We need to talk about talking about Rihanna

// 17 September 2013

rihanna concert.jpg

The talking about Rihanna seems neverending. Everyone appears to have an opinion, and a need to vocalise it: she should put some clothes on; she should ignore people who tell her to put some clothes on; she should stay away from Chris Brown. What few people seem interested in talking about is her voice – shockingly few considering that’s what she’s famous for: being a singer.

There’s an assumption that Rihanna, being a public figure, has a responsibility towards us all. The singer has become a role model for young girls, and she should behave as such. What’s interesting is that behaving as a role model, apparently, is not so much about behaving, but rather about dressing. Actually, let me rephrase that: behaving as a female role model is all about looks; if you’re a female pop singer, you’re responsible for teenage girls dressing like sluts. (Let’s not even get into the subject of slut-shaming – there’s only so much space in one blog post.)

That Rihanna is a singer and has done incredibly well as such, winning awards, selling millions of albums, making a bucket-load of money, seems an easily-forgettable fact. That she’s done so in the context of a music industry that loves her more for her well-shaped arse, full lips and willingness to stick an umbrella between her legs in a music video seems easier to remember, yet somehow always twisted and thrown back in her face.

If I had a daughter, I’d want her to admire other women for what they do, not how they dress; I’d want her to feel, genuinely, that she can do whatever she wants and be whoever she wants without having to strip down to her knickers; and equally, I’d want her to be able to bare as much skin as she likes without anyone telling her to cover up. Unlikely, I know – but I don’t for a second believe that Rihanna is to blame. And this is why we need to talk about talking about Rihanna.

Whether or not it makes sense to expect of a pop singer to take responsibility for all the teenage fans who deify her and make her into their untouchable role model, it’s undoubtedly ill-advised to keep bringing everyone’s attention to said role model’s skirt or tits or make-up. If Rihanna’s responsibility as a role model is to cover up and look respectable, our expectations of the next generation of girls sure are underwhelming. They’ve got a role model who’s set her mind to something, worked hard, and done well – and all people will talk about is her inability to put her boobs away and stop twerking. Want to do well, girls? Be nice. Zip up. Keep those legs crossed and smile innocently.

There’s nothing like a scapegoat to make people feel better about things: just someone, anyone, to blame for everything that’s wrong with the world. But Rihanna grew up in this world too, shaped by the very structures that made her dress sense a public concern in the first place, and telling her to put some clothes on and stop dancing around like a slut is just some twisted kind of precautionary victim blaming where, yet again, we’re just denying a woman the right to control her own life.

I promised myself recently to stop commenting on other people’s weight, to stop saying thank you when told that I’ve lost weight and to stop talking about food as an unnecessary evil that’s always either a naughty treat or something to be consumed in as small amounts as possible. Not because I think it will rid the world of all its body image issues, but because I think it might be a start.

We can’t regulate Rihanna’s wardrobe, nor should we want to – but we can remind our children that her wardrobe is unimportant by giving up talking about it. If language represents and recreates society, a little more talk about the things we do might just do the trick.

Picture, by Eva Rinaldi on Flickr, shows Rihanna performing on stage with a guitarist. Used under a Creative Commons License.

Comments From You

Amy // Posted 17 September 2013 at 11:23 pm

Agreed. I think it *is* important and relevant to talk about broader issues of how women are presented in the media, sexualisation etc and potential problems with that, BUT people seem to confuse this with picking apart individual women. And, while perhaps well-intentioned, that just ends up reinforcing this unwarranted focus on their appearance and becomes another way in which women are policed on how they dress and behave.

Marissa Katherine // Posted 18 September 2013 at 12:08 am

This is such a refreshing take – thank you for putting words to what were only vague, jumbled, frustrated thoughts in my mind. You said it so eloquently.

Laura // Posted 18 September 2013 at 9:40 am

Agreed. I think there’s also some racism going on in the fact that Rihanna and Beyonce seem to be the focus of much more ire than white female pop stars.

Hannah T // Posted 18 September 2013 at 1:13 pm

Personally, I used to like Rihanna’s professional personality and music but as time passes I find myself becoming less of a fan.

Saying that, I also think she’s getting a really raw deal. She cannot do anything right, she is berated for everything she does. i don’t know when people are going to stop focusing on her as a role model. She’s just a reflection of what it’s like to be incredibly wealthy and 24 years old. Whether that makes her a role model or not is another topic for another day.

Personally, I think it’s great that she’s sex-positive and confident having a body and personality that differ from the mainstream. Those are great messages to give out, if other people embraced their differences like this then there would be a far healthier world.

monkyvirus // Posted 18 September 2013 at 3:27 pm

@Laura I agree with you, I think it might be to do with this continual myth of non-white (mainly hispanic and black) being considered hypersexual. Also the fact that in mainstream media white women are shown as skinny and black/hispanic women as curvy (neither of which are true as generalisations) with the knock on effect as black/hispanic women being viewed sexier –> more interested in sex (a ridiculous leap in logic).

yasmeen soudani // Posted 18 September 2013 at 6:59 pm

I do not think Rihanna should hold any responsibility for the provocative clothing that some teenagers wear. Her goal in life, I presume, was to be a singer, not a role model. Her music is targeted not to 14 or 15 year olds but to young women, who, we hope, by that age knows the precautions of wearing provocative clothing and then instead of merely following Rihanna’s style because it is Rihanna, but because by that age they are educated enough to make their own choice. However, celebrities such as Miley Cyrus should have a certain degree of responsibility as a role model. Let us go back to the days before Miley was twerking, kissing fake dolls in the pool and exposing her body to the world. She USED TO BE an INNOCENT teenager who had her own tv show on Disney!! Therefore, undoubtedly, she does have young fans! So, it is wrong for her to completely change her image knowing that little girls from all over the world ran home to watch Hannah Montana, that still airs on Disney today. Now, the only other way to see her is if they turn over from Hannah Montana to MTV watching her walking hanging on a wrecking ball naked.

It isn’t Rihanna that we should be talking about.

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