"Twerking is not feminism," Annie Lennox declared in a recent interview with NPR after Steve Innskeep her opinion of Beyoncé. "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." This is a consistent stance for Lennox. A month ago she called Beyoncé "feminism lite." Last year she decried videos by Miley Cyrus and Rihanna:
I have to say that I'm disturbed and dismayed by the recent spate of overtly sexualized performances and videos. You know the ones I'm talking about. It seems obvious that certain record companies are peddling highly styled pornography with musical accompaniment. As if the tidal wave of sexualised imagery wasn't already bombarding impressionable young girls enough ... As long as there's booty to make money out of, it will be bought and sold.
All of which raises a somewhat confusing question: Wasn't Annie Lennox herself a sex symbol not so long ago?
Admittedly, Lennox isn't selling her booty here, said booty being tastefully concealed behind her. Instead, she's selling her boots, her rakish hat, and the everything (and nothing) in between. The sexiness is in sophisticated contrast between the forthright nudity, the high-fashion accessories, and the way those accessories conceal and accentuate her crotch, Similarly, in the famous "Sweet Dreams" video, Lennox's androgynous suit and crew cut, not to mention the phallic rocket take-off, contrast with the frankly sensual close-ups of her lips singing or her eyes opening. She's sexy in that she is simultaneously available and not available, and in the self-aware, winking quirkiness with which she navigates between the two. Looking at Lennox's own history of performances, it seems clear that she's not against sexual display in itself. Rather, she's against, as she says, "overt" display. Drape that boot just so; button up just right; let the heat come from the tease rather than from the reveal.
There's nothing wrong or hypocritical about Lennox's self-presentation; the way she packages herself is consistently both witty and sexy. But does that make it better, or more feminist than Beyoncé's self-presentation, or Rihanna's? Or does it mean that Lennox is just approaching sexuality from a slightly different cultural place—a place that has, maybe, something to do with whiteness?
A good bit of Lennox's sexuality, and a lot of its charm, is in its quirkiness; the stiff future/synth androgyny, the knowing hipness of the girl who gets that perfect vintage hat and then has the chutzpah to wear nothing else. Lennox is playing the butch top, but it's a fun, accessible butch top—androgynous domme as manic pixie dream girl. And as a number of commenters have pointed out, the manic pixie dream girl is iconically white. Cutesy free-spirited sprites are insistently femme in a way that is often denied to black women, who are culturally stereotyped as masculine. More, black women tend to be insistently sexualized, while the MPDG is sexy because she's innocent. Lennox is able to play with androgyny and dominance and still come across as a pop confection for mainstream audiences because of the way she's able to use tropes around, and against, the fact that she has the body of a petite white woman.
In contrast, black women have to negotiate a different set of expectations and stereotypes. Beyoncé's ultra-femme, sexualized style may seem retrograde to Lennox, who has an easy cultural access to femininity. But in a culture where black women often aren't perceived as women, and where black women are still mostly excluded from the fashion industry, putting on high heels might be more meaningful than getting a crew cut. "When the image of the perfect woman is coded from childhood as Snow White, the fairest and most sunburned in all the land, the idea becomes that all the rest of us are just donning costumes to imitate true beauty," writer Shaadi Devereaux notes. If, as Deveraux says, "black womanhood is inherently viewed as drag performance," then Beyoncé being feminine pushes back against cultural tropes every bit as much as Lennox wearing a suit.
Similarly, Lennox's quip that "As long as there's booty to make money out of, it will be bought and sold," fits uncomfortably into a long tradition of linking black women's rear ends to prostitution in an effort to stigmatize both (as Sir Mixalot pointed out some years back). Beyoncé doesn't actually twerk in general, but when Nicki Minaj shakes her thing all about in "Anaconda" while talking about the "skinny bitches in the club," she's responding directly to women like Lennox, who imply that not having a booty is a sign of virtue.
Lennox has criticized Miley Cyrus as well—and in doing so underlines the extent to which her comments about sex and feminism are also about race. Cyrus is physically similar to Lennox; she's a very thin, small white woman with short hair. Cyrus, though, rejected her innocent, child-star pixie-ish youth. And the way she rejected it was by picking up twerking because it "feels black." Miley wanted to stop being an innocent dream, and so she coded herself as black to be sexually dangerous. And then Annie Lennox comes along and confirms that, yes, Miley is now sexually dangerous. Miley is pro-twerking, Lennox is anti-twerking, but whether through eager appropriation or censorious sneering, they both work together to confirm that black women's sexuality is other and (wonderfully or horribly) degraded. Inadvertently, Lennox ends up defining real feminism, non-lite feminism, as a pixie dream of white.