Body Politic: Rihanna's Interview with Oprah, Kristen Stewart's Fall from Grace and the Hook Up Cult
This week Flashpoints looks at the female body politic that is reflected in the hall of mirrors of pop culture. Our gaze is cast on what we think we see of Rihanna, Kristen Stewart, and the Fifty Shades of Gray phenomenon.
Shielding Brown from Harm
Chris Brown's assault of Rihanna struck a chord within popular culture. Her beating triggered emotions that reverberate to this day. Although Brown pleaded guilty to felony assault in the criminal courts, the court of public opinion remains divided. Indeed, this prejudicial court will never be unanimous in its verdict: the issue of domestic violence touches on contentious relations between couples, and people's feelings are complicated by their relationship to the rich and famous.
The Rihanna Deserved It and I'd Hit That t-shirts help bridge the sexual divide, in the case of this heterosexual couple. On the one side, you've got people claiming that Rihanna literally forced Brown's hand when she slapped him during an argument about a suspected indiscretion. On the other side, some think there's nothing wrong with attached men wanting to make passes at other women. These t-shirts not only display the widespread tendency to trivialise violence within relationships, they manage to turn personal issues into a public spectacle. And so for every why we hate the unrepentant jerk tirades, you'll get many women tweeting I Would Let Chris Brown Beat Me Any day.
Try not to feel too disheartened by such unabashed love, though. If you have a love/hate relationship with Brown, consider playing the online game that allows players to blow kisses and/or throw punches at him.
Rihanna's recent interview with Oprah also provides a sobering lesson to outsiders – and was a striking riposte to Oprah's previous 'teaching moment' on assault within relationships. Oprah dedicated a 2009 live special "to all the Rihannas in the world, and all the young men who would think of hitting a woman." Oprah expressed her concern about the statistics on dating violence, and how the threat of domestic violence loomed over (potential) marriages. She was particularly concerned about reports that Rihanna and Brown were attempting to reconcile and urged that "the message this story sends out to teen girls and boys is disturbing, and it is also dangerous". She also personally sent a message to Rihanna by looking directly into the camera. "Love doesn't hurt. I've been saying this to women for years: Love doesn't hurt. And if a man hits you once, he will hit you again. He will hit you again. I don't care what his plea is."
Unfortunately, Oprah was guilty of special pleading herself and missed an opportunity to address a related issue. She neglected to mention the statistics on violent men and women within relationships: namely, the consensus in the field is that women are as likely as men to strike their partner but that--as expected--women are more likely to be injured than men . Nonetheless, Oprah insisted that we all "need to try and evolve from this moment... use this moment to allow our society to grow".
While Oprah's heart was obviously in the right place, she was clearly in over her head. Her subsequent interview with Rihanna quickly devolved into an object lesson about the hubris of such 'moments'. If anyone learnt anything here, it was Oprah and (by extension) people willing to use another person's relationship as a surrogate for their own issues. That's not to say that Rihanna would advise against using another relationship to rehearse their own problems. She was only able to come to terms with her feelings about Brown by acknowledging the domestic abuse she had witnessed as a child. As she observed during the interview, she needed to resolve a conflict about her parent's relationship before she could forgive and move on. Nonetheless, many people (like Oprah) might have still been "shocked" by Rihanna's recent growth.
The biggest shock is that Rihanna's story actively resisted a straightforward narrative: the cycle of abuse was written into her own treatment. The interview was remarkable for its painstaking authenticity – and it shocked because Rihanna wielded personal heartbreak as a shield to "protect" the person that threatened to kill her. Despite her anger and confusion, Rihanna made it perfectly clear that they still share an undying love. She also insisted that Brown was the real victim here: people were too willing to put all the blame on the convicted felon. As he was assaulting her, she felt "more concerned about him" and continues to feel protective towards the person that "I thought I hated (until) I realized it was love that was (merely) tarnished... and tainted".
"It was embarrassing, it was humiliating, it was hurtful, I lost my best friend. Everything I knew switched, switched in a night… And that’s not easy for me to understand or interpret… It was hard for me to even pay attention to my mind, and figure things out because it became a circus, and I felt protective. I felt like the only person they hate right now is him. It was a weird confusing space to be in, because as angry, hurt and betrayed as I was, I just felt like he made that mistake because he needed help. And who’s going to help him? Nobody’s going to say he needs help, everyone’s going to say he’s a monster without looking at the source. I was more concerned about him."
