Thursday, March 22, 2012

Let's Talk About Rihanna

Content notes: discussions of domestic violence, verbal abuse, weight talk

I've been sitting on this topic for a while now because I wasn't sure how to organize everything I'd like to say. I still don't think I have. I first wanted to talk about RiRi when I heard her dad's super shitty comments earlier this month, but I was too mad at first to form a coherent thought. I think I'm good now so I'll get to that later.

I want to start by clarifying this. Despite what some people think in my personal life because I'll be the first to sing Rude Boy in karaoake and nothing helps me work out better than Where Have You Been?, I don't really LOVE Rihanna. I mean, I've got nothing against the girl, but to me she's mostly just a pop princess who's been through a lot and makes some ridiculously catchy tunes.

Well that's not entirely true.

Rihanna's not just another pop star to me. She is someone who I write about fairly regularly, and is no stranger to being covered by feminist blogs in general. Her very public domestic violence case with Chris Brown has been discussed and re-discussed to death. But beyond that, I've also argued that Rude Boy displays healthy sexual communication--a piece which was picked up by a fairly prominent progressive blog and has given me a huge spike in page views, putting it still as my most read post after two years.

So while some of her lyrics are something this feminist can get behind, the truth is I've never argued and I will never argue that Rihanna herself is a feminist. She's made some questionable choices, it's true. But I'm not in the business of creating identities for people, so I'm not here to make the case that she is or isn't a feminist. Rather, I'd like to just take a look at a few things that are going on w/ Ms. Robin Rihanna Fenty.

This will probably get long(er) but if you're in for the ride...

Here's the deal, I'm  going to walk through a few things I've heard about Rihanna lately and throw in my two cents. That's not to say that I'm running to her defense, but there's just some stuff going on out there that I'd like to put my spin on.

1. But she's so sexual! That's no example for girls.
You know what. She is. There's no question. She's a 24 year old adult woman discovering herself and that's fine. She's also marketing herself as a product and is making big bucks. She's not the first and she won't be the last young woman to figure out that sex sells. I agree that she is not necessarily a good example for girls. An unfortunate fact of pop music is that it does tend to be directed at teens, even if the content is not age appropriate for them. (This is the reason that I think parents should TALK to their kids about this stuff.)

But the truth is, and I can't emphasize this enough, SEX IS NOT INHERENTLY BAD. And, as I've said before, she's actually putting out some rather positive sexual content. I mean, if there have to be songs about sex, I'd take Rude Boy over Lollipop any damn day of the week.

Rihanna is often objectified and seems to self-objectify at times, as well. Despite this, I do feel that much of what she sings about is actually female owned sexuality. That is, instead of talking just about pleasing a guy or what she'll do for her male partner, her own pleasure is central. Here are a few lyrical examples, first from Cockiness:
Suck my cockiness
Lick my persuasion
Eat my poison
And swallow your pride down, down 
Place my wants and needs
Over your resistance
And then you come around
You come around
You come around
I want you to be my sex slave
Anything that I desire
Be one with my femin-ay
Set my whole body on fire

And then there's S&M:
Feels so good being bad
There's no way I'm turning back
Now the pain is my pleasure 'cause nothing could measure 
Love is great, love is fine
Out the box, outta line
The affliction of the feeling leaves me wanting more 
'Cause I may be bad, but I'm perfectly good at it
Sex in the air, I don't care, I love the smell of it
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But chains and whips excite me
Listen, I'm not making the case that this stuff is poetry. I'm just saying, that Rihanna is one of the few female voices in pop/sexual songs. She's talking about what she wants and likes in a cultural context dominated by stuff like Lollipop, Ho, Tip Drill, Crazy Bitch, and Wait (which features the wonderful line "Imma beat that pussy up." Yikes.)

TL;DR: While overt sexuality might not be appropriate for children, it certainly can't be bad for young women to hear music that reminds them that sex should be fun and pleasurable for them too.

2. I've heard she's going back to Chris Brown. WHY is she going back to Chris Brown?! What's wrong with her? She sucks.
The past few months have contained a LOT of rumors on this topic. It's no secret that they've been seen together, have tweeted each other, and are collaborating. However, there's still no official confirmation of anything.

Here's the thing, Rihanna was forced into the spotlight as the poster child for intimate partner violence, and never, ever asked for this role. The truth of these situations is that they are extremely complex, toxic, and cyclical--something that Rihanna's own work has alluded to in the past. Yes, those of us who are observing this stuff WISH she would never talk to Chris Brown again and want her to be an example for others. But at the end of the day, she's just as imperfect as the rest of us and she's a very young woman trying to figure it all out. From where I'm sitting us passing judgement on her isn't going to actually make any of this any better.

TL;DR: This stuff is more complex than that.

3. Still, why doesn't she know better?
Of course, I have no idea what's going on in RiRi's head. But I do have a pretty good guess why she might not be seeking healthy relationships with might have to do with the fact that it seems she hasn't had a positive male role model in her life. In fact, she reportedly didn't speak to her father for two years. But even with their reconciliation, it appears that he is not a positive force in her life.

He said, "Chris is a nice guy and everybody's entitled to make mistakes in their life. God knows how many I've made. She's her own woman now." And, "I actually thought she was a little fat the last time I saw her. When I saw her at this year's Grammys, I thought she was back to her normal size. I used to joke with her, 'Robyn, you're getting too fat.' But I think she's fine. I think she looked excellent, as everyone saw, at the Grammys. She's dieting, she's working out."

