Role Models



Content note: misogyny, violence against women, rape apologism


Today, a vile misogynist screed masquerading as an article by Liz Jones appeared in the Daily Mail, asserting that Rihanna is a “toxic role model for her army of young fans”. I won’t link to this shit on the Mail site, but a reproduced version is available to read here.

Jones argues that despite the fact that the singer “has the voice of an angel and is self-made, feisty and confident”,

All these qualities pale to nothing when we know she went back to her abusive boyfriend, Chris Brown, who pleaded guilty to assaulting her in 2009; that she promotes drug-taking, drinking and the sort of fashion sense on stage that surely invites rape at worst, disrespect at least.

Wow, that’s one clusterfuck of awfulness to unpack; victim-blaming slut-shaming, and rape apologia contained in a single paragraph. It’s utterly depressing that this needs to be re-iterated time and time again:

1. People return to abusive relationships for a variety of reasons. It is not my place to speculate on the ins and outs of Rihanna & Brown’s relationship, largely because it is fucking beside the point. Rihanna is a survivor of abuse, and if you’re going to demonise, demonise the fucking abuser. I know I keep plugging this Pervocracy piece like a divine screed sent from God, but it eloquently and thoughtfully breaks down the nuances and dynamics of abusive relationships.

2. […]sort of fashion sense on stage that surely invites rape at worst, disrespect at least.

Clothes do not invite rape. *Nothing* invites rape. Victims are not responsible for their rape, rapists are. That the Mail is tacitly endorsing one of the oldest, deeply problematic myths about rape is utterly disgraceful.

Jones’ entire thesis rests on the contention that Rihanna is a corrupt and contemptible person. Her language seethes with hatred; she is “toxic”, “poisonous”, she “infecting” the high streets. This nakedly hateful character assassination is, however, couched in the language of concern:

Is it fair that we berate female stars for being bad, when we don’t admonish men in the same way? Yes, it is fair. Because young women are far more impressionable than young men.

There you have it. Young women are more “impressionable”, apparently incapable of critical thought, and the best way to nurture a positive social environment for young people is to pour buckets and buckets of misogynist bile on a woman that has the temerity to be in the public eye! Why does this concern for young women look so much like misogyny?

Rihanna issued this response on her instagram:

LOL!!!! My money got a bad habit of pissing people off!! If you sincerely wanna help little girls more than their own parents do, here’s a toxic tip: don’t be amateur with your articles, you sound bitter! What’s all this about hair and nails and costumes and tattoos?? ….That shit ain’t clever!!! That shit ain’t journalism! That’s a sad sloppy menopausal mess!!! Nobody over here acts like they’re perfect! I don’t pretend that I’m like you, i just live… My life!! And I don’t know why y’all still act so surprised by any of it!! “Role Model” is not a position or title that I have ever campaigned for, so chill wit dat! I got my own fucked up shit to work on, I’ll never portray that as perfect, but for right now it’s ME!! Call it what ya want!! Toxic was cute, Poisonous Pop Princess had a nice ring to it, just a lil wordy! And P.S. my first American Vogue cover was in 2011…APRIL!!! #ElizabethAnnJones

Rihanna articulated something that has never sat very well with me when celebrities are being discussed. Why must female celebrities always serve as “good role models?” What is a good role model? To me, these discussions are ridiculously gendered. Footballers, singers and actors who misbehave are lauded as “lads”, while women in the public eye who drink and are unashamed about their sex lives are treated like toxic waste. When male celebrities are criticised in the mainstream press, they are never slated as being bad role models for young fans. For instance, the aforementioned Brown has been quite rightly upbraided in the press for his despicable behaviour, however, never to my recollection has he been dubbed a bad role model for young boys.

This insistence that female celebrities be purer than the driven snow, while often dressed up in the language of feminism feels too much like good ol’ fashioned patriarchal preaching and policing of women’s lives. Rihanna is derided for being successful, famous, talented, and crucially, confident and self-assured in a way that women, particularly women of colour, are not allowed to be under patriarchy. She refuses to “behave” according to the proscribed script, and this has rattled a few cages.

Yes, let’s have role models. Let’s have brilliant female writers, doctors, journalists, engineers, scientists, activists, musicians, singers, dancers, screenwriters, actors, directors, icons. There’s room for all of them. Do you know what I’d like to see less of? Hacky misogynist tabloid journos who exist to perpuate patriarchy. They’re no role models for anybody.