The Sexist

Why Is Rihanna Expected to be a Feminist Icon?

Picture 9
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?

  • http://thatshallowfellow.wordpress.com Drew

    It's not like she writes her own songs (I don't know where to look for writing credits on this latest single, but most of her past hits don't include her as a writer). Why would anyone expect the lyrics to reflect or have anything to do with her or her personal situation in the first place? A lot of prospective pop songs are written up in batches before they are even assigned to a singer.

  • kza

    I agree. She's a pop star not Bob Dylan. If she has a message fine, because the world always need more celebrity opinions. And if she doesn't? Good for her, she keeps her private life private. Get mad at the song writers not her.

  • Stevek

    "Run This Town," the Jay-Z song on which she appears, is getting played on WPGC and WKYS every 20 minutes it seems. Maybe you should discuss that also?

  • http://angryfeministdoc.blogspot.com Erica A

    Is it just me/my monitor, or does Rihanna look exceptionally white in that picture?

    Interesting commentary. Thanks.

  • Former Staffer

    She's a pop star, which is a type of whore by it's very nature. Appeal to as many as possible via the lowest common denominator, sexualize, and sell. Repeat.

  • kza

    I think whores have sex for money.

  • Mimi

    To Drew: she co-wrote this song with Ne-Yo. Anyone who thinks this song isn't about her life is obviously clueless. To the author of this article: thank you. From the bottom of my heart I want to hug and squeeze every person who takes a stand agasint this song. I don't want to listen to anyone singing about embracing an abusive relationship (which is what I gathered form the lyrics also) on the radio. It makes me sad, mad, and disgusted to even think there are people out there who are going to promote this crap.

  • kza

    Good job at reading.

  • Mark

    Wow, at least she IS starting her career again and not letting the effect hide her. Rihanna has a new edgy style, and thats just what her song is. Dont like it, dont listen...

    Ever thought of that?

  • Mattersmost

    The song will grow on people. And no she does not write her songs however it is a touchy subject when you start accusing a battered woman to stand up and speak out. However she is a celebrity and she has an obligation to her fans to say something besides the types of designers and shoes she likes to wear. The silent pop star days are over images are appealing but we want more we want leaders creative individuals. Rhianna is not that and so far everyone has been ok with it but now she's back in the spotlight and maybe people are starting to see her for the star she really is.... Her light may not be shining as bright but that's her choice and she is not choosing wisely.

  • Marsh

    FIRSt & foremost the song was produced extremely well and her vocals are better than ever on the track. What first need 2 be realized is that the song itself is a metaphor and she has never proclaimed any title as a feminist or anything else and what does lady gaga have to do with anything when she hung herself with blood at the vma's i dont remeber this ever being a huge topic...

  • Marie renee!

    and who said it was for little kids to listen???
    or to sing along????? in the car?????
    us older people do like it. and if you dont dont turn it up or even listen to it.atleast she has a career that we support..... we like it... i mean LOVE IT! their are other popstars that have nasty and sublimiminal messages. and yet. you're judging Rihanna??? who cares about your OPINOIN!
    just let them sing. you dont have to turn up the volume. Hey F.Y.I theirs a radio station called
    RADIO DISNEY!!!! in the A.M station. thank you! check that SH*T out!

  • rick von tease

    They should leave rihanna alone she's a great singer, let her express her self, she is showing women that she can be strong and move forward, if you don't want your kids to litsen to it then do your jobs as parents and monitor them.

  • Yas

    Feminist, lol, Rihanna? Hardly. I agree with this article, there is no proof from Rihanna's past interviews/performances that she is that person they want her to be.

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  • Magnetic Crow

    I am always baffled by the people who don't bother to read or process an entire article before responding to it. IN A VERY!!! ANGRY FASHION...!!!!!

  • BE-Z

    MiMi... The Album is Titled RATED R.. for starters.. and parent who would buy it for their children based on the title alone is a Jackass.. Secondly, SHE didn't co-write the song at ALL. (Both Rihanna AND Ne-yo said it themselves.. via twitter.) THIRD, If you don't like it, Don't Listen!!!! There are PLENTY Songs that talk about drugs, violence, and Killing.. in ALL Genres.. And you don't see children going around with Needles. AN ENTERTAINER IS Supposed to Entertain.. Cause Controversy...

    LET HER BE WHO SHE IS, And Not what SOCIETY Wants her to be...

    RIHANNA Is a GROWN WOMAN!!! Not a Teenage Child Star... LOTS of her songs aren't for Children... (Shut up and drive??? Rehab??)

    NO ONE'S CHILDREN SHOULD BE LISTENING TO HER IN THE FIRST PLACE...

    Thank YOU Marie Renee!! There IS RADIO DISNEY for that.

    Btw... I Love her single.

  • barbarita1974

    yes she looks too white why is it that black beautiful girls want to be white?

