Art by Daiana Feuer

Photo by Art by Daiana Feuer

Miley Cyrus, Sinéad O’Connor, and the Media Circus of Sexualization

Why everyone’s weighing in on the pop star’s ribald antics.

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Everyone has an opinion on Miley Cyrus. Ever since the VMAs, when she cavorted nearly naked with people dressed as teddy bears (and Robin Thicke), the world has weighed in on What It All Means—including, yes, us. Now, after Miley said that her up-close-and-personal “Wrecking Ball” video was inspired by Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares to You,” the Irish singer has posted an open letter on her blog to the former Disney star.

Sinéad wrote: “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. It is in fact the case that you will obscure your talent by allowing yourself to be pimped, whether its [sic] the music business or yourself doing the pimping. 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.”

While her letter is well intentioned, what Sinéad misses is that Miley appears to be no one’s victim. In her new Rolling Stone cover story, the singer makes it clear she is acting on her own agency. “I wasn’t trying to be sexy,” she says about her VMA performance. “If I was trying to be sexy, I could have been sexy. I can dance a lot better than I was dancing.” And in her MTV documentary Miley: The Movement, which aired this week, she reaffirmed her autonomy: “Right now, I can be exactly who I want to be. I just want to have fun.”

In this way, Miley has much in common with Madonna, who used her sexuality to her advantage when she writhed on a stage during the 1984 VMAs. Certainly, no one told Madonna to do that. But today, in this post–Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and Amanda Bynes world, we associate a woman flaunting her sexuality with that of a scamp. A woman wants to be sexual in her presentation? Clearly, she’s lost her mind or is on drugs.

That’s why Miley’s initial response to Sinéad was so unfortunate—she Tweeted a screen grab of the singer’s suicidal tweets from two years ago. This, of course, enraged Sinéad, who posted a second, not-so-nice letter that began, “Who the fuck is advising you. Because taking me on is even more fuckin’ stupid than behaving like a prostitute and calling it feminism.” She also excoriated her for mocking people with mental-health issues.

There is another overarching theme to Sinéad’s first letter to Miley. It’s that all of women’s sexuality is bad, or that using it is a weakness. Her message was that it is an attitude applied only to female artists and never to males. (No one, for instance, told D’Angelo in the ’90s that he was not supposed to exploit his body.)

For many women—and not just artists—sexuality is a huge part of who they are, and it informs how they interact with the world. Women are told, especially in this country, to tame their sexuality, deny it even, at all costs. For a female artist to not address her sexuality is akin to ignoring the elephant in the room. As musician Amanda Palmer wrote in her response letter to Sinéad: “Do I want a whole generation of teenagers looking at Miley Cyrus to determine that the only way to get hits and hawk your music is to rip your clothes off and wiggle around as violently and loudly as possible? Fuck no. But I don’t want to tell them it’s wrong, either, because like I said: the field has to encompass EVERYTHING.”

Even if women in music become more powerful, they are still subject to the male gaze. And as long as that male gaze is prominent, female sexuality is a powerful tool that can be used to get bigger audiences, which begets more money, which begets more power. In this way, Miley is taking the bull by the horns—at least she can direct the gaze to what she wants us to see, and how she wants us to see it. What better way to do this than by making sleazy photographer Terry Richardson be her bitch and do her bidding, creating the images she wanted the world to see, as she did with this batch of photos?

It might be tempting to compare Miley to Britney Spears, but so far, her path is much different from Spears’ coming-of-age era, which began with “Baby, One More Time” and continues with her latest release, “Work Bitch.” For one thing, Britney, unlike Miley, doesn’t write her own songs. (On Miley’s latest record, Bangerz, she co-wrote 10 of the 13 tracks.) But as an artist, Spears has seemed passive in her own art.

Though it was Spears’ idea to wear a schoolgirl outfit with a midriff-baring shirt in the hit-making video for “Baby,” she’s felt pressure to make each video of hers more and more sexy—right up to “Work Bitch,” in which she parades around in barely there stripper outfits. The 31-year old mother has expressed that she has finally grown tired of this type of exposure. She told the TJ Show on AMP 103: “Like, I cut out half the video, because I am a mother and because, you know, I have children. And it’s just hard to play sexy mom while you’re being a pop star as well.” (Incidentally, this week is the 15th anniversary of “Baby, One More Time.” Don’t we all feel old?)

In that way, Spears, whom Miley has said is one of her biggest idols and who has defended the younger performer, serves as a cautionary tale. If you start with a bang—or in this case with no clothes on at all—where else can you go? Perhaps that’s really what Sinéad is trying to say when she warns Miley: “You will yourself one day suffer such illness, that is without doubt. The course you have set yourself upon can only end in that, trust me.”

We can hope that Miley has a different path for herself than that—one that avoids head-shaving and psychiatric troubles, or drug rehabs and public meltdowns. Perhaps, the worst that will happen is that she’ll get too many Botox injections and dress too young for her age. But hey, nobody says shit when Tom Cruise does it.

So go on, Miley. Go forth with your bad self. As someone wiser than me once said:

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Even Sinéad has to admit that.





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