So, Sinead O’Connor wrote an open letter to Miley Cyrus, ostensibly because Miley said Nothing Compares 2 U served as the inspiration for her Wrecking Ball video.
And, um, I’m not feeling it.
The letter, which you can read basically ANYWHERE on the Internet, was written “in the spirit of motherliness and with love.”
You see, Sinead’s just CONCERNED, you guys. She’s concerned that Miley’s being exploited and is exploiting herself. She encourages Miley to lean in, as it were, to her station as a role model (because female pop stars ALWAYS have to be role models). She suggests Miley put some pants on. She uses the word prostitute a lot.
I’m being flip; O’Connor does make some great points about the music industry, but she misses the mark a lot.
When I wrote about Miley last time — because apparently I’m SIAC’s official Miley Cyrus correspondent — I focused on the racist overtones of her VMA performance because that, to me, was what was controversial about it. To me, Miley’s in-your-face sexuality wasn’t the story because I don’t find a pop star in her underwear to be even remotely controversial because MADONNA.
Of course, many pearl-clutchers and handwringers disagreed, crying “WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!?” Evidently, Sinead O’Connor falls into that camp. She writes:
You ought be protected as a precious young lady by anyone in your employ and anyone around you, including you. This is a dangerous world. We don’t encourage our daughters to walk around naked in it because it makes them prey for animals and less than animals, a distressing majority of whom work in the music industry and its associated media.
Translation: this is a dangerous world for women, so cover up and hide, or else. You were warned.
It appears O’Connor’s working theory is that Cyrus is a victim who’s being exploited, yet she uses victim-blaming language throughout the post, placing the responsibility on Miley/Miley’s team for the way she’s marketed instead of calling out the people who greedily consume what she’s selling. It’s simple supply and demand, and Miley knows — like most everyone else — that sex (where “sex” is shorthand for “sexualized depictions of female bodies”) sells. How many magazine covers is Miley on this month? How many is she naked on?
I think I heard an audible record-scratch when I got to this part: “Your body is for you and your boyfriend.” (UM, YOUR BOYFRIEND?)
Apparently, it’s also for Sinead O’Connor/society to police.
Indeed, Miley’s body is her body — which means she gets to do whatever she wants with it. Including sell lots and lots of records with it. She can dress it how she wants, show it to whom she wants and explore her sexuality with it the way she wants. JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE.
The maternalistic tone of O’Connor’s letter is perhaps the most troubling thing about it. Miley Cyrus, despite her teenage YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME act, is not a wide-eyed child in need of parenting, nor is she a victim in need of protection. She is, in fact, a grown woman with power and privilege who is knowingly (if very clumsily) using her youth, fame and sexuality to build wealth — in the literal financial sense, yes, but also in the currency of her culture. Miley knows she lives in a world that prizes youth, beauty and fame and she’s playing the game. Don’t hate the player.
Let me be clear: I call Cyrus a grown woman but I’m certainly not arguing that she is in any way mature; the way she responded to O’Connor, by mocking her struggles with mental illness, definitely suggests otherwise. She’s young, and she’s thinking young. Still, we need to give her space to make mistakes/figure shit out. (I’m not a parent, but isn’t that, like, Parenting 101?) She’ll never, ever make great decisions if she doesn’t learn how to make them. Plus, maybe she’d drop the YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME act if, I dunno, it stopped being so fucking PRODUCTIVE? (My parenting book will be out next year.)
Cyrus is a young woman who happens to be figuring out her sexuality in the most public sense, which isn’t easy — especially for former rosy-cheeked Disney cherubs, groomed to be all-American good girls, bastions of sweetness and purity. (I’m sure we all remember the media narratives surrounding early-career Britney Spears, who was CONSTANTLY solicited for hymen updates.)
When a teenage girl becomes a sexual woman, society doesn’t know how to deal, especially when said teenage girl is Hannah Montana. Female pop stars are expected to be chaste, obedient, apologetic and nice (so, T-Swift, essentially — although even she doesn’t get a free pass, as evidenced by all those jokes about her dating track record). They are expected to be ROLE MODELS FOR THE CHILDREN. They aren’t supposed to be sexual, rebellious, unapologetic and brash (so, Ri-Ri, essentially). And they certainly aren’t supposed to grind up on a foam finger while wearing latex underwear. NOBODY WINS!
And those women, figuring out their sexuality, are going to flail, fumble and fuck up because we ALL flail, fumble and fuck up. For some of us, it just happens in front of the cameras.
But maybe we’d be less shocked by a female pop star’s sexuality if we stopped festishizing her virginity. Maybe we’d be less shocked by a female pop star’s sexuality if we stopped infantilizing her. Maybe we’d be less shocked by a female pop star’s sexuality if we treated her like a an adult person with sexual agency instead of an easily manipulated, voiceless pawn in man’s game. Or a princess in need of rescuing. Or a nice girl gone bad. Or a “precious young lady.”
And maybe then we wouldn’t need to be so ‘concerned.’
Amanda Palmer wrote an amazing open letter to Sinead O’Connor that beautifully articulates what it’s like to be a woman in the music industry (read: FUCKING IMPOSSIBLE). She makes a lot of A+ points and I encourage you to read the whole thing, but the last line sums it up perfectly.
Let’s give our young women the right weapons to fight with as they charge naked into battle, instead of ordering them to get back in the house and put some goddamn clothes on.