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

November 5, 2009 |  9:44 am

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


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?