I won’t deny that there were parts of Sinead O’Connor’s viral letter to Miley Cyrus that bothered me.
To say that “your body is for you and your boyfriend” irked me a little for heteronormative reasons but also because it seems frame the female body as some kind of private gift only your boyfriend gets access to. For O’Connor to put herself in the position of “mother” to Miley (“it is said in the spirit of motherliness and with love”) is also bothersome because, well, simply because one is an older woman, that shouldn’t make a person necessarily a “nurturing” or “mothering” figure (though I get that O’Connor might feel “protective” of Cyrus in some way). I don’t find the woman = mother stereotype to be particularly useful, progressive, or accurate. Also, Sinead is not by any means Miley’s “mother.” Beyond that, the phrase “young lady” reads as a scolding from your teacher back in 1953.
But to dwell on these flaws is to miss the primary (and the most relevant) point of the letter, which is this: sexualization does not equal empowerment.
O’Connor tells Cyrus that which all girls and young women should know (not just celebrities, though it does impact young women in the entertainment industry particularly), which is that those who encourage you to objectify yourself, those who give you attention because you are appealing to men, those who tell you that power comes from desirability are wrong. Those people don’t care about your well-being and they don’t care about female liberation and empowerment. In Miley’s situation, they care (as O’Connor points out) about profiting off of your naked ass.
The point many are glossing over amongst nonsensical commentary around “slut-shaming” and “judging” is this:
“Nothing but harm will come in the long run, from allowing yourself to be exploited, and it is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent.”
Having been in the music industry herself and having lived longer in this world than Cyrus, O’Connor is perfectly in her right to position herself as a mentor of sorts. Of course these days it’s popular to throw older women under the bus, as many immediately did, turning O’Connor into your old, no-fun, prudish, mom. This isn’t just a trend that’s popular with mainstream sexists, but with the third wave as well — you may have encountered sexist/ageist attacks on second wave feminists who are regularly accused of being “sex negative” or “stuck in the past” or whatever else we like to say to dismiss women who know more than we do. Sorry, but every 20 year old thinks they know it all. But 20 year olds, in fact, know very little. This isn’t to say that young people must necessarily defer to their elders in all circumstances, but playing to ageist, sexist tropes just makes you sound like a catty, obnoxious, teenager.
Cyrus goes one step further into the misogyny dung heap, accusing O’Connor of being, essentially, “crazy” and making fun of her struggles with mental illness.
Some took the obvious “women aren’t victims!” route, trying to frame critiques of a sexist industry and culture as a form of disempowerment in and of itself.
The rest immediately began to accuse O’Connor of “slut-shaming.” And to those folks, I have to wonder if you even have any idea what you are talking about. Objectification and sexualization have nothing to do with female sexuality. Cyrus is not “doing her own thing FUCK YEAH” — she is marketing a sexualized image for profit. And primarily, as O’Connor points out, those who profit from this image will be powerful men who will remain rich and powerful long after Cyrus has been used up and discarded.
Slut-shaming isn’t a real thing, for starters (it’s just misogyny, lovies), but what we need to understand about this COMPLETELY OVERUSED term is that being critical of a culture that pressures women and girls to pornify themselves and offers them few other options in terms of gaining self-worth and power, is not the same as being critical of an individual’s sexuality. This is an image Cyrus is presenting to the public (or being pressured to present) — it’s about representation. If you can’t differentiate between that and Miley’s private desires and/or sex life, then you may want to tread a little more lightly when entering into conversations about feminism and female liberation.
O’Connor says that which we can all see is true: the music industry will try, with all their might, to exploit young women — to “prostitute” them, as she says; meaning to use their bodies and sexualities to profit.
“Real empowerment of yourself as a woman would be to in future refuse to exploit your body or your sexuality in order for men to make money from you. I needn’t even ask the question. I’ve been in the business long enough to know that men are making more money than you are from you getting naked.”
And here’s what O’Connor knows that Cyrus, and many other young women (including myself at that age) don’t know: that power you feel — the power you get from having men want you — is fleeting. Further reinforcing this particular kind of imaginary “empowerment” only perpetuates the idea that, without sexual appeal and without youth, women are useless, irrelevant, and invisible.
While disgusting Terry Richardson (who, by the way, is known to be a sexual predator) is busy turning Cyrus into soft-core porn, we’re all busy trying to make sure everyone knows how empowered! and in charge of her own sexuality! Cyrus is; telling anyone who dares to state the obvious that they are judgy slut-shamers. Why not point your busy twitter fingers at the exploitative industry or the pervy Richardson rather than at those who tell the truth, that “the music business doesn’t give a sh– about you, or any of us. They will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think its what YOU wanted”?
What O’Connor says is (mostly) right: “Women are to be valued for so much more than their sexuality. We aren’t merely objects of desire.” And she deserves to be listened to and respected, not mocked.