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11 March 2013

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.

By Sarah Ditum

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.

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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.

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