Rihanna isn’t the first celebrity to turn down the job of poster child for perfection, but she’s received more attention than many for refusing it.
The infinite antics of Ri-Ri are instantly perusable on Instagram, Twitter and celebrity gossip websites. Here she is smoking a J or doing shots, there she is baring her butt over thigh-high couture boots and getting spanked in the video for S&M and snuggling in bed with the man who severely beat her four years ago.
For that, she’s received some high-profile scolding, even from people close to her own age such as Lena Dunham, of HBO’s Girls, for not being a good role model.
Rihanna has no interest in assuming the mantle of shining public example, no matter who tries to tie one to her shoulders. Last year, she told Vogue that the role-model expectation “became more of my job than I wanted it to be. … I just want to make music. That’s it.”
So far, that attitude hasn’t hurt her prospects. At the tender age of 24, she’s listed by Forbes as the fourth most powerful celebrity after Jennifer Lopez, Oprah and Justin Bieber, with a net worth of $53 million and a “social rank” of No. 2 (based on social-media activity), behind only Lady Gaga.
Top women pop stars from Madonna to Nicki Minaj and Gaga have made careers out of pushing boundaries, knowing they will both face more censure and gain more notoriety than their male counterparts might. The difference with Rihanna is that she went a taboo too far — getting back together with singer Chris Brown, whose vicious assault following an argument sent her to a hospital. A leaked photo of her battered face let the whole world know there was no doubt about it.
In early February, after Rihanna went to Brown’s court hearing to support him, prominent editor Tina Brown tweeted that she was “a big fat zero of a role model for girls.”
Rihanna then told Rolling Stone magazine, “I decided it was more important for me to be happy. I wasn’t going to let anybody’s opinion get in the way of it. Even if it’s a mistake, it’s my mistake.”
Teen-dating violence is occurring at alarming rates, with two-thirds of both boys and girls saying they’ve experienced it at least once, and half of them more than once, according to recent studies and the federal Centers for Disease Control. But Rihanna’s decision to return to Brown deserves understanding, says Carol Arthur, director of the Domestic Abuse Project in Minneapolis, a 33-year-old organization that offers counseling and other resources to perpetrators, victims and their families.
Rihanna is “a young woman leading a very stressful life, and then to have to deal with being traumatized like that in front of the world, the isolation must be tremendous for her,” Arthur said. “Why wouldn’t she turn to the person she’s shared so much with? We in the (domestic violence) world would love to see her take a strong stand, of course. But ending relationships isn’t something that happens overnight. Research tells us that there’s a period of coming and going — maybe five, six times — before the person lets go.”
If the notion that Rihanna or any celebrity has a public obligation to act like a good girl was ever defensible, it now seems dated. But relatability is another matter, and that muddies the waters.
“Young women relate to her because she’s made it very clear that she wants to lead her own life and make her own decisions,” Arthur said.
Rihanna’s lyrics often tweak her public image and those who purport to shape it. Her most recent album, Unapologetic, features a duet with Brown called Nobody’s Business. No nuance there. But she can also be ambiguous, as in her post-beating 2010 hit with Eminem, Love the Way You Lie. It was touted as an awareness vehicle for domestic violence, but squirm-inducing lyrics like “I like the way it hurts” make it unclear whether she’s denouncing the violence, implying complicity, or pointing out that an abusive relationship can be psychologically complicated.
Another factor fomenting public judgment was that the scandal was probably the first of its kind to be so brutally played out by young impulsives on social media. They posted such horrifying lines as “He could beat me any time” and tweet-blaming Rihanna with the classic abuser’s defense “you made him do it.”
That sort of ugly talk has become an unfortunate addendum to many tragedies, most recently the Steubenville, Ohio, rape trial that wrapped last week. After two teenage boys were convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl, a flurry of blame-the-victim tweets prompted the Ohio attorney general to charge two teenage girls with threatening the victim.
Members of a black women’s meetup group in the Twin Cities think that Rihanna’s race and gender fuel the criticism.
“We as a people are always trying to tear each other down and the media uses us to do it,” said Gloria Cap of St. Paul, a member of African American Women Socializing. “Rihanna’s personal life has no effect on me or what I teach my daughters. People should understand celebrities are not role models, they are entertainers.”
Shatona Groves, organizer of the group, owns the Webb Model and Talent agency in St. Paul and believes that “black women can be judged more harshly (by the general public) and when a woman is abused, people are always trying to find out what she did to trigger it. But in my circles, I never heard Rihanna being blamed.”
Shakeeta Sturden, a 29-year-old stylist and fashion consultant, doesn’t think Rihanna behaves like a victim. “She is a daredevil and a risk taker. When you’re strong enough to be yourself when everyone is watching, that’s pretty damn admirable.”
Event producer Anika Robbins, oldest of four sisters and mother of a 2-year-old boy, sees the saga as “a great example of a discussion to have with your child — what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like. As opposed to judging, turn the focus on learning how to make decisions and resolve conflicts.”
Actress and prominent Hollywood mom Jada Pinkett Smith addressed all the public shaming, coming to the defense of Rihanna as well as Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber in a Facebook post titled “Are we bullying our young artists?”
“It is as if we have forgotten what it means to be young or even how to behave like good ol’ grown folk,” she wrote. “What about being a young woman in her early 20s, exploring the intricacies of love and power on the world stage? Are these young people not allowed to be young, make mistakes, grow, and eventually transform a million times before our eyes?”
Rihanna has tweeted that Brown “doesn’t have the luxury of (messing) up again.”
“Unfortunately, I think it will probably happen again,” said the Domestic Abuse Project’s Arthur. “If I were her friend, I would sure be talking to her. I hope she has a support system regardless of the choices she makes.”