It’s a question that’s been on everyone’s lips since the latest instalment of Dramas Involving Miley Cyrus (see also: Robin Thicke, the VMAs, racist imagery) – which last week saw Sinéad O’Connor pen an open letter to the singer.
The Irish singer said she felt compelled to write the letter “in the spirit of motherliness and love” after feeling concern at Cyrus’s recent behaviour and new video. After being asked to comment on the fact that the video for Wrecking Ball was supposedly inspired by one of her own, O’Connor felt moved to tell Cyrus about the exploitative nature of the music industry and its reliance on using the sexuality of young women to make money.
Last Thursday, when the letter started making waves online, there was a clear difference in the way my Christian friends and non-religious friends reacted to it. The former shared and tweeted it in abundance, with excited comments about how much they agreed with O’Connor’s sentiments about a woman’s worth and the purpose of her sexuality. The latter condemned her, taking issue with what they saw as patronising faux concern for Cyrus and “slut-shaming” (in that it was critical of her wearing very little and using her sexuality as she wishes).
One thing that the majority of people were agreed on, however, was O’Connor’s unwise decision to choose an open letter as the right way of communicating. The open letter was once popular to the extent that it became an overdone and predictable trend in Christian blogging – a way of showing concern at the same time as being self-righteous and passive aggressive. As a result, numerous discussions about its validity took place – and it was found wanting.
Now, I’ll hold my hands up and admit that my own blog contains the evidence that I have, in the past, employed the open letter as a means of communication. But I’m not a celebrity, nor was I writing that open letter to another celebrity. The open letter invites attention. It’s often an attack masquerading as concern. Instead of writing an open letter to someone, wouldn’t it be more productive and less self-centred to contact them personally? It probably would, but that wouldn’t translate into page hits.
Surely this would have been a better course of action for O’Connor. Perhaps as a consequence of the public nature of the letter, Cyrus felt the need to respond by publicly mocking her past mental health issues. Inevitably, more celebrities have weighed in, and O’Connor has threatened Cyrus with legal action.
Looking at the two extremes of reactions to the letter, I found I couldn’t align with either of them. It may be an unpopular opinion in some quarters, but I agree with O’Connor’s sentiments about expression of sexuality and empowerment. I don’t necessarily believe that just because a woman makes a choice about the way to live her life, it is a healthy and helpful one. On the other hand, I worry that the letter did nothing to challenge cultural perceptions that continually put the onus on women to make sure they are not treated badly by unpleasant men, rather than condemning the behaviour of these men and demanding better from them.
When she wrote that young women need to be “protected” from “animals and less than animals”, O’Connor made her disdain for these men clear. But she also appeared to promote the idea that women’s bodies are somehow to blame for objectification and exploitation. She did not say, for example, that we should not have to put up with a culture where young women have to protect themselves, or be protected, from exploitative and predatory men.
The letter was clear: there are some terrible people out there, Miley. They don’t care about your talent; they want to exploit your sexuality for money. So you need to do whatever you can to protect yourself from their evil ways, and start by putting your body away.
I’m not the only person who’s criticised this way of thinking so evident in the letter. But it’s exasperating that as usual, the majority of this discussion on exploitation, on the unpleasant aspects of the music industry, on sexuality is focusing on whether or not people feel Cyrus is being “judged” for her “choices”, missing the mark on so many other issues as a consequence.
Numerous commentators have expressed dismay that as long as this continues, her problematic comments on black culture and usage of black backing dancers as what have been called “props” are going largely unchallenged. It seems that her freedom to do what she wants with her life is coming at the expense of more than just her own empowerment.