Equally telling was the sight of a still troubled woman emphasising the issue of Brown's psychological well being: it was more important that her abuser not remain in a 'weird, confusing space' like her.
"I truly love him — the main thing for me is he's at peace. I'm not at peace if he's not happy or he's still lonely. I care. It actually matters that he finds that peace."
The interview was shocking, then, because it hit so close to home. Rihanna kept reminding us that gender roles dominate some relationships irrespective of social position or rank. Sexual inequality was not only the source of the violence, it was (in this case, presumably) also the solution to it. Rihanna instinctively took on the role of care giver and invariably prioritized the feelings of the man that hurt her. She was accepting responsibility for what happened between them and was trying to heal her attacker with the power of love. There was no escaping the impression that her police report and restraining order might have been premature or needless. The resulting media scrutiny seemed to prevent them from getting back together again anytime soon.
There was also the implication that it was her overreaction that really hurt their relationship – she certainly regretted hurting Brown's image with the picture of her battered face. Despite Rihanna's own image as a powerful and independent woman – and that fame ensures that people are at her constant beck and call – Rihanna was doing emotional housekeeping on national television.
"Emotional housework refers here to the task of trying hard to counsel, manage and ‘fix’ the abuser... It closely parallels the household labour and management that are also largely women’s responsibility. The unequal division of emotional labour in almost all relationships, whether or not they are abusive, means that when abuse starts a women is primed to try to help the guy with his feelings." (Lucy Berrington, "Rihanna Is Still Doing Chris Brown's Housework", 28 August, 2012).
It's not the first time that sexual inequality has reared its ugly head in Rihanna'a life, of course – her recent slut shaming by Chris Brown (amongst others) only goes to show that men continue to have the real power. Despite being the sexiest woman alive, there is only so much love that can go around before it rebounds on women.
Twilight's Last Gleaming
Rihanna's relationship with Brown is not the only fairy tale romance to suddenly go grim. Kristen Stewart has found herself literally caught in media res, or in the midst of affairs. Since the Twilight franchise romanticizes an abusive relationship, female fans instinctively abused her for failing to keep their romance alive. While the slut shaming and death threats were inevitable, many women clearly need to get their own house in order: they've merely perpetuated the cycle of abuse through their own relationship to the media.
Although we don't make women wear scarlet letters or stone them to death, thankfully, it's still possible to take matters into our own hands. The Kristen Stewart is a Trampire and Robert Pattinson Deserves Better t– shirts become one medium of expression. Heartbroken fans have also gone online to call her a home wrecking whore, plain and simple and threatened to kill the bitch for breaking Robert Pattinson's heart. The moral outrage offers ample proof that we prefer our fairy tales to have a 'happy ever after' in reality, too.
Kristen's real mistake was not that she got caught cheating on her on-screen lover or that she (supposedly) broke his heart in real life: it's that she broke the illusion. Indeed, it was only during Stewart's public apology that their off screen relationship was even officially acknowledged by her. Up to that point, their relationship has been mere speculation or wish fulfillment. While it's (apparently) true that they shared a house, outsiders were never in a position to really know what was going on inside it. For all we knew, they were keeping up appearances, fueling speculation and/or having an open relationship.
Given their independent work schedules, they would have also had little time for each other: they didn't so much live (or work) together but shared a house when they weren't living and/or working on separate continents. In other words, they weren't the one's living the fairytale romance. Assuming they were a real couple, reality typically kept them apart and was making unrealistic demands on them. And this is assuming they weren't acting a part in real life too or that the cheating drama was staged to end their fake relationship.
The hysterical reaction reminded us that many women live vicariously through romantic fantasies: Stewart had really (or also) cheated on them. She has been so identified with her Twilight character, that many fans used Stewart's on screen relationship as a surrogate for their own romantic aspirations and ideals. Pattinson appears to be a victim of Twilight's romantic ideology, too. The media immediately cast him in a different role: from eternal love to heartbroken star. Never mind that these blood suckers have been turning a blind eye to his own indiscretions for years. Perhaps that's because her boyfriend could be seen acting according to type: successful actor living every man's fantasy.
