Sunday, October 25, 2009

Rihanna, Her New Single, and Her Questionable Status as Feminist Icon

by Ayse Gursoy

The discourse surrounding "Russian Roulette," Rihanna's new ‘comeback single,’ seems a bit bizarre. Rihanna, despite having experienced domestic abuse, never claimed to speak for survivors. Yet her experience seems to have defined her in the public eye: either she demonstrates admirable courage in addressing it, or she lets down a crowd who expect her to speak out against abuse.

Many reviews call attention to the obvious domestic abuse references in the song. Lyrics like “I’m terrified but I’m not leaving” and “It’s too late to pick up the value of my life” portray a scared, depressed victim who feels unable to control the circumstances of life. The very conceit Rihanna uses, Russian Roulette, suggests the volatile and dangerous aspects of an abusive relationship. And yet, assuming that Rihanna’s music constantly addresses domestic abuse denies her control over her own life. She has the right to address this issue, or to not address this issue, and the public should respect that. Amanda Hess asks us, "Why is Rihanna expected to be a feminist icon?" Seriously. Why is she?

How do we even define a feminist icon? Is any woman in a position of power automatically a feminist?

Feminism is not a state of being; it is a set of goals and beliefs. Simply being a woman does not make a feminist. There are quite a few women in power (or who were recently in power) who would be considered antifeminist by a vast majority, such as Sarah Palin or Phyllis Schlafly.

When I was younger, I always felt uncomfortable trying to identify Jean d'Arc as a feminist. Simply because she led an army, she was placed as an example to show that women can do the same tasks as men, and do a better job of it. And yet she never considered herself typical. Rather than challenging gender roles and stereotypes, she just claimed exemption from them. In contrast, Tamora Pierce's (fictional) female characters constantly attempt to prove that these gender stereotypes are outdated and out of touch with reality. Her most well-known character, Alanna, doesn't consider her success a fluke, but proof that women are equal to men. More people would recognize Jean d'Arc, however, than Alanna, as a feminist.

Perhaps the very nature of being an "icon" requires consideration of how one is viewed. I hesitate to label someone a feminist icon if they do not consider themselves a feminist, but I can understand why someone would.

Who do you consider to be feminist icons?

Photo from Bob Xu's flickr.

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