I really wanted to love Sinéad O'Connor’s open letter to Miley Cyrus.
In some ways, O'Connor's advice to Cyrus is what I would be tempted to give other young women in my life. She’s right that “many’s the woman who mistook lust for love,” and I admire an attempt to let women know that we are more than the high value placed on a low BMI.
Still, O'Connor comes across like a hopelessly out-of-touch, pearl-clutching aunt when she tells Cyrus that her "body is for you and your boyfriend." Heteronormative, much? Throughout, Auntie's message suggests a moral panic, rooted in the scary notion that young people in possession of fallopian tubes are coming of age and having sex.
It is confusing to grow up in a world that sexualizes and shames young women, but never assumes we act with purpose. We are expected to walk a tight rope of respectability and sexual expression. We can aspire to be sexy, but not sexual. Rarely are young women given the space to reflect on our sexuality as something we own rather than something dictated to us. O’Connor opines that we live in a "dangerous world" where "we don't encourage our daughters to walk around naked in it because it makes them prey for animals and less than animals." She positions men as creepy perpetrators and ignores Cyrus's own ability and power. Is O'Connor really going to suggest that Cyrus showing her body means that no one is going to respect her?
Has she forgotten Madonna already?
The divide between O'Connor and Cyrus's ideas of sexuality and sexual expression are demonstrative of the divide between our neighbor Gen X-ers and us. Millennials don't enjoy the paternal proselytizing of previous generations, however well-meaning. Usually, it's not: we have repeatedly been told that we are lazy, slutty, and self-absorbed.
That's not true.
According to a survey by the Public Religion Institute, millennials care about reproductive and sexual health and access to services; we are more likely than any other generation to support access to abortion within our communities; legality for same-sex marriage; and comprehensive sex education.
Even if you hate the decisions that Cyrus makes, why be so quick to assume that she is not the one making them? When she was rightfully lambasted for appropriating black culture, critics clearly assigned blame to Cyrus. Now that she is naked, suddenly someone else calls the shots? This old-fashioned discourse is unfair in that it unquestionably equivocate female nudity with exploitation and misogyny (and, in O’Connor's case, violence).
O'Connor clearly speaks from her own experiences in the celebrity circuit, and society has a long history of placing women's value solely in their sexuality. However, it’s still reductionist to assume that all the very influential women in the music industry are little more than objectified victims. Cyrus's work is more intentional than O’Connor gives her credit for. Her choreography and production requires technique, even if it lacks tact. O'Connor describing Cyrus as “prostituted” when she is creating her own art and image strips her of intent.
The truth is, we only speak about young white women this way. No one tells D’Angelo to cover up because looking at his naked, muscled body will make it impossible to take his talent seriously. Male celebrities are never told they "ought be protected" as a "precious" young people, like O’Connor tells Cyrus. Black female musicians like Rihanna are never "protected" in the way O’Connor thinks that Cyrus should be. O’Connor is only "telling it like it is" if you are a precious white girl.
Cyrus doesn't need O'Connor to drape her coat over her and hide her away. She's a little messy, and very provocative — but if O'Connor really wants to respect her, she'll realize that Cyrus isn't a victim, she's a volunteer.