The XX Factor

If Miley Cyrus Were Really Fearless, She’d Put on Some Clothes

Miley Cyrus, owning “it”

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Clear Channel

The Miley Cyrus beat did not shut down with NASA. This week saw two new developments, a New York Times article on the “pro-Miley backlash” and an open letter to Miley from Irish singer Sinead O’Connor. They form a kind of diptych. In the Times story, a bunch of magazine editors and artists push back against the prudes condemning Cyrus’ soft-core twerkitude (which includes the VMA performance you’ve already read 7,000 blog posts about and a new video for the song “Wrecking Ball,” in which the naked star polishes a sledgehammer with her tongue). These women, from august glossies like Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar, say Cyrus is being slut-shamed for “owning her sexuality.” One editor calls her a “genius,” an “emblem of rebellion and trouble.” According to another, Miley has “launched a conversation about female sexuality.” Most importantly, they say, she knows how to sell herself.

“There’s a diversity of opinion about her, but the bottom line is that people are buying and listening to her music,” Bonnie Fuller of Hollywood Life told the Times. “Even if they’re debating it, and some of them are disapproving, the bottom line is: they’re interested in her.”

Now check out Sinead O’Connor’s letter. Here are a few highlights.

The music business doesn’t give a shit about you, or any of us. They will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think its what YOU wanted.

Nothing but harm will come in the long run, from allowing yourself to be exploited, and it is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent.

Magazine editors love Cyrus because readers find her “interesting” (though not necessarily relatable or admirable), and she sells copies. They defend her as a provocateur who knows how to market her brand—through sex and controversy. Right or wrong, she starts “conversations.” She’s a “genius” not because she produces fantastic music but because “she doesn’t just talk like a bad girl, she behaves like one” and “if you’re a musician, that’s an incredible place to be.”

Of course, Miley is “allowed” to nakedly lick as much construction equipment as she wants. She has a right to express her sexuality, and if that’s the part of herself she wishes to place front and center, fine. But it’s not slut-shaming to ask, as O’Connor does, where that focus gets her, personally and professionally, in the long term. How fulfilling is it, really, to be a provocateur whose main selling point is sex appeal when you could be valued for your talent? If you’re a porn star, packaging yourself first and foremost as sexually fearless may be a smart move. If you’re a musician, aren’t you selling your real product—your songs—short?  

People may be talking about Miley Cyrus, but even her partisans don’t seem to respect her for much beyond her ability to generate buzz—and drive traffic. What bold and courageous point has Cyrus left us with? That sex sells? That teddy bears and foam fingers have still got it? That metal machinery is delicious? I think it’s a cop-out to reflexively applaud her for, as my colleague Jessica Grose puts it in Elle, “publicly exploring her sexuality in a provocative way.” The ranks of pop stars are overflowing with young men and women doing just that. They’re not doing it out of bravery—they’re doing it because it works.

If only we all had an adoptive Irish singing godmother to tell us: “Exploring your sexuality” too often means titillating dudes at the expense of your talent. “Starting a conversation” too often means whispering the right nothings into the ears of your sales team.