I usually steer clear of celebrity cat fights, but the current Sinéad O'Connor/Miley Cyrus contest is too irresistible to avoid. It provides yet another example of why those in the public eye have no business using the extra heft of their stature for political statements. Well-reasoned judgments are always in short supply, but celebrities seeking a bully pulpit often reveal their real motivations. What they see as substantive activism is little more than self-indulgent posturing and ego.
The recent open letter from O'Connor to Cyrus, earlier this week, demonstrates the former's famous tin ear. This is the same person who single-handedly destroyed her career by ripping up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live. The cult classic 1990's Irish BBC comedy Father Ted lampooned O'Connor as a self-important, sanctimonious blowhard. Heavy-handed approaches have been consistent through her entire life in public view, though I excuse some of them because of her bipolar disorder.
My main criticism of O'Connor might be her inability to see beyond herself. Her slightly rambling, occasionally profane open letter reads, in part:
None of the men ogling you give a shit about you either, do not be fooled. Many's the woman mistook lust for love. If they want you sexually that doesn't mean they give a fuck about you. All the more true when you unwittingly give the impression you don't give much of a fuck about yourself. And when you employ people who give the impression they don't give much of a fuck about you either. No one who cares about you could support your being pimped … and that includes you yourself.
Yes, I'm suggesting you don't care for yourself. That has to change. You ought be protected as a precious young lady by anyone in your employ and anyone around you, including you. This is a dangerous world. We don't encourage our daughters to walk around naked in it because it makes them prey for animals and less than animals, a distressing majority of whom work in the music industry and it's associated media.
I do not approve of Miley Cyrus' approach, either. Cyrus cruelly mocked O'Connor by reposting a series of tweets in which the Irish singer was clearly writing in a state of acute depression. Sensitive to the criticism she has been receiving after adopting a new, raunchier persona, I can understand Cyrus' desire to go for the jugular. Miley seems intent on shredding every part of her previously wholesome image. My own question is whether or not her new, sexier look is based on self-discovery or is entirely driven by a desire to raise her profile.
But unlike Sinéad, I don't fear that Miley needs to be protected from herself. A self-professed feminist like O'Connor should know better than to use Patriarchal language like that. Women have been "protected" by men for eons, and usually that means denying women freedom of choice based upon some perceived moral standard of decency. In her prime, I'm sure Sinéad would have protested heartily if anyone told her what to do. Now, years later, she's shown a surprising conservative streak that often arrives with age. I wonder if she's even aware of it.
Both recording artists have come across as self-absorbed and childish. But unlike Miley, O'Connor does not have the eternal defense of youthful indiscretion. She really ought to know better by now and is, at best, bereft of any self-awareness. Her past behavior always revealed a superficial understanding of feminism and other causes. But if any lesson can really be learned from this exchange, it is this: activism requires much more than a simplistic understanding of good versus evil. It cannot be encapsulated within any binary, nor within any dichotomy.