Turns Out, Sinéad O’Connor Was Right

In the early 1990s, before there was a term for it, Sinéad O’Connor was canceled. Actually, truly canceled.

She was canceled, in a way, prior to her tearing up the Pope’s image on Saturday Night Live. The crime was having a buzzcut, a no-no for women at that time.

There was a lot of patriarchal weirdness about female appearance during the 1990s. I recall people having a moo-cow over Joan Osbourne’s nosering. This guy kinda liked it, but then again, I saw women with nose piercings at the time in the crowd I hung with. Today, they are more or less mainstream.

But some of the shit I would hear about O’Connor’s closely-shaved head was way over the top. The jokes about her were vicious in a way that would seem sort of ridiculous to many today. It goes without saying this was driven by misogynistic thinking.

On a skin-deep level, O’Connor was beautiful, with soulful eyes and delicate features that a lot of people would kill for, a look perfect for the pop music industry. Of course, she cared little for that and dared to shave her head at a time when big hair for women was still a thing. For this, she was already hated before her SNL appearance.

Then came her protest against sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, tearing up a photo of the Pope on live TV during her SNL stint. Outraged by the story being buried deep in the back pages of newspapers, she decided to force the world to pay attention, using the stage afforded to her by NBC. She paid dearly for this act of bravery.

There is something about this society, a dark aspect of human nature, that compels so many people to defend evil if it is carried out by an institution it supports. I had a front-row seat for this early last decade when people were willing to defend child sexual abuse by Jerry Sandusky for little more than protecting memories of getting drunk at a football game in college. As is often the case, whether Penn State or the Catholic Church, an institution that proclaims moral superiority often will protect that brand at the expense of doing the right thing. The thing that I learned from that is if you are raped by a beloved figure, you will be raped again by the supporters of that beloved figure if you dare speak out and try to find justice. The honest answer for too many people to the question “do you believe child sexual abuse is wrong?” is “well, that depends.”

So it was with O’Connor. I understand that her act of tearing an image of the Pope would have been upsetting to Catholics who had nothing to do with the crimes carried out by some of the priests. It is their faith, and religious faith is important to many people, something that should be respected as long as others are not being hurt. But sometimes it takes a radical act to wake people up. There is a beautiful scene in the movie Spotlight, about the reporters from the Boston Globe who broke the story about the sexual abuse rampant in the Boston area diocese, where the main reporter sits with her very Catholic mother as she reads the story. It both made clear the level of guts it takes to take on such an institution and how acknowledging those evil actions are difficult for those who put faith in those institutions.

The response to O’Connor’s act of protest was horrifying. While hosting SNL afterwards, actor Joe Pesci talked about wanting to beat her up. There is the infamous moment at the Bob Dylan tribute concert two weeks later, where she was booed off the stage but found support from fellow artists like Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. I mean…getting booed off the stage at a Bob Dylan tribute for speaking your mind is rather damning for the audience.

Eventually, the cancellation of O’Connor looked more and more over the top as the truth finally came out. Thousands of people came forward to describe being sexually abused as children by priests. Perhaps O’Connor’s greatest so-called sin wasn’t tearing up the Pope but being ahead of her time.

Today, women are not having it and are not afraid to use their anger. Canceling is not working, and winger weirdos can burn all the Barbie dolls they want, but the director of the Barbie movie Greta Gerwig will not be canceled (nor for that matter, will our own Cassandra).

I mourn Sinéad O’Connor for her bravery, her beautiful, stunning voice, and her righteous anger. I know what it is like to be sensitive and empathetic. It is not always easy. I hope she has found the peace she deserves.

The last word goes to O’Connor herself.


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