Pop Culture

YouTube, Twerking & You: Context Collapse and the Handheld Co-Presence of Black Girls and Miley Cyrus

Black people are the fastest growing demographic in mobile phone use, which is one reason why twerking has proliferated on YouTube. Twerking is a dance shared by Black girls that transcend local environments with the dispersion of twerk videos on YouTube. The specific dance begins in New Orleans but also has roots in the “dance-drum” customs of various African groups. For Black people, dance has always offered cultural definitions and explanations of self.  Still, the primary women who receive views for twerking are white women pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea. White women pop stars appropriate African aesthetics as part of their brand. Even as YouTube brings visibility to twerking, Black girls get erased from the narrative.

Below I summarize Kyra Gaunt’s 2015 Journal of Popular Music article, which looks at how context collapse affects black girls who post twerk videos to YouTube. The use of social media and its emphasis on “You” reflects the rise of networked individualism. The article focuses on how online self-presentation through twerking affects how the internet socializes black girls.

Distinguishing Context Collapse

Context collapse occurs when social norms of face-to-face interactions get suspended due to the “connection without constraint” of social networking sites (SNSs). Context collapse includes the virtual co-presence of multiple unseen audiences with different histories and orientations toward a social phenomenon like twerking. According to Gaunt, scholars Danah Boyd, Michael Wesch, and Joshua Meyrowitz popularized the idea of context collapse in media:

Context collapse allows viewers to unthinkingly ask things like, “Who else would be twerking in such a highly public space but those girls who statistics show have early-onset puberty?” You know! The already-havin’-sex black girls.” On the other side of the glass dot are millions of racist and misogynistic haters. Those haters are playing a role in a kind of mass-bullying around black girls’ body-work as face-work that in turn shapes the self/identity construction of increasingly younger black girls on SNSs.1

SNSs reduce boundaries through space, time, and social relations for viewers and subscribers of platforms like YouTube. Context collapse results from a loose and virtual environment of viewers, content creators, and legacy media dispersing competing discourses and histories regarding social statuses like race, gender, and age.

“What is Twerking?” (The #1 Google Search of 2013)

Twerking goes back to over 20 years ago from a black social dance in New Orleans. The New Orleans music that popularized the dance is referred to as “bounce.” However, twerking also involves movements like dropping, popping, and locking in time to a rap song’s lyrics, beats, and rhythms.  DJ Jubilee popularized the term in 1992 with a demo tape “Do the Jubilee All” and it comes from a contraction of “to work.” Far from a form of entertainment, Gaunt states twerking is a kind of kinetic orality that involves rhythmic bouncing to popular rap and twerk songs as a form of cultural expression.

According to Gaunt, twerking for the camera represents a type of auto-sexuality, a term coined by Dan Miller. This self-presentation of sexuality does not require a male gaze but rather self-expression of erotic displays. For girls who twerk on YouTube, this auto-sexuality occurs often in the private space of one’s bedroom with only an audience of one’s family or peers before uploading it online.

Flirting with a Glass Dot; Broadcasting While You Twerk

Gaunt found that young adult men and females between the age of 13-24 consumed commercial rap videos the most.  The blackness of the girls who share videos goes unsaid. People acknowledge it in other ways, for example, when white girls stuff their shorts to mimic a larger butt in their twerk videos. Context collapse (or context collision) occurs with all new media. Alongside this mimicry, mainstream media stereotypes the dancing of Black girls as ratchet and hypersexual. This is reflected in the comments o videos that slut-shame, objectify, or react with respectability politics.

The impression of Black girls twerking on YouTube offers more than entertainment. This act enables a race and gender discourse that can translate into social capital via the attention economy. Within this environment, producers of YouTube twerk videos must engage in face-work. Erving Goffman describes this as the performance of self a person does to manage the impression others have of them in social situations achieved through shared cultural meanings defined by a unique space and time.

Gaunt builds on Goffman’s concept of face-work and uses patois to denote body-work as a link to related dance styles from the African Diaspora. The face-work of Black girls who twerk on YouTube differs from the norms of vlogging. Rather than use their voices, Black girls use twerking and as such create a digital self-presentation that Gaunt terms batty-werk. This leads to a unique performance of personal vlogging that enables a discourse around Black culture. 

