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 itListen, 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.)
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
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 men...it 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?