Twerking Bodies And Education: Is This A Failure To Launch?


Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett



Much discussion has ensued after the appearance of a video on social media that apparently captures a "party in the backyard", only this time it was during the school day, it was in the middle of the school's quadrangle, and it was almost dismissed by many as being a natural expression, and pushed to go viral by others who saw it as a problem.

How can we launch with such norms being accepted and perpetuated?

Over the years, these money-raising events on public school campuses have become commonplace. Events like dances, parties, no-uniform day and discos provide a space for fun, enjoyment, and money making - again, for schools that have been cash-starved by a central administration that sees the need for education but perhaps does not agree with the amounts of money required for it.

At the same time, and as problematically, teachers and school administrators have been expected to reach into their pockets and provide all the necessary resources for their classrooms. This charity requirement has often got to the point where teachers pay for students to participate in events because parents are unable or unwilling to do so. Indeed, teachers often have to dip into their, according to some, huge salaries. Though I am not sure how living just above the poverty line creates a "huge" enough salary to pay for many different aspects of students' and educational realities.

The system cannot afford to carry this burden and so it is palmed off on those who wish to see students and the nation succeed. Yet the spectacle of performance as seen in the viral video, is commonplace because that is how many schools survive financially. Yet education receives a huge national injection every year. The spectacle gives us a moment to consider how we as a society view education and indeed how we view ourselves. The idea of the uniform was to get around income inequalities being made obvious through dress, yet we are importing back into the system whence it must be absent.

Education is perceived by some as a privilege. As something that is not really necessary to survive. Material success and ostentatious turnouts are more important. How we look has always been a factor, yet it mattes now more than what we are and how we think.

We are encouraged to parade our sexuality on the streets. And this is not a Victorian-age attack at loose morals or lascivious and oversexed black bodies that cannot be controlled. It is, rather, a criticism of the exploitation and objectification of bodies, especially female bodies. At the same time, black male bodies, unbelievably in the 21st century Bahamas, remain a threat to many. Art has a way of grappling with these stereotypes, but we do not encourage art in public schools, and when it is encouraged, it once again usually falls to the teachers to supplement that woefully inadequate state subvention because art and art education are not seen as valuable.

Bodies remain as deeply shamed and scarred as they were in the early 20th century, notwithstanding black pride and the discourse of the thriving black, independent nation rising out of our proud moment of Majority Rule. Women, and indeed men, are still sold as sexualised subjects open to, and up for sale to the highest bidder or in many cases anyone who shows interest. So, gender and ethnicity have remained off limits to engaged discussion as was clearly seen with the issue of the hair puff in the public education system. We are happy to allow young girls to "twerk themselves up" in public, and we know this because we just saw an active and participatory example of it. Let us be reminded that this, again, is not an isolated case, it happened when Carnival or Junkanoo Carnival was started and there was a moment of outcry over the sexualisation of young girls in the street encouraged by an adult marshal. We continually return to this place, and it blows up, yet nothing changes because we are too invested in the status quo.

Transactional gender

As young women are used to provide much needed income for homes that are living on or below the poverty line, and young men are used in similar yet different ways, we, as Bahamians, step back and throw stones, yet we refuse to challenge the gender norms and cultural attitudes that allow this to continue. In fact, we allow it to worsen and deepen as more people are left destitute by a nation on the move that has seen no need to address its growing and deepening inequalities, economic and social.

These inequalities are creating insurmountable barriers to progress and borders between communities and individuals, yet gender remains performed in the same disempowering ways. Young girls are "turned out" by older men who use their bodies as sites of pleasure for a dime. These young girls have been taught, and learned well, the need to play to pay, and so they do this. At the same time, they are happy to explore sex with young men, though not usually as young as themselves. They then boast about their adventures or "sexploits". Such is the construction of gender in this society. A similar reality must be recognised as functioning in male lives as well. But the value system indicates that it is fine for young men to boast about sexual exploits because this empowers them, but it cheapens young women. Do young women now performing explicitly in school now say that this has changed? No! These young women will find themselves cheapened by their own fair sex as well as the sex who "sexploits" them. How do we begin to change the scenario?

Changing gender norms and behaviours

As the Minister of Education stated last week, these behaviours come from homes; they are social problems. They are rampant in our society. School spaces, though, are meant to challenge those norms. School in 2017, however, has ceased to challenge, to deconstruct and to demonstrate positive opportunities because the system benefits from it, and many see these social norms as expected, accepted and desired roles. Given that school is a microcosm of society, it can either perpetuate the same social ills, which is easy, or it can challenge them, which is much harder. School has become a less transgressive and transformative space where education is truly empowering, and is more a space of social conformity and reedification of social norms and stereotypes. Schools seem to have lost their way and the system is showing all the signs of one decaying under the weight of the status quo. We are producing more youngsters who see it as essential to be transactionally aware of their bodies and yet cannot read or write effectively; they can count though. To them money is all the value they need.

When slavery ended, we thought that being sold in public displays on the block at Venue House was done. The commodification of the black and brown male and female forms was behind us because we had, after 1967, become self-ruled by individuals who look like us. Today, however, this self-empowerment, though constantly touted by governments, is proving to be a lie. It remains the space for the few, while the many enjoy their objectification, because this is what they can do. Usually, when working with young offenders in other areas, these are put into positive spaces so they can learn to behave differently. This is especially true for young addicts and abused teens and children, however, this also requires them being taken out of their home environment, which is where so much of the conflict and negative patterning resides.

The future and spatial justice?

Our current education model is creating a desperately unequal society. Spatially, the majority find themselves in failing schools where sexualisation and objectification are norms, and gendered cultural norms reinforce those old stereotypes of black men being endowed stallions yet threatening to public safety and/or social order and black women being Jezebels. Some public schools may have technology, but it usually does not work or is not wired up, or the roof leaks and has leaked for the last 10 years, and so the technology, justifiably, remains in boxes where it is safe, that is if it does not get stolen. Yet schools boast about this technology.

There are possibilities available though. While working in Dubai with the Bahamas team, it became apparent that Dubai had a model for social and economic development that could offer our country hope and a positive example for development. Expo 2020 and the shift in culture it can present to our apparently crumbling village can transform the country into a more proactive better performing place. Spatially, this requires investment in education and active learning, not rote or passive learning. It requires schools to understand their role in challenging socially-desired, normative behaviour, and to be role models, in fact leaders, in the community. It also requires a new way of seeing how we perform gender and the respect we have for ourselves. Can we truly launch with schools modelling twerking bodies and transactional sexualised worth?


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