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Critic's Notebook: Rihanna, the role model, shows up on 'Good Morning America'

Diane Sawyer and Rihanna "I am strong" were the first words out of Rihanna's mouth in her short interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC's "Good Morning America." 

She made the claim unequivocally, a glint of anger in her eye. It was a sign that this carefully managed encounter -- part of a media flurry in which the Barbadian pop star and her ex-boyfriend, Chris Brown, try to manage the fallout from Brown's February assault on her as they prepare to release new albums -- would be heavy on message, and less so on confessions. In her first major television interview after the assault, Rihanna clearly meant to reclaim her position as a worthy role model for young women.

But a troubled relationship may stand in her way. Not the one with Brown, which is apparently 100% kaput, though she admitted to returning to him a few weeks after the beating. The bond Rihanna believes she endangered by returning to Brown is the one with her fans.

This interview's most interesting moment came after Sawyer, in a voice-over, announced that Rihanna would not be sharing the bloody details of the attack (not yet, anyway; ABC is saving that for a ratings bonanza Friday, when a longer version of this talk airs on "20/20"). Instead, we got "what other girls, she hopes, will hear."

"When I realized that my selfish decision for love could result into some young girl getting killed, I could not be easy with that part," the singer said. "I couldn’t be held responsible for telling them, 'Go back.' Even if Chris never hit me again, who’s to say their boyfriend won’t? Who’s to say they won’t kill these girls? These are young girls, and I just didn’t realize how much of an an impact I had on these young girls' lives until that happened. It was a wake-up call."

If this telegenic confession tells the real story, Rihanna did not turn away from Brown to protect herself. She did so to shepherd the fans who follow her less significant choices -- in hairstyle, clothes and runway-ready attitude -- away from making a big mistake, as she had.

That's a remarkable admission of distance from her own wounded heart, and a fascinating peek into how celebrities relate to the "personal" lives they now must live almost completely within the public eye.

Rihanna made the right choice, for herself and for those fans about whom she cares so deeply, when she walked away from Brown. She's making more good decisions now, managing her return to the spotlight with dignity and that icy poise for which she's famous. (I also like her risky new single, "Russian Roulette," though my colleague August Brown has some questions about it; you can read his powerful analysis here.)

But isn't it telling that she is spinning her own self-preservation as a move to save other women's lives? Many pop stars shun the mantle of role model; here is a 21-year-old, often accused in the media of being a cipher for her producers and management team, who is not only stepping up to that responsibility but also making it the reason she should nurture herself.

Admirable. Disturbing. Do we want our entertainers to feel our needs so acutely? The feminist in me applauds Rihanna for going on a major network program and telling young women to firmly resist the lure of a dangerous love, to learn to separate themselves from the myths of romance that, in fact, pop songs so often reinforce.

But another part of me wonders why she's telling us she had to step outside herself to take this stand. Rihanna uses words like "embarrassing" and "humiliating" -- words of shame, not of pain or helplessness -- to describe how Brown's assault made her feel. She may say something very different to her family and other intimates. But what we see is a young woman who's finding her greatest strength by remembering that others are always watching her.

In a way, Rihanna's statement to this effect does connect her to other women who've triumphed over domestic violence. Many mothers leave abusive mates for the sake of their children, for example, only later realizing that they themselves deserve to be safe. Rihanna's way of addressing her female fans has a stern but loving big-sister quality. She has taken on a virtual family she never expected to have.

Our tabloid-and-Twitter culture has made Rihanna's whole life a performance. Now, she is throwing that reality back in our faces, and we too can feel some embarrassment. Every Web surfer who clicked on the famous picture of her bruised face after the assault contributed to Rihanna's humiliation. Rihanna may be too polite, and too media-savvy, to point that out. But her guarded moves make it clear that her well-earned instinct to flinch remains.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Diane Sawyer and Rihanna. Credit: Ida Mae Astute / ABC

RELATED:

Rihanna says she left Chris Brown to set an example for other domestic violence victims

Rihanna reveals 'Russian Roulette'

Rihanna's 'Russian Roulette' is loaded -- but what does it say?

