Last week’s Miley Cyrus vs. Sinéad O’Connor face-off was a prime example of the way that internet feuds can simplify life’s most difficult questions to a toss-up between binary extremes. Sinéad watched Miley’s Terry Richardson-directed “Wrecking Ball” video, got offended by the sight of the former Disney Channel star licking sledgehammers and spread-eagling on top of the titular demolition tool in the nude and wrote an open letter to Miley, advising her to resist “let[ting] the music business make a prostitute of you.” She warned that Miley was disempowering herself, and young women everywhere, by sending the message that she was to be valued more for her sex appeal than for her musical talent. Hyperbolically, she also spoke of the male label execs who would be “sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling [her] body” after the industry had chewed her up, spit her out and landed her in rehab. Miley, unmoved by Sinéad’s feminist agenda and professed “motherly” intentions, treated the advice like an attack, and dug-up some old tweets to imply that Sinéad was crazy. The feud generated a second, a third, and then a fourth open letter from the “Nothing Compares 2 U” singer, and a whole lot of press for Miley, whose rising bad-girl status seemed to prove to her that she was doing something right. Tweet: “Sinéad. I don’t have time to write you an open letter cause Im hosting & performing on SNL this week.”
I can see where both of them were coming from. Sinéad, as naive and overblown as her intervention attempt came off, is right to point out the music industry’s history of enriching itself on the borrowed sex appeal of starry-eyed young performers like Miley—and worse, perhaps, of subliminally perpetuating the evil idea that youth and sex are the only real kinds of currency a woman can have in entertainment. Past allegations regarding Richardson’s unscrupulous behavior with his photographic subjects, of course, speak loudly to the enduring old showbiz cliché whereby the aspiring starlet, figuratively or literally, sleeps her way to the top. But one could also make a perfectly feminist argument in favor of Miley’s decision to undress for that slimiest of slimy photographers, because by making out with a bathroom mirror, as she did in her recent Richardson shoot, she’s harnessing her sexuality to get the attention that she wants. Maybe she’s actively exploiting the industry’s potential to exploit her, manipulating male desire in order to catapult herself to stardom and riches; maybe she’s just young and reckless and having a good time, and she’ll end up sunbathing on the deck of her own giant yacht anyway.