Rihanna is sexual icon, known less for the music she’s penned (which is negligible compared to the volume of number one hits written for her), the image she’s curated for herself (from which her voice is noticeably absent, suggesting the package, from personal aesthetics to video production, is put together by someone other than her) or any particular skill in art or advocacy. Rihanna is, for all intents and purposes, a sex object.
The Western woman’s sexual revolution is all but over (we’ve found liberation in the sense that in our society we are increasingly able to be as pornographic or not pornographic as we please); so what we’re looking for now are ways to harness and protect that power. We no longer need to be told that we have it, because it’s been fed to us since Britney was a slave for you and Madonna was touched like a virgin.
What we need to be sold instead is empowerment; popular icons who give us the means not only to be sexual, but to protect our sexuality, and to wear it not to be gazed upon, but instead to act within. Our idols should be teaching us that female sexuality is no longer a symptom of patriarchy, but a product of an ever-present matriarchy, and that being sexual does not necessarily equate with being submissive.
Positioning Rihanna within this debate is problematic, because as a victim of domestic abuse we have to account for her perspective, and be sensitive to that, which I believe in some respects should be of the utmost importance. In other respects, I believe women should be fighting together, and that Rihanna’s tragedy has left her with a hefty weapon to brandish, which unfortunately she has left sheathed and neglected, so much so that it’s become rusty. This, coupled with her overly sexualised image and her (increasingly painful) imploring of male validation in her music (most of which she didn’t even write, rendering it doubly damaging to her autonomy), betrays her lack of control.
Never have I felt more sure of this than watching the video for her newest release, “Where Have You Been.” In the video she’s beautiful, truly divine to behold, and that’s not in the least bit my problem with her. Uneasiness comes not from her beauty or her apparent comfort in her own skin. My discomfort comes from the spectacle; that here is a woman who has been manufactured essentially as a male fantasy, with innuendo so overt it can hardly be classified as innuendo anymore. Rihanna’s sexuality does not inform mine; instead, watching her makes me feel a level of discomfort I’m struggling to articulate.
The Rihanna message is anachronistic; it makes the woman the sexual subject, a submissive, and I don’t like it one little bit. And that’s not to say I have a problem with sexuality in pop — I don’t, not in the slightest. I love, for instance, Beyonce‘s booty shaking and serpentine movements; but then Beyonce is a woman so fully in control of every aspect of her career and her image, she’s essentially re-appropriated the gaze in a way that lends itself to classifying her as iconic and integral to the way we see women in the media as (one of my favorite actors), Marlene Dietrich. Beyonce tells us what’s sexy, she can be vulnerable, yes, but she’s a woman who (while still manufactured, that’s not the argument I’m making), possesses herself entirely.
Likewise, an artist like Katy Perry is arguably as overtly sexual as Rihanna. But like Beyonce, Perry has asserted an element of control over that sexuality, and what’s more, there’s a cleverness and irreverence to everything she does that is entirely missing from Rihanna’s sultry seriousness. With lyrics like “This is transcendental / On another level / Boy, you’re my lucky star/ I wanna walk in your wavelength / And be there where you vibrate”, no matter what you think of Perry, there’s a level of wit and intellectualism in her particular brand of sexuality. And like King Bey and Perry, Lady Gaga has a similar level of control, an amazing skill for her art and is a vocal advocate in across a variety of social issues.
The three women I’ve described above are all actors; each is aggressive, whereas, to me, Rihanna is passive. And I guess that’s what bothers me. It’s not the sex I find problematic. I genuinely do enjoy Rihanna’s otherworldly sexiness, I just don’t enjoy the way she holds it, or the way it’s fed to me. It bothers me that she never kicked Chris Brown’s ass for kicking hers. It bothers me that she forgave him. It bothers me that she’s apathetic when it comes to social responsibility, not just in matters of domestic violence (the environment? Bullying? Human trafficking? Pick something, honey!). And it bothers me that she’s notably absent from the writing of her music, the directing of her videos and the general running of her career.
Rihanna has the sexual power women have been fighting so long for; but as a role model (and don’t give me this shit that it’s not her responsibility to be a role model, because whether she wants it or not, the simple fact is that she is one) I want Rihanna to show us that we can use our power constructively. But with all that being said, put righteous feminism and the fact that Rihanna can’t dance to save her life in a box to the left for a moment, and the video for “Where Have You Been” is really fucking amazing.