  • Nikki

    I am honestly very sadened that people are that stupid to not look a lil deeper into today's music. How anyone know what Russian Roulette means? She saying that living in abusive relationship is like playing the Russian Roulette, its all up to chance and if you dont get lucky you die, JUST like in an abusive relationship. How does no one catch that? And how the hell is she embracing abusive and being terrorized?? That makes no sense, she is simply saying that being abused is like playin the game, you can die next time he (gun, as the metaphor) strikes. I think its a perfect single considering what shes been through, shes not talking about overcoming the abuse (maybe she still hasnt) but shes talking about what its like. God people are so stupid, no one THINKS anymore! This song has nothing to so with suicide (like others reviews have said) or her "embracing being terrorized) JUST LIKE Britney Spears's "If U Seek Amy" has NOTHING to do with sex, but God forbid people listen and actually try to look beyond the surface.

  • Genesis

    FEMINIST ICON MY ASS.

  • Lyia

    Rihanna WILL NEVER be a feminist. All the people looking for her to throw 'Him" under the bus or even talk about leaving or overcoming. It will NEVER happen. She still wears and rocks her birthday gifts from him everyday for the past 9 months. If you guys didn't get the picture you will never get it. Live your own life and stay out of others.

  • Over you

    Why don't you dykes find another pop star to bully into pushing the white womans agenda. Rihanna marches to her own beat!!

  • Kevin

    Seems to me that Rihanna has gotten on with her life and is putting out music again. How on earth you can get any message about domestic violence from the lyrics of this song is beyond me. Seems like the only person who hasnt gotten over what happened is you!. Move on. If you dont like the song dont buy it, dont listen. Rihanna has NEVER commented in any way about what happened, not a word and not to anyone. And dont pretend to think that she ever will, because she never will. Get over it. Let's see what te album's like, see how well it sells. The one thing she can thank you for is keeping her name out there. EVeryone will buy it even if they hate it, just so they can say they did. And belive me, thats the only thing her "Handlers" care about.. CD's in the Rack and Songs on your Ipod!!!

  • Macy

    Have you thought for one moment that Rihanna may not want to be your poster girl for domestic violence... maybe there is something else that is keeping her from speaking out... In 2007, Complex Magazine did a interview with her, she quoted in that interview that she had in her own words... " hit my brother in the face with a bottle" when aske how did her parents react to the ASSUALT, she replied, " my mother was upset" also in the same interview she was her and her brothers didn't just fight" they physically fought" again maybe there is a reason she won't speak out... Abuse is wrong,it doesn't matter if you are a man hitting woman, woman hitting man, man hitting child, woman hitting child, or children abusing other children it's wrong!

  • Mariah

    This new song sucks, and im starting not to be a fan anymore :/

  • PrincessJ

    You mini-minded ppl make me sick. WHY would anyone assume she has to be making music that is in defense to anything violent? She isn't trying to be "the voice" of any particular group of women because she's simply not in their category & it doesn't make sense for others to place her in one. Leave her alone. If you don't agree with her actions or music, get a life of your own & find a different celeb to subliminally hate.

  • yung

    the song promotes violence to a person who was the victim of violence. contradictory no?? please this demon has a gun tattoo'd to the left of her breast. she lost it. she's going to pull a britney any day now. she wants to be w/ chris but she's forbidden so she's rebelling - she'd rather shoot her self dead then to be without him. read between the lines. remember right after the "incident" her & chris was seen vacationing in mexico then they spent some R&R at Sean Combs home in Florida. She was with him AFTER the incident. It was not until she receive the public backlash that she left him alone. she then sent him those naked pictures that she leaked over the internet. she wanted him to know that she loved him & misses him.

    this chick is about to explode in 5.4.3.2............

  • tris

    i agree marie.. this song was written or made for children. and i absolutely respect rihanna for not speaking out about it. she doesnt have to.. i like the fact that she's private. she didnt ask to be a feminist leader and she doesnt have to be. her true fans love her no matter what. and pc. the song is a metaphore. she isnt talking about shooting herself like other people mentioned. she's talking about making choices in life. maybe about a relationship or other things.
    i also like the fact that she did not put out a club song.. because EVERYBODY is putting out lub songs these days and they all sound the same.rihanna has always been different and i appreciate that. and thats y i am her fan.

  • rone

    I don't think people are really paying attention to the song. In order to get over something, you have to go through it first. The song obviously depicts a woman in the process of being abused who has yet to overcome it. However,that doesn't mean that rihanna hasn't arose from the incident. It means that she wanted to convey the actual emotions of being in an abusive relationships, rather than take the cliche route & talk about how she's already overcome it. I'm sure she has more songs on the album where she actually discusses her state now. Russian roulette is just one song off of an albums worth of emotion.

  • kza

    Reading these comments has dropped my i.q.

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  • Lotte

    I guess I must be the only person who thoroughly enjoyed the vocals, which are fabulous.

    I listened to this song and I personally heard an account of the loss of control and irrational thoughts and behaviour that a victim of domestic abuse can find themselves coerced into.

    I didn't hear anything about "suicide" as some other critics seem to be imagining, I don't hear anything that condones, encourages or embraces the situation being conjured.

    She's terrified but somehow she doesn't have the power to leave, "he" is coercing her to take a risk with her own life (by letting herself remain in this situation) because she is worth so little, "he" has never lost as he's clearly done this to other women before.

    Either it's simply commentary on how powerless and worthless a domestic abuser can make his victim feel. Or it's none of those things and it's just a song.

  • Sonso

    White?..lolyeahright.Look at her big nasty features. Yuck.. Hopefully she lightens up some more, deter people from focusing on her horrible voice.

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