Back That Thang Up: Understanding Batty-Werk as “Face-Work”

Twerking emerges from Southern rap rather than the commercialized East and West coast genres. However, twerking occurs alongside several dances from within the African Diaspora historically. Black girls who twerk on YouTube do so for their own agency as part of a larger experience of adolescent socialization. Miley Cyrus and YouTube changed the context. YouTube is a type of networked public that enables people once segregated by the digital divide to participate. Cellphones make broadcasting easier, but also expose a person to context collapse. Gaunt’s analysis of over 186 twerk videos reveals that the patterns of audience and context segregation present in legacy media exist online as well. Ultimately, White people gain more financial benefits from the use of YouTube.

The Mainstreaming Effect of Miley Cyrus on YouTube

Gaunt notes race factors into the reception of twerking online. She compares the reception to twerking via performances by Miley Cyrus and Katey Red. Miley Cyrus featured twerking in her 2013 VMA performance. This spectacle enabled consumers of pop music to embrace the dance sans history of Black and African customs. Gaunt notes that Miley Cyrus’s song “We Can’t Stop” frames black girls as girlfriends giving Miley props for embracing a “gendered musical blackness” via twerking. Mainstream media responded to Miley’s VMA performance in a manner that framed her actions as provocative but failed to reference the history of twerking including queer pioneers of bounce music like Katey Red.

Katey Red’s feature of black girls twerking in “Where Da Melph At” had not received as much media attention. The video involves a politics of everyday popping in that the girls transform the urban space of the projects into a stage, turning acrobats everywhere from the stoop to the hood of a car.  Images of Red’s video proliferated on YouTube, WorldStarHipHop.com, and Vine instead of mainstream media. Still, there’s a huge gap in audience impressions on social media as well. There is also a gap in access to production. For example, Katey Red’s first professional music video did not happen until 2011.

Pop stars like Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Iggy, and Miley broadcast their voices and dances via social media to adolescents. Miley Cyrus wasn’t the only white woman to embrace twerking in the postracial era. Iggy Azalea and Lily Allen incorporated a similar aesthetic juxtaposing white and Black womanhood. “Trading up” offers privileges not afforded to Black music artists, symbolizing a transition to adulthood through musical blackness for White artists.

OMG Becky!. . Baby Got Back!

Gaunt notes that male artists also shape the sounds and ideas that contribute to black girls’ social identity to the 1972 R&B song “Troglodyte” by the Jimmy Castor Bunch. The song characterizes Black women as Bertha Butt and Butt Sisters. It continues to resonate today as a sound sampled in hip-hop and dance tracks. The 1992  “Baby Got Back” track by Sir Mix-a-lot also played a role. A white woman insinuates the hypersexuality of Black men and women revolves around Black women’s bottoms. Despite censorship, the song charted second to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” cover.

YouTube differs from MTV in that consumers produce many of the videos. Social media does not protect people of color from how society frames them as the other or outsider. When Black women twerk, society objectifies their bodies, framing them as a crisis of identity and self-representation for all Black people.

Context collapse leads people to impose a politics of respectability that reads black girls twerking as a virtual heteronormative performance. Hip-hop videos socialize viewers to adopt a patriarchal gaze, one that interprets twerking as mimicking a sexual act. Gaunt notes intersectionality frames the interpretation of children dancing on YouTube. Society sees white children dancing as playfulness and rewards them with hundreds of millions of views. Thus, what these complexities reveal is that self-presentations aren’t truly one’s own even on YouTube. Indeed even twerking gets multiply interpreted via personal twerk videos, club videos, dancehalls, and even parodies.  Gaunt concludes that context collapse necessitates the development of critical media literacy.

Views as Currency: Owning Your Own Body (or Who’s Gettin’ Paid)

Black girls twerking on the internet, given context collapse, might affect their future identity. Other people who adopt twerking can maintain a safe distance from the structural and emotional wages of Blackness. Thus even Rihanna’s twerk anthem “Pour It Up” didn’t obtain as many views as Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop.”


1 Gaunt 2015: 262