman has nothing to do with how femininity – or, in this sense, also masculinity is socially perceived. These women just don’t fit into one category.


Ester Pinheiro is a journalist from the Pontificia Universidad Católica, MG in Brazil. She has a deep interest in gender studies and communication, having participated in the Power and Media course from the organization ‘Chicas Poderosas’  and the (CPD) on gender and media representation at the University of Strathclyde. Ester has worked in various journalistic formats and covered three world sporting events. The last was the 2019 Women’s World Cup, in which she worked for FIFA, as well as radio and TV. Currently, Ester contributes as a writer for feminist magazines in Latin America, and she has been approved for the Master in Gender Studies at the Complutense University of Madrid. You can find her on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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