So let me get this straight. a) He is COOL with the guy who beat the shit out of his daughter. (Regardless of how your daughter ends up feeling about this guy given the cycles of abuse mentioned, wouldn't you always still dislike him? If you were a decent human, I'd wager yes!) b)He also openly admits to fat-shaming her, in a sick way that's trying to be light and funny.

Fucking hilarious, indeed.

I want to write more about what a problem this is and how triggering it was for me to read it, but I'm going to just leave it here because I think that the fact that he is negative force in this world is self-evident. Rihanna is an adult who is ultimately responsible for her own choices, but can we really blame her if she might not have fully learned what healthy masculinity looks like yet?

TL;DR: Her dad's a dick and a horrible example.

4. So where is all this headed?
That's not actually something people say about Rihanna, but I wanted to wrap this thing up. My main point is this: No matter how "hard" Rihanna postures herself to be, she is a real person who makes real mistakes, deals with real issues, and is trying to live her life and put out her music in her way.

Let's back up off her a bit, shall we?


  1. I love that you are talking about her. There does seem to be a lot of debatable issues surrounding her personal life and career, doesn't there?

    When it comes to the sexuality, I think it's a general idea that it can require a lot of work to put forth a "great example" of what healthy sexuality is. Yes, I agree there are positive messages in Ri's music that you don't hear too often in music. I love that she is about owning and controlling her own sexuality and the idea that it's ok for women to sexually pursue men, because let's face it, we live in a society where women are expect to be sought after, not the ones seeking, and if we hear about a woman actively seeking sexual pleasure, she's judged and condemned for it. I see examples of this all the time. The only thing I question is if her music is enough to give teenagers the right idea about safe sex practices as far as preventing unwanted pregnancy and stds, but like you said, that's more of a parental responsibility.

    As far as Chris Brown goes, she's an adult and can talk to him again if she wants. I am as passionate about domestic violence as anyone else, since it is my personal platform, but only she can make the decisions for herself. We can only hope that she keeps her body and heart safe.

  2. I tried to moderate this comment from my phone and accidentally rejected it. My apologies. Here it is:

    Dominique AMillette has left a new comment on your post "Let's Talk About Rihanna":

    I can't speak for anyone else, but whenever I hear discussions of domestic violence, I think about what happened to me. The guy who beats you up doesn't do it on the first date. Violence in a relationship is something that builds up really slowly, like the proverbial frog in boiling water. At first it was small gestures of control. Then he didn't like my friends or family - one at a time, until I finally realized I was alone with him. He put down my education and my ethnicity, but it was always just "a joke". He made fun of how I sang and played guitar. He pouted, sulked, etc., when he didn't like my clothes and I wouldn't change them. We got into huge screaming matches, where I lost my cool, and he would use this against me, telling me I was so horrible that no one else but him could love me. Eventually, he succeeded in manipulating me six ways from Sunday. One day, he kicked his dog. He'd always talked about that dog and said he loved it, but he went ahead and hurt it anyway. I was next. It took about ten months before he hit me in the face and started to strangle me. His mom walked in on us and saved me life. Despite this, I didn't leave right away. Part of me was in shock, or in denial; I wasn't the kind of woman this would happen to. I had choices. I ping-ponged back and forth between leaving and staying, for about three months. There was no one else there for me except his family and of course they were on his side. And he wasn't always hitting me, of course: when he was good, he was amazing, doing me favours, running errands for me, bringing me places on his motorbike. When he was bad, I waited for him to be better

  3. While I respect the arguments in this post there are things that I cannot agree with. You mention that Rihanna owns her own sexuality, she makes her own choices and talks about what she wants and needs. However, 'Talk This Talk' was written by 33 writers, 29 of which are men. Rated R was written by 24 writers, 22 of which were men. Good Girl Gone Bad was written by 27 writers, 25 of which are men. Rihanna is given these songs, written by men, and performs them in sexy outfits. It undermines this argument that she is empowered by singing these songs. Male fantasies are evident in her music and the over-sexualisation of the music industry is a dangerous thing for young children across the world. And I just dont buy the argument that we should overlook her actions as she never chose to be a role model. She partly owes the success she has to 13 and 14 year old girls who buy her music and they deserve better than looking up to semi-naked pictures of her on instagram, photos of her on an IV drip and highly inappropriate and unecessary song lyrics.

  4. Some of these comments are so hypocritical. Why shouldnt any woman own her sexuality and be proud to show it off? Why is female sexuality something to hide and damper down? Children emulate stars,yes, but good parental role models trump that. I used to want to dress like Destinys Child (Bills Bills Bills era) but did I? No, my mother would have killed me, and she flat out told me to wait til I was 18. By the time I reached 18, my style was totally different!
    How can Lizzie totally miss the point?!

  5. I think Lizzie hits the nail on the head actually. It is interesting that these music stars are portrayed as powerful because they are sexual, and yet their sexuality is pretty much owned by a bunch of men. And the fact that she doesn't even write her own songs....I'm a fan but I have to agree.

  6. Rihanna is being irresponsible in her choice to go back to Chris Brown. Thousand, maybe millions of young women look up to her, whether she like it or not. Being a role model is part of being a celebrity. It is the celebrity's choice to decide whether they are a good or bad role model and I cannot understand someone wanting to be a negative role model for people, especially young people. Going back, Rihanna had the chance to get away from Chris Brown after just one incident. A lot of domestic violence victims are forced to remain with their abuser because the are blackmailing or threatening to kill them. The abuser could also have abused the man or woman so much, the victim might not have the will to leave and might be too mentally wounded. Rihanna had the chance to get away, and it is insulting and disrespecting the millions of abuse victims in the world who don't get the public spotlight, that she did not do the smart thing and move on / leave him in the the dust. It is not her responsibility to take care of him.


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