A tangled and rather bizarre controversy is unfolding in the entertainment world this week as musical veteran Sinead O’Connor spars with teen it girl Miley Cyrus. They come from different continents, different worlds, and different sensibilities, but the women are currently having a very public and very ugly fight that highlights some troubling issues embedded in media, pop culture, and the way people interact.
It all began with Cyrus’ provocative video ‘Wrecking Ball,’ in which she firmly shed any remnants of her image as a wholesome girl-next-door type, throwing off the chains, as it were, of the family-friendly roles she’d been playing for Disney. In the video she’s nude, writhing on screen, licking tools, a lascivious, tattooed, thrumming, sexual being. On the one hand, it could be read as an act of fierce defiance, but on the other, it fits into an all too familiar framework of exploiting young women and girls in the entertainment industry, using their bodies to sell their work.
The level of autonomy available to stars like Cyrus is hard to gauge. Simply insisting that they’re ‘forced’ into such performances is insulting, as it implies that they are powerless. But suggesting that they’re totally empowered and acting of their own free will is an equally dubious statement, as clearly there are substantial pressures at work when it comes to young women in Hollywood. One of the inspirations she credited in the concept for the video, though, was singer Sinead O’Connor, famous for her boundary-breaking, daring, edgy performances.
O’Connor was apparently less than impressed with the comparison, and she took to the internet to write an open letter which has since been removed from her website, but is archived here. The letter, which opens with an explanation that it’s meant to be ‘motherly advice,’ comes complete with liberal sprinklings of profanity, a warning to Miley against ‘prostituting’ herself for the industry, and the note that the record industry rarely cares about individual performers. It also serves as a sharp condemnation of Cyrus’ decisions:
Whether we like it or not, us females in the industry are role models and as such we have to be extremely careful what messages we send to other women. The message you keep sending is that it’s somehow cool to be prostituted.. it’s so not cool Miley.. it’s dangerous.
Things might have ended there, with O’Connor’s simultaneous stigmatisation of sex workers and questioning of Cyrus’ suitability as a role model, but they didn’t. Instead, Cyrus, like so many of the modern generation, clearly read the letter, didn’t respond well to it, and took to Twitter with some snide comments for O’Connor to let her know that the message had been received…and rejected. Taking a screenshot of Tweets from several years ago, when O’Connor experienced a bad reaction to medication and had to seek emergency attention for suicidal ideation, Cyrus gleefully compared her to singer Amanda Bynes, currently in psychiatric treatment.
Bynes’ downfall on Twitter became a subject of public fascination and rubbernecking at the time, with numerous people flocking to mock the singer despite the obvious manifestations of mental illness in her Tweets. Mental illness as entertainment is nothing new in the US, especially when it comes to young female pop stars; Britney Spears was likewise an object of fascination during especially difficult periods in her life, for example. Thus, Cyrus’ jab came with a sharp bite to it, and one O’Connor clearly didn’t appreciate: in her second letter to the young star, she called Cyrus anti-female, and, inexplicably, stupid.
This was the point where the war between the two stars became much more absurd, and peculiar. O’Connor, in claiming to defend young women and girls, fell back on an old and pointless insult for her co-conversant. It’s peculiar that ‘stupid’ endures as a fallback, and more peculiar still that she would make such comments about someone she’s attempting to establish a dialogue with. The petty comment didn’t put O’Connor in the best light, and it wasn’t the last time she said something offensive in the discussion.
In response, Cyrus responded with a rather childish Tweet, effectively saying she was too busy to consider interacting with O’Connor right now…but that she might consider meeting to discuss the issue at some point. O’Connor’s response escalated the situation, refusing a meeting, demanding an apology for the comments about mental illness, and, bizarrely, suggesting that Cyrus would eventually end up in psychiatric care. The comment reflected poorly on O’Connor, coming across as rather smug and nasty: ‘When you end up in the psych ward or rehab I’ll be happy to visit you,’ O’Connor wrote.
The tragic part was that O’Connor’s comments on mental illness were sharp and necessary words for Cyrus to hear, as the young star clearly hadn’t considered the ramifications of mental health stigma. She certainly didn’t realise what she was doing when she opened up the floor to discuss O’Connor’s mental health, and O’Connor later noted that she received scores of abusive missives in the wake of Cyrus’ unpleasant Tweets.
But the saga wasn’t over yet; next, Cyrus appeared on the Today show, where the issue inevitably came up and Cyrus said that O’Connor, as with the rest of her public, was welcome to send her all the open letters she wanted. O’Connor took her up on the offer, responding yet again with a reiteration that Cyrus apologise for her comments about mental illness and discussing the severe stigma people with mental health conditions endure.
The entire episode has reflected rather badly on both celebrities: Cyrus certainly didn’t behave well, but neither did O’Connor. It has also, though, highlighted the way in which mental illness is a subject of fascination in the entertainment industry, and the way in which it becomes a weapon for marginalising, stigmatising, and erasing people. Cyrus clearly meant to discredit O’Connor by referencing her history of mental health issues, and O’Connor just as clearly stood up for the mental health community with her discussion on mental health issues, including statistics and comments about how mental illness is stigmatised.
It’s especially stigmatised among women, particularly celebrities, and this is perhaps the sharpest and most tragic thing about the doomed exchange between the two women. Cyrus, trapped in a defensive and angry cycle, appears reluctant to engage with the points O’Connor is making, while O’Connor’s notoriously prickly personality and presentation, and understandable frustration with Cyrus’ attitude, is making it difficult for her to bridge the gulf between the two celebrities.
This could become an opportunity to unite in advocacy on mental health subjects, especially since many of Miley’s fans are precisely at the age when severe mental illness tends to onset. Their idol could also become a role model and source of support, instead of yet another person telling them that something is wrong, twisted, and broken inside them.
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