Piling on Rihanna Accomplishes Nothing


Rihanna is getting beaten up — again. This time, it’s by women.

Recently, Lena Dunham, creator of the HBO hit series Girls, took aim, criticizing Rihanna on a WNYC show for not serving as a better role model to girls. Rihanna, in returning to her abuser, Chris Brown, was not the kind of feminist that Dunham thought she should be.

“I used to be really into Rihanna, that pop star, and then it’s like — again, I don’t want to ever throw stones from my glass house — but I follow her on Instagram and I just think about how many little girls beyond what I could even comprehend are obsessed with Rihanna,” she said. “Like, you know, she left Barbados, she’s had this amazing career, she’s won a Grammy…She’s talented. And then she gets back together with Chris Brown and posts a million pictures of them smoking marijuana together on a bed. And it cracks my heart in half in a way that makes me feel like I’m 95 years old.”

The rant, from last month, wasn’t Dunham’s first. Early last year, when Rihanna and Brown released two songs together, Dunham tweeted, “Rihanna and Chris Brown’s new duets make me want to go hide under Gloria Steinem’s bed for 72 hours.”

It might not be the best place for Dunham to hide. “Here’s the view from under my bed,” Gloria Steinem wrote to me in a recent email exchange. “Most women leaving violent relationships return at least once because their self-authority has been eviscerated and replaced with a partner’s authority. Think Stockholm Syndrome. Rihanna probably needs support, not criticism, and her return could be a cause for teaching, not despair.”

I certainly understand people’s inclination to think that they know better, indeed, to feel like they are better than someone who is in an abusive relationship. Who in their right mind subjects themselves to repeated violence? But that is a short-sighted and actually not very smart response to what is actually going on with domestic abuse, and precisely the mentality that makes the survivor feel judged rather than understood.

Steinem further explained to me: “This is a microcosm of the frequent difference between the original battered women’s centers that were or are run by survivors, and some of the current Family Violence Centers run by people with degrees. The survivors supported women in making their own decisions — because they themselves knew from experience. The second too often repeated the problem by telling women what to do one more time.”

Dunham’s comments hit two separate chords for me. The first was that it seemed odd and rather obtuse for Dunham to level criticism against Rihanna for not being a better feminist role model, when Dunham herself, also in a public position as role model to young women, excludes the very demographic — young black women — she implies Rihanna should better serve.

Much has been written about the absence of black or brown people on Dunham’s wildly successful HBO show, and to a large extent the dissonance has come from black women, myself included, and many much younger than me. Why is Rihanna more obligated to be a better role model than Dunham is to represent a racially inclusive world, at least a racially aware feminist?

The other chord her comments struck was more personal.

I watched my sister return to abusive boyfriends for years, starting when we were teenagers. My sister is white, and I am black. I was adopted into a white family and grew up in rural New Hampshire. Our high school had a front hall, where the cool kids hung out, and a back hall, where the smokers, druggies, and general losers hung out. I was a front-hall kid; my sister was a back-hall kid. I went to great pains to disassociate myself from her. I considered her feathered hair, acid-wash jeans, and reeking of smoke a moral failure. Her willingness to be in an abusive relationship was an extension of that failure, in my teenage mind.

But while I continued to judge her, my parents continued to love her unconditionally. I believe it was their abiding support, in large part, that helped her to realize she was strong enough to leave her last abusive relationship, following the birth of her twin boys, more than 20 years ago.

Last week, Tina Brown tweeted that Rihanna is “a big fat zero” as a role model for women. That’s not very helpful to a woman in an abusive relationship, who more than likely doesn’t need further prompting to feel badly about herself.

Several celebrity women and endless lady bloggers have weighed in on what Rihanna should and shouldn’t do in regards to her relationship with Brown — from talk show host Wendy Williams to VH1 and even this website, everyone seems to think they know what’s best for Rihanna. The New York Post’s Andrea Peyser wrote in her February 7 column that Rihanna “is a disgrace to women.” And HuffPost blogger Sandy Weiner penned a recent blog called “Rihanna is Crazy in Love. Emphasis on Crazy?”

I recall now that my teenage judgment of my sister — telling her she was wasting her life — just pushed her away. She recoiled against my snooty, “cool kid” reasoning. Now I understand that letting a man hit her repeatedly had nothing to do with how smart she was or is — and she is very smart — but rather, was the result of trauma. My sister had been raped at 14. I knew about the rape, but I also didn’t want to know; I was just 10 at the time. Her reactive rage and downward spiral into these violent relationships scared me.

Today, my sister and I are still at odds for various reasons — some of them, maybe all, stem from the front-hall, back-hall attitude — but I deeply regret having judged her so harshly during those years she was being physically abused, and have since become far more attuned to the experience of survivors.

Both Rihanna and Chris Brown come from backgrounds with violence and domestic abuse. Brown has spoken out publicly about the history of domestic violence in his family growing up, when he watched his stepfather continuously beat his mother. And Rihanna recently revealed in an exclusive interview with Oprah that she had forgiven her own violent father, who was abusive toward her mother. It is what they know. They need help in knowing something different — not a pile-on attack.

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