Should feminists lay off Rihanna?

The pop star gets criticised for her hypersexual persona - and for returning to the man who abused her. But before you attack her choices, work out what you'd do if someone you actually knew was making the same mistakes.

I've got some advice for Rihanna. However, in a stunning reversal of columnist mores (not so stunning that I won't still say things like "stunning reversal", mind), I'm going to advise myself first: don't tell celebrities what they should or shouldn't do. However much they seem like a paradigm for all society, however much you fear that their role model status means their actions will be imprinted on our gosling-like young, however much you think that what they're doing is simply a straight-up terrible idea – just shush.

In Rihanna's case, keeping your counsel gets especially hard because she ticks all three of those boxes so hard that the boxes are just raggedy Biro-stained rips in a disintegrating piece of paper. If you want someone who embodies the eerie duality of female power and powerlessness, there's Rihanna – giving off every sign of hypersexual self-possession, while also being a carefully packaged entertainment industry product, singing words written by other people. If you want a role model, Rihanna's River Island clothing collection shows she's the kind of girl other girls follow.

And if you want terrible ideas . . . oh Rihanna. Since March 2009, when details were released of her assault by then-boyfriend (subsequently ex-boyfriend, now current boyfriend) Chris Brown, there's been an awkward tussle within the feminist camp over what Rihanna means. At first it looked like she might be a celebrity survivor, but she never embraced that role. After that, there were moves to hold her up as just a girl doing her own damn thing. But then came the hard-to-stomach reconciliation with Brown.

Some accused her of contributing to violence against women: when a famous woman sticks with an abusive partner, the argument goes, that tells non-famous women that they too should endure the beatings in the name of love. Meanwhile, Camille Paglia anointed her Diana 2.0, and mused on RiRi's archetypal victimhood in a long, thinky and basically revolting essay. Scandal-sheet matter aside, Rihanna incites all this interest because she's a brilliant pop star. She's beautiful, of course. She gets the best material pop has to offer, too, masterfully shaped by the greatest producers around.

But there are a lot of pretty girls with great songs and crack production teams: Rihanna has something more, a tug or a strain in her voice that survives the brutal smoothing of the autotune process. There's something disarmingly intimate in her singing: you always know it's her when you hear her on a record. If you haven't had a tiny raw-throated sob while singing along to We Found Love's abject declaration of affection, or felt your hips twitch obscenely to S&M, then pop music's probably wasted on you. I like Rihanna a lot. I don't listen to her records very much now, though, because I've got a six-year-old daughter, and I'm very keen to avoid the RiRification of my offspring.

This isn't because I've got very advanced standards of decency: owing to a particularly poor patch of parenting, my daughter knows all the words on Nicki Minaj's Pink Friday, and does a cracking version of Roman's Revenge when she really wants to mortify me. I don't expect Rihanna to be a role model, either. For one thing, if anyone's messing that job up, it's me (see above); for another, she's spent her whole adult life being ragingly famous and professionally hot, and nobody under that kind of bizarre duress can ever be asked to show other people how to act.

But what Rihanna is criticised for most is probably the most ordinary thing about her: people often do return to abusive relationships, and there's no reason why being famous should make you better able to escape. In interviews, Rihanna is adamant that Brown has changed, and Christ knows I hope she's right. But the unpleasant details that slip out – Brown telling a nightclub audience how to show your "bad bitch" that you "own that pussy", or Rihanna saying that Brown is her "best friend" in an interview for Elle – feel depressingly rote.

Violence, possessiveness, isolation: these are common themes of intimate partner abuse. Observing Rihanna's career feels a little like being the photojournalist on the extraordinary Time magazine domestic violence article, except I am definitely, definitely not doing anything to help.

So this is my advice to myself, and anyone else tempted to chip in, however good your intentions: stop gawping, start understanding how agonisingly complex abusive relationships are. And before you tell some far-off 25-year-old what to do, work out what you'd do if someone you actually knew was making the same mistakes.

Chris Brown and Rihanna. Photo: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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I am special and I am worthless: inside the mind of a narcissist

There's been a lot of discussion about narcissists this week. But what does the term actually mean?

Since the rise of Donald Trump, the term “narcissistic” has been cropping up with great regularity in certain sections of the media, including the pages of this journal. I wouldn’t want to comment about an individual I’ve never met, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the troubling psychological health problem of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

People with NPD (which is estimated to affect about 1 per cent of the population) have a characteristic set of personality traits. First, they have a deeply held sense of specialness and entitlement. Male NPD sufferers frequently present as highly egotistical, with an unshakeable sense of their superiority and importance; female sufferers commonly present as eternal victims on whom the world repeatedly inflicts terrible injustices. In both cases, the affected person believes he or she is deserving of privileged treatment, and expects it as a right from those around them.

Second, NPD sufferers have little or no capacity for empathy, and usually relate to other people as objects (as opposed to thinking, feeling beings) whose sole function is to meet the narcissist’s need for special treatment and admiration – known as “supply”. In order to recruit supply, NPD sufferers become highly skilled at manipulating people’s perceptions of them, acting out what is called a “false self” – the glittering high achiever, the indefatigable do-gooder, the pitiable victim.

The third characteristic is termed “splitting”, where the world is experienced in terms of two rigid categories – either Good or Bad – with no areas of grey. As long as others are meeting the narcissist’s need for supply, they are Good, and they find themselves idealised and showered with reciprocal positive affirmation – a process called “love-bombing”. However, if someone criticises or questions the narcissist’s false self, that person becomes Bad, and is subjected to implacable hostility.

It is not known for certain what triggers the disorder. There is likely to be a genetic component, but in many cases early life experiences are the primary cause. Narcissism is a natural phase of child development (as the parents of many teenagers will testify) and its persistence as adult NPD frequently reflects chronic trauma during childhood. Paradoxically for a condition that often manifests as apparent egotism, all NPD sufferers have virtually non-existent self-esteem. This may arise from ongoing emotional neglect on the part of parents or caregivers, or from sustained psychological or sexual abuse.

The common factor is a failure in the development of a healthy sense of self-worth. It is likely that narcissism becomes entrenched as a defence against the deep-seated shame associated with these experiences of being unworthy and valueless.

When surrounded by supply, the NPD sufferer can anaesthetise this horrible sense of shame with the waves of positive regard washing over them. Equally, when another person destabilises that supply (by criticising or questioning the narcissist’s false self) this is highly threatening, and the NPD sufferer will go to practically any lengths to prevent a destabiliser adversely influencing other people’s perceptions of the narcissist.

One of the many tragic aspects of NPD is the invariable lack of insight. A narcissist’s experience of the world is essentially: “I am special; some people love me for this, and are Good; some people hate me for it, and are Bad.” If people with NPD do present to health services, it is usually because of the negative impacts Bad people are having on their life, rather than because they are able to recognise that they have a psychological health problem.

Far more commonly, health professionals end up helping those who have had the misfortune to enter into a supply relationship with an NPD sufferer. Narcissism is one of the most frequent factors in intimate partner and child abuse, as well as workplace bullying. The narcissist depends on the positive affirmation of others to neutralise their own sense of unworthiness. They use others to shore themselves up, and lash out at those who threaten this precarious balance. And they leave a trail of damaged people in their wake. 

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times