When numerous friends shared the Sinead O’Conner “open letter” to Miley Cyrus, I read it and of course agreed with some of the points she makes, but it bothered me for a number of reasons. Essentially, Sinead O’Conner lectures Miley that she is being used by those around her, especially her team at her record label, who are encouraging her to prostitute herself. O’Conner insists repeatedly (though I doubt her sincerity) that Miley is very talented and doesn’t need to use sex to sell.
One reason O’Conner’s “open letter” bothers me is the extreme self-righteousness that is typical of such letters. It’s incredibly patronizing. Another is her repeated claim that she knows better about the industry, when let’s be frank, she hasn’t had a hit in 20 years and she is in the news for the first time in as long only by grabbing the coattails of this current pop star. And the industry has changed. The monopoly of the major labels is gone; artists have a lot more options; even self-publishing with complete artistic control is a perfectly viable option.
Third, as far as giving advice about personal life, I don’t think many people would say she has much to stand on there — with her 4 marriages and multiple public tirades and meltdowns. Fourth, it’s a little funny for O’Conner to be lecturing about getting attention through sensationalism; remember when she tore up a picture of the pope on global live television? BTW, she also wrote an open letter about Trayvon Martin last year. The year before that she wrote an open love letter to Bob Dylan. Attention-getting through sensational acts is her rule, not exception.
In case you didn’t know, Miley responded by basically saying, “You’re giving me advice?” and it sadly devolved into O’Conner having yet another public meltdown and threatening to sue Miley for intentionally trying to harm her career.
All of that is interesting, but I don’t want to dwell on it here, because my main point is that what bothered me most was O’Conner’s repeated assertion that the world is a dark dangerous place:
“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.”
This, says O’Conner, requires a woman to essentially hide her desirability from everyone, adding, “your body is for you and your boyfriend.” Of course it’s true that women experience powerlessness and exploitation in this world! We’ve just been discussing this at my church, St. Lydia’s, while studying the story of Hagar. It can be very ugly, and we should do all we can to minimize that. But O’Conner’s solution is essentially the same as that of fundamentalists around the world: that it’s the responsibility of women to hide their sexuality. O’Conner’s own response to the industry’s desire to sexualize her was to wear multilayer shapeless smocks that hid her feminine figure and, in a move harkening back to ancient tradition, shave off her hair — a woman’s long hair still to this day in some traditions considered the main symbol of her sexuality, to be seen only by her husband. The answer to male exploitation of female sexuality cannot and must not be to strip women of their sexuality or tell them to hide it shamefully. This is not a step forward; it’s a huge step backwards.
Thankfully, my dear acquaintance Amanda Palmer has put words to how I feel. And she has done so from the position of being a currently-relevant female musician and a brilliant articulate pro-sex feminist. This gives her a right and a standing that I could never have on the subject. And Amanda’s post was brought to my attention by my ex-wife who faced tons of misogyny as a pioneering punk guitarist both for being a strong sexual figure on stage and for daring to play lead guitar, a man’s instrument.
I strongly encourage you to read the entire post by Amanda Palmer, because each excerpt I offer here is surrounded by many other words that give it nuance and counterpoint and make lots of other important points. I just wanted to give you a taste of it, and pull out a few key sections:
“Here’s where I think you’re off target. Miley is, from what I can gather, in charge of her own show. She’s writing the plot and signing the checks, and although I think it’s tempting to imagine her in the board room of label assholes and management, I don’t think any of them masterminded her current plan to be a raging, naked, twerking sexpot. I think that’s All Miley All The Way. Now, would these men ARGUE with her when she comes into the room and throws down her treatment to hop up naked on the proverbial (and literal) wrecking ball? Of course not. Sex sells. We all know it. Miley knows it better than anyone: swinging naked on a big metal ball simply gets you more hits than swinging on a big metal ball wearing clothes. We’re mammals. LOOK BOOBS! And even more tantalizing: LOOK HANNAH MONTANA BOOBS! But none of this means that Miley is following anyone else’s script. In fact, what I see is Miley desperately trying to write her own script; truly trying to be taken seriously (even if its in a nakedly playful way) by the standards of her own peers.”
“I want female musicians to feel like they can do MORE with their mad artistic energy, not LESS. I want women to feel less trapped inside their bodies, less afraid to express themselves, less afraid to be nailed to the cross of the cultural beauty standard. But that necessarily means there needs to be room on the vast playing field for Adele to wear a conservative suit, room for Lady Gaga to do naked performance art in the woods, room for PJ Harvey to wear high-collared 18th century jackets on stage, room for Natasha Kahn to pose boldly naked on the cover of her last record, and room for Miley to rip a page out of stripper culture and run around like a maniac for however long she wants to.”
“When I was about 15 (not inconsequentially, right around the time I was listening to your albums non-stop on my long walks to high school every morning), I started having fights with my mother every time I left for school. I’d decided to dress like an oversexed punk and… my mother would say: ‘Amanda Palmer, get back in the house and put some real clothes on. You look like a prostitute. I won’t have my daughter walking around town like a harlot.’ (I swear to god, my mother actually used the word harlot. Bless.)… I know my mother was trying to protect me. She loved me. She didn’t want me to fall into dangerous situations, she didn’t want me to be ridiculed, she didn’t want people to think badly of me. And often they did… It was my artist’s uniform, and I was learning how to wear it with pride; I was figuring myself out. I’m 37 and I’m still trying, and I change my uniform sometimes. Sometimes I play with nudity because it makes people pay attention, sometimes I play with nudity because it makes me loudly vulnerable to those in the room…”
About the way the pop industry uses up teen female stars, she says,
“wouldn’t it be better if we changed the entire plot instead of dealing with it as it’s been handed to us?… I want to live in a world where Miley (or any female musician) can twerk wildly at 20, wear a full-cover floral hippie mumu at 37, show up at 47 in see-through latex, and pose semi-naked, like Keith & co, on the cover of rolling stone at 57 and be APPLAUDED for being so comfortable with her body.”
I hate to give away the ending, and you should read the whole post, but this is too good not to share with those who don’t follow the link. Here’s how Amanda ends the letter:
“let’s all play the game together, with a wink and a nudge…so we don’t hurt each other. If men and women don’t have a constantly open dialogue about how we do and don’t (or should and shouldn’t) manipulate and play with each other, we all lose. We are all fragile humans with little time on this beautiful, sexually-charged, ecstatic planet. Let’s share it to the fullest extent that we can and make the playing field for all of us the size of the whole earth.
In other words, 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.”
My gut tells me Amanda’s right, but every time I follow the line of reasoning all the way which says women should be able to dress in Victorian gear or go naked in public, I worry it’s treading too close to the line where liberation and free love becomes license to exploit women and tell them they shouldn’t mind.
Is selling sexiness inherently exploitation, or is that a prudish assumption? Is it not exploitation if the female artist is in control and collecting the profits? I am not entirely sure about any of it. Except that I know Sinead O’Conner is way wrong in her letter. Theologically and experientially, I believe to my core that this is not the “dangerous world” filled with “animals and less than animals” which O’Conner describes. No; instead I believe, as Amanda Palmer puts it, “We are all fragile humans with little time on this beautiful, sexually-charged, ecstatic planet. Let’s share it to the fullest extent that we can.” Amen. What do you think?
As she explains in the full post, Amanda Palmer wrote her response while on her way to a benefit for young female musicians, at which she performed a mash-up of Sinead O’Conner’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” and Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” the videos of each being what sparked the initial back-and-forth between them. The video above is of that performance.