What Sinéad O’Connor and Miley Cyrus’ feud teaches us about feminism

October 6, 2013

If the latest exchange between Miley Cyrus and Sinéad O’Connor has illuminated anything, it’s how unremarkable their feud is in the first place.

It all started when Cyrus told Rolling Stone her latest music video of her single “Wrecking Ball,” in which she appears nude, was an homage to O’Connor’s music video for “Nothing Compares 2U.”

Though O’Connor never disrobed for her single, the two videos are similar in that they both feature close up shots of the each artist belting lines while a single tear rolls down the face.

In response, O’Connor posted an open letter to Cyrus on her Web site likening Cyrus to a prostitute and urging her to reject further “exploitation” of her body and sexuality “in order for men to make money from you.” Although O’Conner said the letter was intended “in the spirit of motherliness and with love,” Cyrus rejected the advice by republishing a series of tweets O’Connor wrote several years ago when she was scouring the Internet for psychiatrist.

A rather unoriginal “she said, she said”, ”say it to my face” feud followed. While O’Connor’s initial message could have sparked debate on how the entertainment industry abuses artists, the women seem to have offended each other: O’Connor has taken to threatening legal action on her Facebook page, while Cyrus declared she didn’t have time to continue responding because she was preparing for her performance on Saturday Night Live.

There are two reasons why this exchange is entirely unremarkable and both of them point to why this could be the last of it that we hear.

First, Cyrus is simply the latest in a long line of female entertainers who have received both positive and negative attention for using her appearance to promote her work. Of the top ten songs on Billboard’s Hot 100, two of the associated music videos feature naked women (one of which is Cyrus’). Out of the list’s five female artists, three have appeared naked at least once in one of their music videos and of the remaining male artists, two have featured naked women in at least one of their music videos. Say what you will about nudity being a form of expression and art, but there’s obviously a pattern of using naked women who fit a certain aesthetic to amass video hits.

“Men have the privilege of seeing their sex appeal come from things besides their bodies,” Andrea Press, sociology professor at the University of Virginia, said. Though Cryus is unique by virtue of age and child stardom, she is merely the latest participant in “business as usual.”

Secondly, the latest exchanges are fairly trivial when compared to the weight of O’Connor’s original concern: inequity for women in the music business. Remember that?

O’Connor is “criticizing a system that’s exploitative and demeaning to women,” Press said. “The only way to succeed is to be flagrantly sexual. Is this all we care about? How many clothes they’re wearing and how they’re packaging their bodies? We need to think in bigger terms and this illustrates that.”

To Jaclyn Friedman, the executive director of Women, Action & the Media, what the public cares about in this feud is shaped by how it’s been reported.

“It’s gotten sort of ugly,” said Friedman. “Certainly men call out men in the public eye as well. As a culture, we tend to read women criticizing other women as a cat fight instead of two people having a disagreement.”

While the media is certainly responsible for framing the argument as a cat fight, O’Connor and Cyrus’ ongoing messages have not made it easier to focus on anything else.

“It’s counterproductive,” said Friedman. “There are real issues at stake but neither woman is actually talking about them anymore. It’s turning into a petty, individualistic argument.”

The struggle for fans of O’Connor, Cyrus and female musicians in general is that there’s too fine a line between supporting an artist and her sexuality and getting sucked into a system that values women entirely for sexuality.

To this challenge, Friedman suggests “voting with our dollars.”

“What you respond to with eyeballs and online clicks is what the system will create more of. When we only buy the work of naked female pop stars, it’ll only make more naked pop stars. If we decide to support music that speaks to us through content, there will be some artists who will use nudity for their art and some that won’t. But there will be more variety.”

Fellow musician Amanda Palmer penned a highly-circulated open letter in response to O’Connor’s letter to Cyrus, in which she acknowledged her experience with sexism and argued for multiple shades of feminism.

“I want women to feel less trapped inside their bodies, less afraid to express themselves, less afraid to be nailed to the cross of the cultural beauty standard,” she said.

“But that necessarily means there needs to be room on the vast playing field for Adele to wear a conservative suit, room for Lady Gaga to do naked performance art in the woods … and room for Miley to rip a page out of stripper culture and run around like a maniac for however long she wants to,” Palmer said.

While the original feud says nothing new about the state of women in the entertainment business, Palmer’s argument addresses one of the main conflicts that feminists today face: people have different ideas about what it means to support women. While O’Connor feels that Cyrus’ body-bearing art enables a sexist system, Palmer feels that though it’s not ideal, it’s not wrong. Why?

“The field has to encompass EVERYTHING,” she wrote.

Yes, women should have more options, Palmer says. But they shouldn’t be demonized for choices they make as long as they do so knowingly, independently. It seems Friedman would agree.

“How have we come to a point where female pop stars have to be half naked to be famous? Women aren’t the ones making that decision. We need to change that but shaming [Cyrus] for being sexual will never make that happen,” said Friedman.

“Feminists can disagree about strategies and goals but this feud is not that,” she elaborated. “We can disagree about tactics that can be used to achieve certain ends but neither one of these women are engaging in this conversation. They’re just tearing each other down and that’s not feminist in either direction.”

When insecurity and bitterness get in the way of communicating and learning from other women, feminists of any nature stumble.

Supporting another woman doesn’t necessitate a BFF-level relationship or a public intervention. Maybe empowering other women just requires an honest effort at hearing the other side, an ounce of empathy.

Ruth Tam is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @ruthetam.
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