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Is Sinead's advice to Miley good for other girls, too?

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
updated 3:18 PM EST, Wed December 4, 2013
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Women had strong reactions to Sinead O'Connor's open letter to Miley Cyrus
  • Many women applaud O'Connor and hope Cyrus follows her advice
  • Some women think O'Connor missed the mark
  • More needs to be done to stop sexualization of young girls, women say

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She's a mom of two girls and lives in Manhattan. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Irish singer Sinead O'Connor's open letter to Miley Cyrus in which she urged the 20-year-old not to allow herself "to be pimped" by the music industry certainly got our attention.

It seems to have gotten Cyrus' attention, as well, because the former Disney star, who has dominated the headlines recently following her controversial awards show twerking and nude performance in a music video, took to Twitter to respond.

In a tweet, she compared O'Connor to troubled star Amanda Bynes, and she included a Twitter feed of O'Connor's from the past when she wrote about struggling with and seeking help for mental health issues.

The Sinead O'Connor and Miley feud isn't over

O'Connor fired back, threatening Cyrus with legal action if the Twitter feed was not removed, accusing her of mocking people with mental health issues and questioning where she's getting her direction.

"Who the (expletive) is advising you?" O'Connor wrote on her Facebook page. "Because taking me on is even more (expletive) stupid than behaving like a prostitute and calling it feminism."

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Moving beyond the O'Connor-Cyrus public feud, we wanted to know what women across the country thought about O'Connor's direct message to Cyrus, and whether it might have any impact on the larger conversation about how our girls are sexualized at younger and younger ages.

In conversations and in exchanges on Twitter and Facebook, we mainly heard from women who applauded O'Connor, although there were some who thought she missed the mark. We also found widespread agreement that much more needs to be done to battle the early sexualization that has become one of the top concerns for parents today.

Gloria Feldt, a bestselling author and feminist leader, said her first reaction was to be non-plussed by O'Connor taking the time to reach out and give advice.

"She certainly has not been a perfect role model, but sometimes that's how you learn, and so when I thought about it again, I thought well, in some respects, who better to give a little voice of experience than someone who has been through that mill," said Feldt, who is now co-founder and president of an organization devoted to developing and encouraging women leaders called Take the Lead.

"I think 'Good for Sinead,' really in the end," she said.

Billy Ray Cyrus on his daughter: 'That's still my Miley'

Melissa Atkins Wardy, co-founder of a new advocacy group focusing on the portrayal of girls in media called Brave Girls Alliance, believes O'Connor's letter "was really needed."

"I don't think that Miley has people on her team that are guiding her in a way that is in her best interest," said Atkins Wardy, whose book, "Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, Birth to Tween," will be released in January.

"She can't be Hannah Montana forever, but at the same time ... does an artist bear a responsibility to her fans? I think that's kind of what Sinead was saying, in that, if you prostitute yourself to the music industry, they're just going to eat you up and spit you up and get the next new girl off the train who is five years younger than you and willing to go farther than you," she said.

Nicole, a single woman who works in advertising and who only wanted to use her first name, said she hopes Cyrus takes O'Connor's advice seriously.

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In response to a request for comment on CNN's Facebook page, she said, "Young women need to know that talent, not our bodies, should carry us through our lives and be the root of our successes and in some cases, our failures ... Women need to be empowered not devalued."

Dannie Cade, also in response to a request for comment on CNN's Facebook page, said, "I think every woman, and I mean EVERY woman, should read this letter regardless of the strong language that was used ... No matter what industry, career or talents a woman chooses in her life, Sinead's letter applies."

On the other hand, some thought O'Connor was out of line. "I hate it when women tell other women what to do under the guise of 'Don't let anyone tell you what to do,'" one tweet said.

"Sinead's of course entitled to her opinion but, from what I've read of Miley's thinking on things, I believe she's quite in control of what she will and will not do and why," another reader said on CNN's Facebook page. "She's in the entertainment business. Business as usual won't get you noticed and will kill a career more certainly than pissing people off."

Feminists like Erin Matson, editor at large for RH Reality Check, a daily publication focusing on sexual and reproductive health and justice issues, believe O'Connor "missed the point."

"There was a very good reason for her to write an open letter to Miley Cyrus about what she's doing, but the problem is not that Miley needs to put some clothes on. The problem is she's engaging in this racial power play," Matson said.

Matson said Cyrus is relying on racial stereotypes and racial appropriation, citing her dancing with brown teddy bears, twerking and saying she wants to make music that "sounds black."

"What I object to is the practice of a young white woman taking sexual power by relying on racial stereotypes and racial appropriation," Matson said.

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As for the issue of hyper-sexualization of women in the music industry and in entertainment in general, Matson said it's the people behind the scenes who are responsible for it, not entertainers like Cyrus.

"Let's look at the producers, let's look at the advertisers, let's look at music television, let's look at all those people in charge who are by and large men," Matson said. "It seems awfully curious to point our finger at a small number of women in power in the entertainment industry and say they're the problem when it's the people who are controlling the purse strings who are the problem."

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Feldt says she has heard the it's-the-media-not-Miley debate, but she disagrees somewhat. She believes there is a role for Cyrus to play.

"How do you change the media if you don't start setting your own boundaries? And, no, you can't expect any one person to change an entire institution, but if each one of us doesn't use our best judgment, we'll never change," Feldt said.

"It's not just the responsibility of the individual, but if an individual has an opportunity to make an impact as a Miley Cyrus or a Sinead O'Connor does, she should take it," she added.

Atkins Wardy's group is launching a campaign next week, renting a billboard in Times Square to showcase tweets on what changes in the media young girls and those who care about them want to see. She says it helps when celebrities like O'Connor lend their voices to the discussion about how girls and women are portrayed.

"So when we have celebrities and media members ... speaking out against this, it helps a little bit to give credibility because sometimes you are labeled as, 'Oh, you are a prude' or 'Oh, you are just a feminist that lacks a sense of humor or something,'" Wardy said. "But here are women who are part of the game and are actually saying the game's pretty sick."

Follow Kelly Wallace on Twitter and like CNN Living on Facebook.

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