As Miley and Sinead bring the objectification debate to a deadlock, FKA Twigs is actually making us think
Last week's Miley Cyrus vs. Sinead O’Connor face-off was a prime example of the way that internet feuds can simplify life’s most difficult questions to a toss-up between binary extremes. Sinead watched Miley’s Terry Richardson-directed “Wrecking Ball” video, got offended by the sight of the former Disney Channel star licking sledgehammers and spread-eagling on top of the titular demolition tool in the nude and wrote an open letter to Miley, advising her to resist “let[ting] the music business make a prostitute of you.” She warned that Miley was disempowering herself, and young women everywhere, by sending the message that she was to be valued more for her sex appeal than for her musical talent. Hyperbolically, she also spoke of the male label execs who would be “sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling [her] body” after the industry had chewed her up, spit her out and landed her in rehab. Miley, unmoved by Sinead’s feminist agenda and professed “motherly” intentions, treated the advice like an attack, and dug-up some old tweets to imply that Sinead was crazy. The feud generated a second, a third, and then a fourth open letter from the “Nothing Compares 2 U” singer, and a whole lot of press for Miley, whose rising bad-girl status seemed to prove to her that she was doing something right. Tweet: “Sinead. I don’t have time to write you an open letter cause Im hosting & performing on SNL this week.”
I can see where both of them were coming from. Sinead, as naive and overblown as her intervention attempt came off, is right to point out the music industry’s history of enriching itself on the borrowed sex appeal of starry-eyed young performers like Miley—and worse, perhaps, of subliminally perpetuating the evil idea that youth and sex are the only real kinds of currency a woman can have in entertainment. Past allegations regarding Richardson’s unscrupulous behavior with his photographic subjects, of course, speak loudly to the enduring old showbiz cliché whereby the aspiring starlet, figuratively or literally, sleeps her way to the top. But one could also make a perfectly feminist argument in favor of Miley’s decision to undress for that slimiest of slimy photographers, because by making out with a bathroom mirror, as she did in her recent Richardson shoot, she’s harnessing her sexuality to get the attention that she wants. Maybe she’s actively exploiting the industry’s potential to exploit her, manipulating male desire in order to catapult herself to stardom and riches; maybe she’s just young and reckless and having a good time, and she’ll end up sunbathing on the deck of her own giant yacht anyway.
The question at stake here, of course, is how much of her sexual self a woman artist can safely reveal—without the fear, on the one hand, of being objectified and used, or, on the other, of being ridiculed and shamed for the fact that she’s expressing it. It’s a dilemma that resides at the heart of everyday female experience—not just that of performers—but the problem with looking to celebrity sparring matches for life wisdom is that the ones that grab our attention tend to be the ones that reveal the most extreme positions. To judge from the spat between Miley vs. Sinead, it would seem that an artist’s only options for reckoning with her own sexuality are to throw caution to the wind, letting it all hang out—like Miley does on the wrecking ball—or to reduce the female body to an entirely private affair—one for “you and your boyfriend,” as Sinead suggests in her letter. From a public image perspective, to draw an example from the elder artist's career, that could mean negating that body almost completely, shaving one’s head to repel the male gaze, burying one’s natural curves under a mountain of baggy clothes.
Part of the reason why we care about Sinead and Miley is that they embody such strong female archetypes, but neither of these precedents corresponds wholly to life. Deciding what to wear in the morning—even when you’re just going to work—is never a question of showing everything or nothing at all, just as wanting to succeed as a female in a male-dominated industry doesn’t necessarily preclude the desire get married and have children someday. I only can speak from my own experience, but it would seem that the challenge of confidently embodying one’s own femininity is more a matter of small, everyday decisions, a process of trial and error in which you figure out what feels right and what doesn’t. It’s putting on some lipstick, or putting on an oversized T-shirt, and noticing little changes in the way you feel; it’s taking stock in the ways those tiny choices seem to impact the way that other people act around you (because often, they do), and paying attention to the emotions you’re experiencing as a result of that feedback. There’s something reactionary in viewing either of the Sinead and Miley extremes as a solution to the problem of objectification. It’s there in the clumsy irony of Miley singing about being “wrecked’ by a man while simultaneously titillating this imaginary “other” with her tongue, and it’s there in Sinead’s suggestion that one must hide an entire part of one’s own person in order to not be objectified. Neither option seems to lend itself to the ideal of being able to outwardly embody one’s self in all one’s fullness and complexity—body and brains, masculine and feminine parts together—which is the closest I can come to articulating what I think life in a truly equal society would feel like.
For the time being, I think we could all be a little more imaginative, maybe a little more open to confusion and ambiguity, when it comes to thinking about the expression of female sexuality in art. When I think about the sort of female figures in music whose reckoning with the subject feels like it’s going beyond the all-or-nothing dichotomy, these days, I think about FKA Twigs. Her videos are consistently disturbing to me, and I think that’s because I do not know what to make of them. As much as they allure with London singer’s beguiling good looks, they all grapple overtly and even aggressively with the objectification of the female form, from the disembodied torso in her Grace Ladoja-co-directed breakout video, “Hide,” to the tick-tock motion and blow-up doll inflation of her face in “Water Me,” a collaboration with Jesse Kanda. There’s even the very violent example of “Papi Pacify,” co-directed by Tom Beard, where she appears with her head cocked back and her mouth almost completely engulfed by the probing fingers of a shirtless male, or straining to keep her gazed locked with the viewer’s as a muscular hand wraps itself forcefully around her neck. For a song about being pacified in love, it’s a frighteningly powerful image. It seduces with its lurid black-and-white photography of skin on skin, but it also embodies the vulnerability that comes with the act exposing one’s body to another person, especially as that other expands to include a faceless mass of hypothetical onlookers. It’s like we’re watching her be psychically and physically annihilated, but there’s a bold, hyper-stylized, even auteurist quality to her musical and visual choices, one gives you the feeling that she’s also fully in charge.
Like the Arca beats that FKA Twigs sings over, which explode the metric grid in which we’d normally encounter dance music and hip-hop, Twigs takes the pop diva persona and passes it through her own, distorting magnifying glass. She blows her own sexualized female body up widescreen, messes with its proportions, reveals unexpected contradictions within it. In “Hide,” for instance, there’s her grape-leaf like use of an anthurium flower, harping on a well-worn metaphor for female virginity just as the flower's long yellow stalk seems to point to an often overlooked parallel between the male and female anatomy. It’s like she’s not only talking about the objectification of the female form, but also just suggesting ways in which we might reimagine that body altogether, be it through the manipulation of symbols or by using technology to plastically distend its contours. I’m not sure whether to call that self-objectifying or liberating, but FKA Twigs confusing is the hell out of me, and that state of contradiction feels more true to life than to the Miley and Sinead extremes, while acknowledging the validity of both of them.