Tuesday, October 8, 2013

An Open Letter to anyone confused or enraged by the exchange between Miley Cyrus and Sinead O'Connor

I usually don't write much about pop culture, but the confusion and divisiveness surrounding the recent exchange between Miley Cyrus and Sinead O'Connor has been so intense both in what I have read and within myself that I had to write something about it.

First, I don't think it allows for much room for complexity when those of us watching and commenting on the exchange between these two women to call it a "feud". It only serves to generate further animosity to encourage divisiveness between two people. There is a conflict here but calling it a feud and taking up sides does nothing to encourage resolution.

Because I do not wish to add any fuel to the perception of their exchange as a feud I need to state immediately that I wish to take the side of neither party. Or rather I want to take both their sides because this is not a case of one musician against another. It is a case of all creators and women against the oppressive force of patriarchy and the vicious capitalist exploits of the music industry.

I have not seen and have no desire to see the Wrecking Ball video. I generally avoid Cyrus's work if I can. I find her oeuvre boring and vulgar. I don't find her work vulgar because of the sex/nudity. The amount of sexuality isn't vulgar, the way she replicates the patriarchy and appropriates black/hood culture when doing so is what disgusts me.

When she performed at the VMAs I made a few disapproving tweets and left it at that. I helped that many amazing feminist and anti-racist writers immediately identified the offensively problematic elements of that performance (literal objectification of WOC and unabashed appropriation of black culture to name a VERY few). I even thought it a strange sort of fortune that the problematic elements of that performance where were so obviously racist that even those with little exposure to anti-oppression could notice (kind of like how Seth McFarlane's Oscar hosting was SO sexist that people DID notice and were disgusted).

This week however, with Sinead's open letter and Miley's response there is less obvious stuff going on. It's unfortunately extremely public and very contentious. This is a hard knot of colliding and intersecting oppressions.

If you have not done so please read Sinead's letter to Miley now because I'm going to respond to specific components.


Before I get to the critiquing part I want to commend Sinead for trying to warn Miley about the predatory and exploitative nature of the music industry (and let's be honest the world at large). I am open to the reality that this realization might come as a "duh" to Miley (whose been around the industry her whole life), but it IS one that anyone working within that industry would benefit from remembering and strategizing against.

So yeah. I'm all for Sinead's call for Miley to be vigilant about the ways in which the music industry is trying to exploit her (we should ALL be more vigilant about the ways in which patriarchal capitalist systems are looking to exploit us), but that is where my support stops. And where Sinead begins doing some pretty subtle and serious concern trolling. I recognize the bravery and concern it takes to attempt and intervention but it needs to be done respectfully and in several ways this Sinead's open letter just wasn't.

My biggest beefs can be boiled down to two basic complaints:

1.) The use of "prostitution" as a linguistic scare tactic. It completely throws sex workers under the bus to use their profession as a means of degrading comparison. I'm harkened back to the maddening distinction Tyra banks so loved to tout when it came to shaming any contestant of ANTM who'd had any history at all of stripping/exotic dancing. Using the language of prostitution in this derogatory fashion creates a hierarchy of women who are either worthy of human decency or who aren't and clearly those who "sell themselves" as Sinead puts it are less worthy of human treatment, which means... protection apparently which bring me to my second point

2.) "You ought be protected as a precious young lady".

In this we find the most glaring example of concern trolling and victim blaming. All of my fears that were stirred up by Sinead's use of the word "prostitution" were suddenly confirmed. For Sinead "lady"=someone worth saving/protection=someone not a prostitute. In conversation about the letter yesterday a friend was brave enough to share with me that Sinead's letter had reminded her of a time when on a trip through europe with friends she had been asked by their parents to cover up her breasts more carefully because they might attract dangerous attention from men.

The problem in Sinead's call for protection & my friend's story are the same: that women are somehow inciting the violence and oppression that exists in the world. And that if they just behaved as proper ladies (and covered up) they would be "protected".

This idea is sexist and exclusionary. The idea that she should be "protected" is bunk. It denies her agency and does nothing to challenge the reality that the world is dangerous in ways beyond the control or any one person (protector or protected). Protection and preventative measures only go so far and are only available to those who can afford them (whether the cost be in $ or in compliance to "ladyship"). When we live in a culture that perpetuates it all the time there is no way sure way to protect against being harmed by the violence of predatory and patriarchal exploitation.

I have more one smallish cut of beef about all of this. Why did this letter need to be open and public? In some sense Sinead's making public her disapproval for Miley's work creates a perfect beacon of faux-rightouesness for everyone who thinks that sex and sexual express is something women need to be protected from.

I find Miley's responses to Sinead deeply disrespectful and abusive in ways that are pretty fucking obvious. Just because I have some beefs with Sinead's letter and approach doesn't mean I think she need to be bullied by Cyrus and her supporters.

I know scarce little about Sinead's mental/emotional health and relationship to the music industry. I chose not to focus on those things in this piece. Many are defending Sinead's misstep on the bases of the trauma the music industry inflicted on her. And yes. Trauma is valid. Totally and completely. But victims and survivors of trauma don't get a special pass to shame/boss/save others who have had or are having similar experiences.

I understand that seeing people make choices that might hurt them in the long run is painful. And yes, speaking up in those instances can be life saving, but interventions like this can and must be done with complete respect for the agency of the people we are trying to reach. We can't think we can save them, or that we can know their experience better than they do.

The dismantling of the patriarchy will not be accomplished by ignoring the agency of others, using sex work as a specter of shame and/or calling for protection for some women. Real prevention and harm reduction starts when we require everyone to confront and take responsibility for the violence and oppression they either directly participate in or are complicity endorsing in themselves and their communities by not speaking up. None of us are exclusively victims or perpetrators. We are all uniquely harmed by and responsible for the oppressions that exist in this world.

Sinead fails to communicate this in her letter. Her derogatory use of "prostitution", her calling for Miley's protection, highlight the uncomfortable cultural tension between the confining roles that patriarchy allows women to inhabit: the whore or the (protected) virgin/lady.
Due to Sinead's unfortunate missteps her open letter ends up echoing the privileged anti-sex work activists blindly shouting "save yourself" at sex workers. It's well meant but deeply condescending, and full of impractical solutions to the symptoms of our larger condition of patriarchal and capitalist oppression.



Postscript and preview of future post: 
I've heard the cries of "slut shaming" about Sinead's letter and intend to address "slut shaming" in an upcoming post. Please stay tuned.

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