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It would be easy to assume that the open letter is a symptom of the Internet age. Such is not the case. In 1774, Benjamin Franklin wrote an open letter to the prime minister of Great Britain, Lord North — a satirical call for the imposition of martial law in the colonies. Franklin writes, “Those who served in America the last War, know that the Colonists are a dastardly Set of Poltroons; and though they are descended from British Ancestors, they are degenerated to such a Degree, that one born in Britain is equal to twenty Americans.” The open letter has always been an interesting rhetorical strategy — a way of delivering a pointed message to a specific individual or group, while also reaching a wide audience. Sometimes, as is the case with Benjamin Franklin, that strategy works quite well.
From Émile Zola to Martin Luther King Jr. to Bill Gates, open letters have been written for reasons both great and small. These days, open letters are all the rage — but few carry the gravity, wisdom and empathy of, say, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I wrote an open letter to young women who were willing to be beaten by Chris Brown, so attracted were they to the young man. There are open letters to politicians and celebrities and unruly neighbors. The producer of the CBS show NCIS wrote an open letter to the show’s fans. School boards receive all manner of open letters. Rachel Kincaid wrote an amazing open letter to open letters for Autostraddle. Stuart Heritage wrote one for The Guardian. We have opinions for specific people and we want, nay, we need the whole world to know!
Most open letters undoubtedly come from a good place, rising out of genuine outrage or concern or care. There is, admittedly, also a smugness to most open letters, a sense that we, as the writers of such letters, know better than those to whom the letters are addressed. We will impart our opinions to you, with or without your consent.
It’s also interesting that we feel so compelled to dissect the lives of young women, particularly young women in the public sphere who behave in sexually provocative ways. Of course, who knows what sexually provocative behavior is. Sometimes, a woman is sexually provocative because she exists, the nerve of her. What are these young women doing? What are they wearing? Who are they dating? Why? What do their parents think? How could they possibly have been raised right? Why don’t they respect themselves? We like to think we’re progressive and evolved, but we still hold young women’s behavior to a rather rigid standard.
When Sinead O’Connor, who is no stranger to public scrutiny, wrote an open letter to Miley Cyrus, her missive instantly went viral. Here was a woman telling another woman to look out for herself. O’Connor wrote the letter because in a Rolling Stone cover story, Cryus indicated that the “Nothing Compares 2U” video was an inspiration for her recent “Wrecking Ball” video. You never know how your audience is going to be inspired. There are some things an artist simply can’t control.
O’Connor offers Cyrus reasonable, maternal advice. But it’s striking that she is cautioning Miley against participating in her own sexual objectification instead of, say, taking Cyrus to task for what many, myself included, recognize as the real problem with Cyrus’s new image: the exploitation of certain aspects of black culture for attention, profit and personal gain. It’s also strange that some find Cyrus’s new image so problematic while little was said about her Hannah Montana persona, which was just as carefully and deliberately crafted by Disney’s celebrity machine. O’Connor writes, “Real empowerment of yourself as a woman would be to in future refuse to exploit your body or your sexuality in order for men to make money from you.” I’m always wary about statements about real feminism and real empowerment, as if there is one tried and true definition for either. I’m wary about using phrases like “prostituting yourself” and the many judgments being implied, not to mention the needless defamation of sex workers.
There were second and third open letters from Sinead O’Connor, each increasingly pointed and far less maternal, chastising Cyrus for her generally snotty and immature response on Twitter, which included the mockery of mental illness. Amanda Palmer wrote a somewhat self-involved open letter in response to O’Connor’s, but one that also mentioned the need for young women to have the freedom to explore their artistry. There have already been countless other responses online and there will be many more, and then some other young celebrity will do something “shocking” and another open letter will be written and the cycle will start anew and we’ll forget how the conversation even started.
This is not a defense of Miley Cyrus. I find her current persona baffling and her new music unpalatable. As I watched the “Wrecking Ball” video, the fellating of the sledgehammer confused me. I was concerned about wrecking ball particles finding their way into her naked crevices — it would be terrible for anyone to get tetanus in their tender bits. What Cyrus calls twerking is not actually twerking. She is overly fixated on showing us her tongue. She’s playing hip hop groupie because she can and when she gets bored of the role, she’ll try something else and still have no genuine understanding of the culture. But I don’t think Cyrus is different from most young women. Before her, we were breathlessly dissecting Britney, and Amanda, and Selena, and Christina, and Demi, and Rihanna. Famous young women are disproportionately subjected to our opinions because we witness their coming of age. For every generation, there is a famous young woman to judge as if the fate of all young womanhood lies in her hands.
If this is a defense of anything, it is a defense of the choices we make during our twenties, some of which are desperately ill-advised but which we make nonetheless. I reject the idea that when young women make choices with which we disagree, they are acting without autonomy. Though I disagree with her choices, I suspect Miley Cyrus — even if she’s also being exploited — is crystal clear on what she’s doing and why. Why should we absolve her of responsibility for her choices?
And maybe this is also a defense of women who are older, who look at some of the choices women make during their twenties, and because we’ve been there, we cannot help but want to protect them from the inevitable. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Roxane Gay's writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, Oxford American, the Rumpus, the Wall Street Journal and many other publicationsMore Roxane Gay.
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia
Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, U.S.
Eiffel Tower, Paris, France
Colosseum, Rome, Italy
Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Siena Cathedral, Siena, Italy
Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France
Lost City of Petra, Jordan
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