Does My Sassiness Upset You?: Ethics? Meet Pride in Twerking!

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 12.12.53 AM

“If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed”  ― Paulo Freire
“No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption (Freire, 1970, p. 54).”
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Werkin‘ the Mind and the Body

My anthro vlogging undergraduates done done it again! We approach twerking with new eyes!  All three sections of my Intro to Cultural Anthropology courses, each with about 25 students, did a final project analyzing black girls’ twerking videos that was worth 50% of their grade the last 4 weeks of our semester.

We should treat human behavior as symbolic action; action, which, like phonation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in music, signifies; the question as to whether culture is patterned conduct or a frame of mind, or even the two somehow mixed together, loses sense. The thing to ask is what their import is (Geertz 1973, 9-10). …

Culture is public because meaning is, and systems of meanings are what produce culture, they are the collective property of a particular people. When we, either as researchers or simply as human beings, do not understand the beliefs or actions of persons from a foreign culture, we are acknowledging our lack of familiarity with the imaginative universe within which their acts are signs (Geertz 1973, 12-13) We cannot discover the culture’s import or understand its systems of meaning when, as Wittgenstein noted, “We cannot find our feet with them.”

The main outcome of studying twerking videos in an intro course was to learn how to do qualitative data analysis along with participant-observation of YouTube vlogging, both of which are key methods used to conduct ethnography in digital/visual anthropology.

As you may recall from my TEDxUofM talk “Broadcasting Black Girls’ Net Worth”, I had a dataset of over 800 videos collected with former undergrad classes. About 80% of these videos feature adolescent girls 16 and younger. Several feature children aged 8 to 12.

The project included:

  1. Basic certification in the ethics of respect, beneficence, and justice in human subject research.
  2. Using college library journal databases to search and find a good scholarly article that exemplified or explained how to do qualitative coding of videos.
  3. Doing a review of two more scholarly articles;  one article had to be about black girls and the other article could focus on one of the following intersecting domains of our study: YouTube, bedroom culture or twerking/black dance.
    1. At least one of the article had to be written by a black female author.
    2. Articles included work by Treva Lindsey, danah boyd, Alice Marwick, and Rana Emerson as well as my own writing about twerking.
  4. Next, students applied open coding or other methods of analysis they discovered to a batch of 12-16 videos. Each small group was assigned a batch from a larger set of 800 videos. They were required to use an interpretive method of ethnographic analysis known asthick description(c.f., Clifford Geertz)

An insight that one student voiced after completing his ethics certification was that we must remember to include the girls in the audience when reporting our findings. As a result, I came up with an idea. I asked each student to make a final vlog and directly address the girls they study in a kind of “Dear Black Girls” structure or something similar. The video embedded above was one that almost made me cry.

On Ethics: Student’s Reflections

If you teach anthro or sociology or to let my students’ words teach and guide your students in ethnical research, take a look at the following video. Here’s a basic overview of students’ insights from learning how to conduct ethical human subject research and reading about the history of exploitation as a result of scrupulous ethics.

“How Can I Have 1.9 Million Followers and Feel…This Alone?”

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it. – Upton Sinclair

The intrinsic troublesome and uncertain quality of situations lies in the fact that they hold outcomes in suspense; they move to evil or to good fortune. The natural tendency of man is to do something at once ; there is impatience with suspense, and lust for immediate action.      – John Dewey,  “The Quest for Uncertainty” (1929)

Assata Shakur

The Lust and The Salary It May Depend On

A fellow black feminist scholar pointed this video of by a so-called professional twerker who appears to be “white,” and claims to the the “most famous booty shaker.” Why? Because she earns 6-figures making videos on Vine. When non-black women make this symbolic move and earn capital, I wonder if they ever consider that there are ethics involved in how their moves will impact those who came before them. It’s never necessary if those who came before are black and female.

While I am expanding my research to include videos by non-black teens and adolescents, I’ve chosen to limit my study to YouTube though I’d surely would have as much to figure out and analyze if I expanded the data set to video from WorldStarHipHop, Instagram and Vine. I want to thanksto Qiana Curtis for bringing this video/short film on the professional twerker to my attention on FB.

The line that strikes me most in the 4-minute short film I used as the title of the post. Does one have to make 6-figures to learn that money can’t buy you love or eliminate the animosities of race? Jessica says as her voice starts to crack as if performing on cue for the camera, “How can I have 1 point …. nine million followers and feel…this alone?” Generation Like meets the chicken that always comes home to roost in the old and new attention economy of the entertainment business.  (Check out the PBS documentary of the same name if you haven’t already. What are Teens Doing Online?).

 

This copy about the short film appeared below the original FB post:

Twerking 9-5: ‘Vine’s Most Famous Booty Shaker’ earns 6 figures

Jessica Vanessa is a professional twerker, who’s making big bucks by shaking her booty…in fact, she makes a 6-figure sum by shimmying her bum!

22-year-old social media superstar Jessica captivates audiences from around the world with her hypnotic assets. The former teaching assistant is now paid by companies to mention their products to her 2m online followers, who tune in to watch her twerk, jerk and crack jokes in comedy short videos on Vine.

Jessica now makes more money from a six-second Vine vid than she did working for four months at the nursery. It seems her bottom is taking her to the top!

Barcroft TV bring you a new short film every weekday – from the fascinating to the funny – plus two amazing full-length television shows every week.

