Why Is Rihanna Expected to be a Feminist Icon?
Rihanna's new song, "Russian Roulette," was released two days ago, and it's already been deemed too shocking for the sensitive ears of America's youth. "What message do think it sends to the millions of girls who admire Rihanna as an artist?" asks Deborah Reber of Rihanna's barbed-wire cover pic. Anna North of Jezebel wrote that "the song isn't one I'd want my kids singing in the car, if I had kids or a car." Despite the pearl-clutching, the main party that's been offended by Rihanna's dark relationship ballad is not The Children—the real concern is that Rihanna has somehow slighted the fully-grown feminist movement. How did a 21-year-old pop star get lifted to a place where she could let feminism down in the first place?
"Russian Roulette" has been branded Rihanna's "comeback single" in order to mark her first solo effort since being assaulted by then-boyfriend Chris Brown in February of this year. Following the assault, the feminist blogosphere exploded with criticisms, defenses, and theories relating to the R&B singer's personal tragedy. In the following months, Rihanna became a staple on feminist blogs. The pop star has been consistently mentioned in discussions of sexual assault—but she's just as often been invoked to fawn over her clothing choices and speculate about her love life. In places like Jezebel, where feminist issues and pop culture obsessions both receive heavy coverage, Rihanna's abuse has only fueled interest in her more traditional pop-star duties, like carving out a unique style and churning out catchy songs. In 2009, Rihanna's public identity has emerged as a conflation of high-wattage pop star and domestic abuse survivor.
Rihanna herself, on the other hand, has felt comfortable only playing the pop star part—and has remained extremely tight-lipped about her abuse experience. She has never publicly identified as a feminist or an advocate for victims of domestic abuse. As I prepared this post, I realized with amazement that I had never actually read any full interview with Rihanna. (And, full disclosure, I really like Rihanna, and tend to follow the domestic abuse coverage alongside potential Justin Timberlake hook-up news). The pop star has managed to maintain an extremely high profile in feminism without saying much of anything at all. Rihanna is certainly no Lady Gaga, who has positioned herself in the center of the gay rights movement, even as she releases decidedly apolitical pop tunes (largely about heterosexual sex). It's not so strange for a pop star to opt out of discussing politics (and her personal life). But it is an odd formula for crafting a feminist idol.
Recent critiques of "Russian Roulette" have made clear that feminists are yearning for Rihanna to step into that role. After hearing the song, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote about her personal wishes for Rihanna's career. "When 'Silly Boy' leaked as a Rihanna track a couple of months ago, I thought it was a perfect career move for her: upbeat, vocally playing to her strengths, and by far most importantly, a rebuke to a guy who would treat his girlfriend badly," she writes. "I do understand that it's extremely difficult to leave an abusive relationship, and I respect that. But I thought it would have been terrific for someone to overcome such a relationship in public. Instead, Rihanna is using a song about embracing being terrorized as her comeback single." Jezebel's North was similarly creeped out by the song, writing: "What I'm actually most worried about is her label's thinking on this song . . . if anyone pushed a domestic violence victim to record a comeback song about gunplay, that's something to get angry about."
But the disappointment and anger over the subject matter of Rihanna's new single has also been accompanied by concerns over aesthetics. Rosenberg admits that the song "isn't much good"; North writes that it "kind of sucks." Perez Hilton, writing exclusively on the track's artistic merits, expressed that he was "shocked and saddened" by the lackluster production (though apparently unconcerned with the overtones of domestic violence). Rosenberg and North disclose the song's suckiness as if it's beside the point, but I wonder if the double expectation that Rihanna be both a successful pop star and a model survivor of domestic abuse is responsible for the perceived feminist failure here. The song's aesthetic problems extend to its lyrics, which, while "dark" and "edgy," don't appear to mean anything in particular, and certainly don't qualify as a clear "defense" of domestic abuse. Couplets like "As my life flashes before my eyes / I’m wondering will I ever see another sunrise" and "So many won’t get the chance to say goodbye / But it’s too late too pick up the value of my life" clearly connote violence. But I can't agree with Rosenberg that the song is about "embracing being terrorized"—the main problem with the song is that the lyrics don't convey any specific perspective on the darkness.
"Russian Roulette" may not have succeeded as Rihanna's "comeback single," but it's important to make clear which comeback we're talking about—is it her return to the world of pop, or her recovery from an abusive relationship? Rosenberg "thought it would have been terrific for someone to overcome such a relationship in public." But why does Rihanna's return to music have to come only after she's ready to announce that she's "overcome" domestic abuse? And given Rihanna's obvious reluctance to make her private life public, how could anyone expect her to live up to the feminist obsession that's been brewing over her life and career for the past nine months? Perhaps she isn't ready to play the public role of empowered survivor, and perhaps she never will.
I doubt that Rihanna's critics would be raising the same concerns over her missed feminist opportunity if she had released an infectious club jam like "S.O.S." or "Disturbia" which completely steered clear of an abuse theme. Problematically, both Rosenberg and North argue that the lyrics of "Russian Roulette" do evoke issues of domestic abuse—and go on to suggest that Rihanna is either doing it wrong, or being coerced by her handlers to do it wrong. I don't think we should expect Rihanna to incorporate her new-found feminist fame into her pop songs—like Perez Hilton, I'm more disappointed that the song isn't so hot. But when Rihanna does decide to make a public nod to her experience with domestic abuse, shouldn't we refrain from suggesting that she's not expressing herself correctly as a victim?