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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.