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Miley Cyrus, Sinéad O’Connor and the future of feminism

Since her tongue-poking and “twerk”-filled performance at the American Video Music Awards, Miley Cyrus has been the subject of intense media discussion. This has only magnified in the past week, after Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor wrote an open letter to Cyrus, imploring her to “refuse to exploit your body or your sexuality in order for men to make money from you".

Cyrus did not react well to being chided by one of her idols andher tweets in response have provoked two further open lettersby O’Connor. Fellow musician Amanda Palmer has appointed herself as intergenerational umpire, offering an open letter to O’Connor in which she maintains that Cyrus has orchestrated her own plan to be a “raging, naked, twerking sexpot".

Some people have been left wondering why one young, white American female pop singer is generating this much attention. Certainly, Madonna deliberately pushed the boundaries with controversial video clips and an erotic photo book, Sex, before Billy Ray Cyrus’s “achy breaky heart” had even settled on Miley’s mother, Leticia.

One of the tensions driving the international debate about Cyrus is the now-entrenched difference between second- and third-wave feminisms. In 1963, prominent feminist activist Gloria Steinem went undercover to work as a Playboy Bunny. The resulting exposé of the harmful aspects of women’s work in the New York club exemplified how feminists once largely agreed that there were exploitative practices inherent in women’s employment in industries connected with sex.

The movement fractured as some women came to disagree with views of pornography and sex work as oppressive. From the 1990s, third-wave feminist rhetoric about “choice” has challenged the idea that stripping, pole dancing, or posing naked are enforced by a male-led – or patriarchal – society.

Michaele L. Ferguson, a political scientist, explains that “choice feminists” see anything a woman says she has chosen to do as “an expression of her liberation". It does not matter whether a woman elects to run for parliament or to ride naked on a wrecking ball — as does Cyrus in her video for her most recent single — as a woman cannot freely choose to be oppressed.

Full text available at The Conversation.


Dr Michelle Smith
Research Fellow
Centre for Memory, Imagination and Invention
Deakin University
221 Burwood Highway
Burwood VIC 3121