Recently a friend asked me how I’d define a strong and confident woman.
I immediately flashed back to Sinead O’Connor, October 3, 1992.
She was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Sinead performed her first song, “Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home,” as planned. Later in the show she sang her second number, an a cappella rendition of Bob Marley’s “War.” Instead of singing “racism,” she sang “child abuse.”
Then she held up a photo of Pope John Paul II and while singing the word “evil,” tore the picture in two. She ended by saying directly to the camera, “Fight the real enemy!”
Stunned, the live audience sat there silently . . .
War – Sinéad O’CONNOR ( a cappella) on TV in 1992 by Petite-Pince-Sans-Rire
Twenty years later we’re used to — one could even say — accustomed to hearing about Father So-and-So and Bishop Such-and-Such being convicted of child molestation.
But back then, what Sinead did was unheard of. It was ballsy. She stood up to one of patriarchy’s most powerful institutions — religion.
And she was attacked for doing so.
The New York Daily News called her a “holy terror.” Madonna said, “Sinead has the sex appeal of a Venetian blind,” because Lord knows a woman must look feminine. More than 4,200 people called NBC to complain.
And a week later actor Joe Pesci hosted the show. In his opening monologue, he held up a photo of Sinead and ripped it up, saying, “I would have gave her such a smack,” if he had been there.
The audience cheered and clapped enthusiastically.
The following week, Sinead was booed off the stage at a Bob Dyan tribute concert.
As a young woman then, I heard the message loud and clear: Ladies, keep your mouth shut or we will burn you at the symbollic stake. Tow the party line. Fuck freedom of speech. You dare speak out and we will destroy you, your reputation and your career.
And so I kept quiet about my own painful experiences with religion. My own experiences with gender discrimination and sexual harassment. My own experiences feeling small and insignificant and unworthy, all because I was female.
Women of today, have you learned this lesson as well? Do you also keep your mouth shut? Do you also demonize other women who dare stand up to power, who threaten the very system that keeps you, too, repressed?
Because I need you to stand up. Little girls and boys need you to speak up. Young women looking for role models need you to speak up.
You owe it to yourself and you owe it to Sinead, who paid a heavy price for her bravery. Because until enough of us stand up, the abuses will continue.
I’m standing up with my show, “Jesus Loves You! (but hates me).”
Join me, won’t you? I know you have it in you, regardless of what you were taught, because I know you are strong. You are courageous. You are powerful.
And your words matter to the world.
[If you need inspiration, watch Sinead take the stage at Madison Square Gardens two weeks after the Pope photo incident. She was planning to sing Dylan’s song, “I Believe in you.” The audience booed and heckled her — and she didn’t back down. This will affect you more if you first watch her SNL performance in the video above.]