In Sinead O’Connor’s open letter to Miley Cyrus, she wrote: “Yes, I’m suggesting you don’t care for yourself. That has to change. 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.”
But they’re wrong. O’Connor’s letter was little more than garden-variety slut-shaming, and her attitudes do much more to hurt women than all the skimpy outfits and provocative dances in Miley’s oeuvre.
Take O’Connor’s directive that Miley “say no when you are asked to prostitute yourself. Your body is for you and your boyfriend. It isn’t for every spunk-spewing dirtbag on the net.” But what’s wrong with expressing sexuality? As Jill Filopovic tweeted this morning: “Why are we telling girls that their sexuality isn’t theirs? That if they’re publicly sexual, they’ve somehow given it away? People publicly display other aspects of themselves — intelligence, humor — all the time. But publicly being a sexual creature = cheap?”
No, this seems to be about the context of that sex and nakedness. After all, Sinead O’Connor didn’t write an open letter to Justin Bieber — who surely made even more money for “greedy record company executives” by selling his sexuality than Miley has.
So why the concern now? Because, as O’Connor reveals in another part of the letter, this is, at its core, about Cyrus’ young femaleness. O’Connor’s letter aligns perfectly with the way the post-VMAs coverage focused entirely on Cyrus’ performance and glossing over Robin Thicke’s participation. It’s part of institutional misogyny: worried about how the our society treats young women’s bodies as objects? Blame the young women for having bodies in the first place.
In the letter, O’Connor writes that her public admonishments to the 20-year-old are in the spirit of “motherliness and with love.” She follows that up with warnings that Cyrus is being “pimped,” and that she will “end up in rehab.” All of this seemed to come as news to Miley, who declared on her recent MTV special that she is crafting a “strategic hot mess” image, and seems to feel supremely confident and in charge of the image she’s wearing these days. As she put it bluntly in her recent Rolling Stone profile: “I know what I’m doing. I know I’m shocking you.”
Sinead has a lot of experience, and she is right about one thing that Miley already figured out: Sex sells, and a large part of the reason everyone is talking about Miley Cyrus right now is because people always talk about famous, beautiful 20-year-old women who show off their bodies. Miley’s image is a little different from Britney’s or Madonna’s was — she’s borrowing more from hip-hop culture and absurd comedy, and she seems to be appealing more directly to other young, rebellious women than she is to men. Still, we’ve been looking at young pop star’s bodies for the last 30 years, and Miley’s not all that different. It’s not actually shocking; it’s even a little boring.
And there’s no indication that Miley doesn’t know exactly what she’s doing, which is what makes Sinead’s public mothering so condescending. Miley has enjoyed an incredible level of success, already charting more songs in her two decades than Sinead has in almost five. And as my friend Larissa Swindle wrote on Facebook, “maybe [Miley] isn’t so blinded by her youth that she can’t see the motives of people trying to profit off of her youth and beauty. Maybe she wants to make some damn greenbacks off her youth and beauty too, and good for her. Those things, along with her talent, are hers to profit from if she chooses to.”
After the first open letter went viral, Miley — having been publicly admonished by someone she admired — made a joke in poor taste, tweeting a screenshot from Sinead’s public Twitter breakdown two years ago and comparing her to Amanda Bynes. Miley’s defensive reaction was offensive and hurtful, especially for mental health advocates. But those same advocates should also be disturbed by the implication, in Sinead’s first letter and then again in her two follow-ups, that she thinks mental illness is a result of decisions that a person makes when they’re young. In her second letter, she promises “you will yourself one day suffer such illness, that is without doubt. The course you have set yourself upon can only end in that, trust me.”
O’Connor is essentially a Bible-thumper, promising Cyrus eternal damnation — in the form of mental illness — for the sin of wanting to make some money on her assets. An attractive young woman’s sexuality is bankable, it’s true. But in the end, Miley is making money off of what the people want: pop jams, youthful rebellion, and sex. The woman who figured out how to strategically cash in on the controversy isn’t a victim or a bad example — she’s just a business, man.