The “Open Letter to Miley” Mess Is Embarrassing for Everyone

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Open letters, by definition, aren’t really about one-to-one communication. They’re about sending a message to the general public under the thin guise of an email, a blog post, or if you’re Sinead O’Connor, a Facebook status posted to a page with over 300,000 followers. Open letters have their uses; if you’re the Senate majority leader turning up the pressure on the Speaker of the House to end a pointless government shutdown, for example, or the editorial director of this website explaining why Bustle may not be a $6.5 million idea after all. But for a respected female musician delivering a pseudo-maternal, slut-shaming lecture to a younger pop star she barely knows? A personal email might have been a better choice.

O’Connor supposedly penned the letter in question, the first of three currently posted to her Facebook page, in lieu of speaking with a reporter about Miley Cyrus and her recent post-child-stardom image overhaul. It’s a weird attempt to position the sermon that follows as O’Connor taking the moral high road; instead of having a journalist act as middleman, O’Connor’s taking her message directly to Cyrus. That message, delivered “in the spirit of motherliness and love,” is a full-throttle attack on the idea that sexuality in female pop stars can be anything but disempowering. By the end of the thousand-word tirade, O’Connor’s done her level best to convince Miley she’s not in control of her own career — probably not the greatest tactic for getting someone who’s frantically trying to claim control of her own career to listen up.

“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,” O’Connor writes. Some other choice excerpts: “Yes, I’m suggesting you don’t care for yourself”; “I’ve been in the business long enough to know that men are making more money than you are from you getting naked… And its [sic] sending dangerous signals to other young women”; “Whoever is telling you getting naked is the way to do that does absolutely NOT respect your talent, or you as a young lady”; “The message you keep sending is that its somehow cool to be prostituted.” Note the repeated implication that Miley is passive and naive, at the mercy of “whoever is telling” her PVC undies were a good idea. Until someone like Sinead O’Connor can swoop in and explain to her what’s going on, that is.

Some genuine concern for Miley, and female musicians in general, does shine through in the letter (“Your records are good enough for you not to need any shedding of Hannah Montana. She’s waaaaaaay gone by now… Not because you got naked but because you make great records”), but it’s understandable why an artist who’s clearly indicating she wants to be perceived as an adult might object to being spoken to like a child. That doesn’t make the way Miley chose to respond even remotely OK; reposting someone’s very public struggles with mental health is cruel, as is trivializing both O’Connor’s experiences and those of Cyrus’ fellow starlet Amanda Bynes, a performer who’s having a much tougher time transitioning out of teen celebrity. Still, Miley’s right to take issue with O’Connor’s patronizing attack on her agency, an attack that’s more effective at providing fuel for Cyrus’ detractors than providing helpful advice for a 20-year-old entering rocky, post-teenage professional territory.

There’s also the disastrous fallout from Miley’s tweet-seen-round-the-Internet, which transformed O’Connor’s tone from maternal-if-condescending to outright hostile. “Taking me on is even more fuckin’ stupid than behaving like a prostitute and calling it feminism,” O’Connor’s second Facebook post reads, shortly before accusing Cyrus of “send[ing] the signal to young women that it’s ok to act like prostitutes” and labeling her “an anti-female tool of the anti-female music industry.” A third note gets vaguely threatening: “You can take five minutes today between g- string fuckin’ changes to publicly apologise and remove your abusive tweets… Cease behaving in an anti-female capacity. You will become the victim of it shortly. Soon it will be you the media ‘crazy’… and you will not enjoy it.”

What’s so troubling about O’Connor’s ever-harsher logic is that it furthers a particularly noxious strain of sexism in the name of defeating another. It’s awful that the merits of female artists have historically been equated with their youth, beauty, and most importantly, their sexuality. But the other side of this particular Madonna/whore dichotomy is equally dangerous, telling young women that any female artist who wears skimpy clothes or dances provocatively or otherwise reveals that she is, in fact, sexual is automatically defined by it, disqualified from being taken seriously and branded as a victim or, as O’Connor put it, a “tool.” O’Connor’s argument makes zero room for sexuality as a constructive part of a female pop star’s persona, a component of their image rather than its sum total. Instead, it simply reinforces the unfortunate belief that women’s only options are to be serious and sexless or tragically exploited.

There are plenty of perfectly legitimate reasons to dislike Miley, or at least the direction she’s taking. Among them (all of which you can file under “Why I can’t believe I’m writing a defense of Miley Cyrus”): deliberately using another culture’s aesthetic as a PR tool is exploitative; the video for “Wrecking Ball” was straight-up terrible, and not because of the nudity or even the sledgehammer; “Party in the USA” was somehow both enormously irritating and impossible to get out of one’s head. But the problems O’Connor describes either aren’t problems at all or they’re systemic, issues it’s unfair to pin on Miley. It’s not her fault that sexuality’s the only signifier of maturity young women have at our disposal. It’s not her fault that people like O’Connor will automatically interpret that sexuality as a sign that she’s a voiceless pawn of record execs. And it’s especially not her fault that the supposedly feminist conversation surrounding her sexuality ends up granting more power and control to her “handlers” than to Miley herself.

In the last 24 hours, we’ve learned that Miley Cyrus doesn’t respond well to criticism, thinks little of callously shaming other women’s serious illness, and is “too busy” hosting SNL to apologize. But we’ve also learned that the rock-and-a-hard-place thinking that makes it near impossible for female artists like Cyrus (and O’Connor, and Amanda Bynes) to get the respect they deserve is alive and well, even among female artists themselves. By publicly criticizing Cyrus, O’Connor reinforces the message that young women ought to be punished for taking the only option a sexist industry offers them. That industry, and the attitudes that pervade it, is what O’Connor ought to target when she opts to write a scathing takedown, not Miley Cyrus. Too bad it’s not nearly as convenient a scapegoat.