THE last thing I did at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe was take my 11-year-old daughter to see a gig by Catherine Bennett, the fictional pop star created by Bryony Kimmings from instructions by her nine-year-old niece Taylor.
It was a fun but strange afternoon. In theory Bennett is a great idea. She’s a pop star role model for young girls embodying things they actually like (dinosaurs, reading, tuna pasta) rather than things record companies think they should like (fashion, boys, spending money).
The reality, though, felt a bit like an in-joke between Kimmings, her niece, and a few liberal pals. During the gig Kimmings kept slipping in and out of character, while one of her song lyrics includes a winking reference to “pop stars invented by nieces”. Taylor was clearly having a ball. My daughter mostly seemed perplexed. She quite liked the songs, but this was Taylor’s pop star, not hers.
Taylor, Kimmings explained, asked for Catherine Bennett to sound like Lily Allen and the B-52s. This, at least, shows that there are plenty of real positive role models for girls in the pop world already. Lily Allen, in particular, helped open doors for a whole generation of distinctive female pop stars – Florence Welch, Kate Nash, La Roux, Little Boots, Adele etc – simply by showing that women can succeed in pop music without pandering to male sexual fantasies. It’s sad this wasn’t obvious before, but still, thank you Lily.
And then, days after the gig, there was the horror of Miley Cyrus at the VMA awards, a slap in the face for anyone emerging from the Fringe thinking that feminism – in the shape of Kimmings, comedian Bridget Christie, Nirbhaya director Yael Farber and others – had scored any significant pop culture victory. There has been much heated debate in its wake – a debate which, a few days ago, Cyrus airily dismissed, while loftily claiming she wanted to “make history” (without having to worry too much about why, evidently).
Miley, clearly, is not the sharpest tool in the box, but in a sense she’s right. If future historians need a snapshot of the grotesque institutional sexism, and racism, of the music industry in 2013, the VMA footage sums it up in six minutes. A leering, fully dressed (and married) man in his mid-thirties sings “you know you want it” while a 20-year-old “good girl” strips to a bikini and grinds herself against him. At the very bottom of this food chain are the black backing dancers, Cyrus’s “homegirls with the big butts, shaking it like we in a strip club”, there to symbolise Miley’s new, supposedly wild sexuality. Because that, in this twisted scenario, is what both black women and strip clubs represent.
It could be worse. Last week, a feminist parody of Blurred Lines – the Robin Thicke video which inspired that VMA performance – was watched more than a million times on YouTube and reignited debate about the song and video’s creepy, casual misogyny. And a music industry that can also make a superstar of Janelle Monae (black, brilliant, stylishly androgynous, nobody’s sex object, new album out this week) is clearly not a place that’s entirely hateful towards women.
But my first reaction to the Miley Cyrus footage was to hope my daughter never sees it. For Cyrus – or Hannah Montana as my daughter best knows her – the whole point of this exercise was to show she has grown up. She even made her entrance from inside a giant teddy bear. Not subtle. As role models go, this is about the polar opposite of Catherine Bennett. What idea of “growing up” is Cyrus communicating to a girl on the verge of puberty, naively trying to figure out the adult world’s complicated rules? Surely “growing up” doesn’t mean turning yourself into a semi-naked sex object for a married man 15 years older than you? For Miley, apparently it does.
I worry I’m being too paternal here. My little girl is smart and can think for herself. She’s seen enough photos of Patti Smith and PJ Harvey to know there are viable alternatives. She has many strong, brilliant women around her who, in time, will help her negotiate the kind of complex debates about sexual identity, power and consent which have been burning away over the past couple of weeks. In the meantime she likes Florence Welch and Jessie J, which seems like a decent start. But my god, Miley, you’re not helping. n