#Twerking #Twerk #JessicaVanessa #JessiVanessa #Booty #Bum #Squats #Fitness #Dancing #Buns #VOTD #Video

Can Twerking Be Your Profession?

I don’t study adult twerkers and while Jessica Vanessa calls herself a “professional twerker” some critics/haters might consider the moniker an oxymoron. There are those who will liken it to “sex work” though there is no sexual touch or intercourse involved. The visual economy of twerking flips is like a free “peep show” that lures advertisers to solicit Vanessa’s “assets” to sell products.

In American culture and society associating earning money with having a profession is a common practice. If I earned a living off of making music, I too would call myself a professional. Google defines the term as:

pro·fes·sion
prəˈfeSHən/
noun
  1. a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification.
    “his chosen profession of teaching”
    synonyms: career, occupation, calling, vocation, métier, line (of work), walk of life,job, business, trade, craft;

    informalracket
    “his chosen profession of teaching”
  2. an open but often false declaration or claim.
    “a profession of allegiance”
    synonyms: declaration, affirmation, statement, announcement, proclamation,assertion, avowal, vow, claim, protestation;

    formalaverment
    “a profession of allegiance”

 

The Oxford English Dictionary, a definitive and professional arbiter of definitions in the English language, defines “profession” as:

A paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification:
his chosen profession of teachinga lawyer by profession

This definition gets complicated when it comes to mixing work with anything sexual…outside of hollywood or any industrialized complex of music, TV or film. Then your profession is questioned….rappers, DJs and dancers esp. from hip-hop included.

For me, the question keeps coming back to who profits from the social or economic capital of the cultural performance known as twerking? A cultural practice that began with black dance behaviors outside the marketplace dating back to New Orleans in the late 1980s and linked culturally throughout the African and Afro-Latin and Caribbean diasporas for decades if not a century.

The fact that race is never mentioned in the short film seems curious to me. The following viral meme from 2012 suggests that race was attributed to the before Miley Cyrus took it to the top of Google searches. But such practices in dance and music have always been extracted from the rich bottom of black creativity in our culture for centuries. Erasing the contestation is troublesome but such practices go beyond the hood.

Meme - So this is what Negro Girls Do

Questioning Who Profits

I was chatting with Hannah Giorgis after inviting her to speak to my students yesterday and we both dwell in and pondered a few related questions. Most of the ideas of these questions I attribute to Hannah. I embellished on them. She’d probably say my previous blog post on who profits from the counterfeit culture of stereotypes about black girls inspired some of these ideas:

  1. How are people who do not identify, who are not socialized or perceived to be, black girls affected by black girlhood? Do other girls or transgender folk get to explore sexuality through its prism or as a way into and out of popular adolescent/ youth culture?
  2. What does it mean to put symbolic elements of black girlhood upon yourself (without the symbolic codes of skin color and its incumbent stigmatization)?
  3. What does it mean to adopt (as well as adapt to) “black femaleness” and at any moment back away from it, return it, shed it when no longer value-able?
  4. What does it mean to have black girlhood imposed upon you because you look the part because of skin color even though you didn’t necessarily sign up for the part (Cue music: “Mama’s always on stage“)?
  5. Can these tensions be in conversation with one another in our contemporary discourse or debates or must we always take sides (black or white, booty or not)? (Cue music: Which side are you on? #michaelbrown #ferguson)
  6. Ultimately, who is profiting from black girls twerking on YouTube (way back in its beginnings in 2006) as a performance?A performance that can “make it rain” in 6 figures for some and not others (particularly not adolescent/teen black girls themselves)?

The questions need to be lived with before we simply jump off on some conclusion or result. There’s research and study to do first. I’ll leave readers with this. Some  commentary about a bell hooks talk at the New School earlier this week. In a piece called “bell hooks Was Bored by ‘Anaconda'” featured in The Cut, writer Kat Steoffel wrote:

According to hooks, reducing female sexuality to “the pussy” raised questions about “who possesses and who has rights in the female body.”

the booty is a more visible, PG-13 stand-in for female sexuality, easier to represent (and sell) in pop culture, but freighted with more racial connotations.  A booty-centric vision of female sexuality, hooks explained, asks, “who has access to the female body?”

Broadcasting while your twerk has consequences and differential consequences for non-blacks than for black girls themselves. There’s a lot to unravel before or while shaking your butt in the webcam.

Quotes: On Media’s Junk-in-the-Trunk

http://blogs.24.com/jeanihess/files/2012/06/c98523ba-cf31-4a25-af29-d27715ef6472.jpg
http://blogs.24.com/jeanihess/files/2012/06/c98523ba-cf31-4a25-af29-d27715ef6472.jpg

The cheapest way to manufacture audience is through a high sex, high violence, high conflict content. It doesn’t take talent or research or investigative journalism. Yet it stimulates the appetites, much the same way that a high salt, high sugar, and high fat junk food diet does.”

Dr. Michael Karlberg, Western Washington University
see “Portrayal or Betrayal? How the media depicts women and girls”

 

“Girls are not passive recipients of these cultural messages. Girls are active agents. We know from developmental cognitive psychology that young boys and girls, once they know what their gender is, are very motivated to be the best example of their gender. And if the examples of femininity around you are a sort of tarted up, pornographied sexuality, then that’s what you’re psyched to be.”

Tomi-Ann Roberts, On the Sexualization of Girls