 
Comments () | Archives (11)

The feminist in me throws away.
Role model?
Nurturing herself?
SHE'S SO FAKE.
She's using this story to sell her (horrible so far) album.
A feminist should point out she should have:
1) spoken WAY before and with no money returning, to give young girls a someway worthy role model action;
2) spoken clear and loud in court and send Chris ANIMAL Brown in jail;
3)avoided to capitalize on the situation by singing a (bad) song full of hinted reference at a situation, while she hasn't written a line there (she doesn't write her "songs" and computers sings in her place, this Miss Powers is clear to anybody who has ever followed her ridicolous gigs. She can't sing for real AT ALL)
Rihanna is taking advantage in the fakest way of the supposed frenzy surrounding her.
Role model?
I wouldn't like to see real girls dressed as a skanky version of a stripper on everyday life, as she does everytime.
I wonder how preciously Universal pay all these media "journalists" to keep fooling kids with Miss Untalented Skanky number 1.
She's COMPLETELY a fake one.
Talentless, fake one.
Give room to actually talented people, for once.
And don't connect this airhead with feminism.
It's offensive for real females.

Rihanna has inspired me and I'm sure many others with her interview. Her words "don't react on love" have a powerful meaning behind them. I am glad a strong woman with a great influence had the heart to stand up and show the women of this world that they are not alone. Thanks Rihanna!

Wow that whole rant was really lame Malika! LOL!

This interview disturbs me. She saying, it sounds like, that if it wasn't for her career, she would have returned and stayed with Chris Brown. Does this girl need another smack? This interview is all a carefully crafted stunt to sell records. IF she was strong, she would have NEVER gone back to that loser. Sorry guys and gals, this whole interview is one big sham.

It's all bunk. Rhianna is doing this media tour with a publicist crafted story. It is to save endorsements like her cosmetic shilling & album sales. She could care less about young girls. And ABC is promoting this to grab ratings during sweeps week & preserve ad rates-no more no less. The idea that any of this is about being a role model is just laughable.

Role model? Hmmm? I hope my daughter never takes naked cellphone pics.

I have to be honest; I’m a little concerned with this interview too! It just seems like good timing for Rihanna to promote herself as an artist not as a young woman who has been violently abused. The questions in my head are why didn't she do an interview earlier? Why now- album and single soon out and Chris Brown is ready to release his single and album too- is it just a matter of fate or a matter of capital gain?

I would so hate for this issue to be misrepresented because there are many young women out there who do go through serious domestic violence/abuse issues. Yes.... it does make a difference that she's famous- more media coverage etc BUT I don think this gives an advantage to her, she can therefore stand-up/speak out about those issues. Another problem is 'what is the definition of role model?'...... it seems as though so many artists, actors, actresses, etc want to be considered as role models which is great, so to support a little of Rihanna's claims on this interview- maybe she is trying to be a role model but happened to go about it in the wrong way at first. I suppose the saying goes.... 'Nobody is perfect'.

www.samanthathodhlana.wordpress.com

She's a child herself. And the message about the media is lost on the societal sickness that this wonderful internet has created both for celebrities and in politics. Bad enough they are hounded but lies and the most nasty comments imaginable are thrown around as humor. Lies and snark headlines are thrown up on blogs inviting surfers to click and contribute even worse statements that the writers would never say to the person's face. So the blogger can sit home and avoid any societal contribution with a real job. I wish her the best and if she can stay psychologically grounded she will come out a powerful independent woman. We all imagine how bad the alternative can be. It feels like the men have taken her under their wing in the industry. I hope so. Go Rhianna make millions then get out.

Wow I just read all the hateful comments here. Well I guess my previous post has played out. If you girls are serious I'm sorry for you. I hope you're not mothers. You have no clue. And if you watch this video and say she's acting then good for her she's the next fracking Merrill Streep. Further, she has no desire to be a role model. And you putting your demands on the girl is CLASSIC fan/fanhater b.s. She sings songs. That's ALL she owes you. I hate the internet.

IN my previous, i wrote "rape" survivor when I obviously meant "domestic violence" survivor, but given the nature of both one could see how i could mistakenly write one in the place of the other

Disturbing? How about strong and remarkably self aware? I don't care how rich and powerful she is, it ain't easy to survive domestic violence. Yeah, she has PR folks on her side. However, very few survivors will ever disclose, and to have someone displaying strength and resolve in light of the humiliation that she has face at the hands of the press is inspiring. I've worked for quite a while in the movement to end sexual and domestic violence, and I think it's incredible to have someone in such a public position succinctly laying out the talking points. Further, she's not responsible to you or any other cynic. If she empowers one survivor to seek services then she's done more than most, and she deserves our respect.


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