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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change