Thursday, 3 October 2013

An open letter to Sinead O'Connor regarding her open letter to Miley Cyrus

Today my newsfeeds were full of posts commending Sinead O'Connor on her open letter to Miley Cyrus. Which got me totally excited. I LOVE Sinead. I mean, I seriously love her. Seeing her shaved head in my late teens is one of my first memories of being attracted to a sexy soft butch aesthetic (which, to be clear, is how I interpreted her look and not necessarily how she envisions it). I had her cassette tapes. I listened to them on repeat. But then I read it and... well... here is my open letter to Sinead O'Connor in response to her open letter to Miley Cyrus (say that three times fast!)

Dear Sinead (and the rest of us),

It's really really really time that we all stop with this paternalistic bullshit that infantilizes Miley Cyrus and assumes that all females in their teens and twenties are voiceless, thoughtless, morons who lack agency over their own bodies and decisions.

You open your letter to Miley with, "I am extremely concerned for you that those around you have led you to believe, or encouraged you in your own belief, that it is in any way 'cool' to be naked and licking sledgehammers in your videos." Do you have any idea how condescending that sounds? Miley is twenty years old and a world famous musician. She's likely not doing something that is against her own personal moral compass to try and fit in with the "cool kids".

Also, I'd love it if we could find a way to discuss the possible exploitation of artists in the music business without all the anti sex-work(er) talk and lingo. I'm not naive enough to argue that all women and men who choose sex work do so for ultra self-empowering reasons or of their own, uncomplicated, free choice. This isn't the place for a drawn out discussion on the inseparable issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, able body and mindedness, and citizenship, that influence one's participation in the varied fields of sex work. But I think it's important to understand that there are plenty of sex workers who affirm that they are able to have positive experiences in the sex work industry. And the rest of us really need to respect that and trust in their own abilities to assert agency over their bodies and employment.

Decades ago I was just a young girl who would eventually grow-up to come out as a lesbian. And gosh I was entranced by your take no bullshit attitude and that totally awesome shaved head. Now, try to think back to who you were then, not that much older than Miley is now, and imagine that someone told you "you ought be protected as a precious young lady by anyone in your employ." I'm guessing you might have said something like "who are you calling a precious young lady?" Are we not yet at a point where we can see young women as something more than precious, delicate, young flowers in need of constant supervision and protection? 

And on that note: 
"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 is akin to the age old "she was asking for it in a skirt that short." The last few years of tireless anti slut-shaming activism has woken us all up from that outdated viewpoint. It's time to not put the onus on women to not be raped or abused or seen as prey. It's time to put the onus on rapists and abusers and other vultures to not be that way. There was a photo posted on STFU Conservatives a few months back that I think illustrates my point nicely. It's of a woman, naked from the waist up, with the words "Still not asking for it" written on her body. And while the photo is great, what's even better is the comments below it. One reader wrote that it was like putting on a meat suit and expecting a shark not to eat you. I sighed and slapped my hand to my forehead as I read that. And then another man stepped up and responded perfectly: 

We (men) are not fucking sharks!
We are not rabid animals living off pure instinct
We are capable of rational thinking and understanding.
Just because someone is cooking food doesn't mean you are entitled to eat it. 
Just because a banker is counting money doesn't mean you're being given free money.
Just because a person is naked doesn't mean you're entitled to fuck them.
You are not entitled to someone else's body just because it's exposed. 
What is so fucking difficult about this concept?

You are the expert in the music industry. You know how shit goes down. And I know you wrote what you did out of care and concern. But it's time to put the onus where it belongs. We don't need to tell our daughters not to be afraid of the big bad wolf. We need to tell them to grow up and be kickass powerful women who take charge of their own bodies and minds and careers.

At this moment in time Miley Cyrus may be a naive twenty year old who is being brainwashed into swinging naked on a wrecking ball to make the big record execs tonnes and tonnes of cash. Or she may be a super awesome twenty year old with enough agency to make her own decisions about her image and her career. We really can't know. But when you say "ALL of them want you because they're making money off your youth and your beauty... which they could not do except for the fact your youth makes you blind to the evils of show business" you really aren't even giving her a chance to be that take charge kinda girl that she just might be. Are the people in her camp making more money off of her naked body swinging on a wrecking ball than she is? I'm guessing the answer to that is yes. But this isn't a case of slavery where all of the profits go to the masters. I'm not Miley Cyrus' accountant but I'm guessing she's doing alright.

You write that you chose your look at a time when your record company was pushing you in a different direction and that you wanted to be judged on your talent and not on your looks. And you write that as a result you've been able to stay in the business when many other women, who relied on their looks, disappeared. Which is awesome. For you. But lets not assume that Miley is a one trick pony. She did the whole Hannah Montana thing. And now she's doing a different thing. We can't really predict what she'll be doing at thirty or forty or fifty. And who knows, maybe she'll be that fifty year old woman daring to show her nearly nude body and proving that age doesn't define sex appeal. The truth is that none of us knows what she will do with the rest of her career. And she has plenty of time to figure that out.

Finally, a word on the whole concept of role models. You wrote: "whether we like it or not, us females in the industry are role models and as such we have to be extremely careful what messages we send to other women." First and foremost, I think it is my responsibility to be my child's role model before any celebrity. Celebrities are people. They are good and bad. They make good choices and bad choices. And that good and bad is entirely subjective depending on your viewpoint. Every once in a while a celebrity comes along whom I think is totally amazing and has characteristics that I'd like my child to emulate. I may do my best to highlight those accomplishments in my parenting. But the next day they might get busted for hosting a dog fighting ring or drinking and driving. They are human. And it is not their responsibility to be the perfect role model for my kid.

I am the mother of a son, but if I did have a daughter I'd want her to look up to women who are kind, compassionate, self-confident and self-assertive. I'd want her to see the Sinead O'Connor who took charge of her place in the music industry on her own terms. And, if decades later, Miley Cyrus is taking charge of her own place (albeit in a much different way) then I would want to show her that too.

Sinead, I realize that the likeliness of you ever reading this rests somewhere around zero percent. But on the off chance, know that I write this out of my own frustration with the world that seems to see women, especially young women, as little more than helpless victims. Although we are coming at it from different angles I know that we both want to see Miley Cyrus, and the rest of our population's young women, able to take charge of their own lives in powerful and meaningful ways. Perhaps it's time that we allow those women to define those actions on their own terms.

Much love,


*** Edited to add: I wrote this post and then read THIS.  While I stand by my claims that we need to let women assert their own independence, that slut-shaming is not OK, and that we need to respect the field of sex workers in general, I also need to say that I do not in any way condone Miley's response to Sinead O'Connor. I don't need Miley to be a hero. And that wasn't what I was advocating for in this piece. ***

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