If the Twilight demographic is any indication, many heterosexual women have different sexual fantasies from heterosexual men: they long for first love (again) and get off on abstinence porn. As the title might indicate, Twilight celebrates a liminal state, or young girls standing at the threshold of their own sexual identities. It's worth stressing that Twilight doesn't just appeal to young girls wanting to play with fire – elder women long to cross that threshold again too. The Twilight franchise reinforces traditional sexual roles and the value of delayed gratification: it defines women by their relationship to men and ensures they carry the torch for (and into) meaningful relationships. It therefore isn't difficult to see why Stewart's transgression immediately cast her in different light. She was thrown into the role of fallen woman because she no longer embodied the traits that supposedly elevate and distinguish women.
Stewart had broken an implicit trust when she acted against type: she failed to recognize the importance of fidelity and/or preserve the sanctity of marriage. The female actress didn't so much cross a threshold but a line. She not only got caught cheating on her presumed lover, but she also stole another man's wife (the woman playing her own mother in Snow White and the Huntsman). The relationship she was seen having with the married father of two became a stain on her perceived character: since she was no longer "pure as snow", if you will, Stewart undermined her own association with the lingering power of fairy tale romances.
Stewart's public apology is notable for the way it attempts to remove the stain from her character. She apologized for her "momentary indiscretion" to the people she presumably hurt through the media. The general public became the medium for her contrite behavior. She also expressed her "love" for "Rob" again (and again) through them. We therefore have to ask: who was she really apologizing and/or expressing her love to? Her perceived indiscretion was really none of anyone else's business. Her apology would have ideally been expressed in private, and to the people she directly hurt. The reality, of course, is that the alleged cheater now had another part to play in popular culture: she had to appear apologetic in order to appease the people living through her latest drama.
This returns us to the cycle of abuse, or our own relationship to a manipulative and controlling media. Stewart's status as fallen women is another negative example of female empowerment in popular culture (to quote Twilight author Stephanie Meyer completely out of context). Many women have attempted to create Stewart in their own image – or alternatively, the scandal is a mirror image of Meyer's own media creation. Her transgression was the result of idolatry, or creating false idols that the media inevitably tears down to raise its own profile and (and other role models instead). Stewart's inevitable fall from grace is just another cautionary tale about the plight of women: a story created to satiate a salacious public's blood lust.
Hall of Mirrors
Few can deny the power of Twilight's romantic fantasy: the book sales and box office receipts speak for themselves. While some feminists might bemoan porn abstinence as culturally regressive, they are also faced with many shape shifting mirror images – the rise of the hook up culture in a raunch society. Consequently, what passes for female progress – increasingly sexualised media images and the pornification of their real life selves – is viewed as equally disempowering. Some feminists have therefore argued that abstinence porn is really part of a cultural insurrection: millions of women have supposedly risen up to take back their sexual power by affirming the power of true love and delayed sexual gratification.
The Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon refracts and distorts this image even further, suggesting that millions of women are trapped in a hall of mirrors. Contemplating the female reflection is akin to navigating a maze-like puzzle filled with various obstacles and passages. The irony is that Fifty Shades of Grey began its sadomasochistic sexual relationship as Twilight fan fiction. Indeed, it's possible to see the mirror image by comparing passages.
Like the Twilight franchise (but on the opposite side of the spectrum), Fifty Shades of Grey romanticises abusive relationships. Apparently, many heterosexual women fantasize about being sexually dominated by rich and powerful men, too. It isn't difficult to see the sexual appeal of this abuse fantasy. While men also fantacise about being dominated by women, the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon appears to speak to current anxieties about female equality (such as it is). As women progress through society – or once they've crossed the threshold into equal sexual relationships – they continue to long for the good old days of sexual bondage and slavery.
The fact that this presumed desire is literally tied to fantasies about wealth only confirms what many of us secretly suspect: women are no different to prostitutes and are prepared to trade sex for money. It's fortunate, then, that many women are also willing to shame each other into submission, first. As their own role in slut shaming indicates, women are more than happy to jump on the bandwagon and help men abuse other women, too. It's no wonder women are typically held responsible for their own sexual abuse and/or female sexuality can also be controlled through abusive language.
But wait, there's more! We can now can see yes another distorted image in the hall. Contemplating the female reflection has resulted in a curious side effect: romanticising the hook up culture, or women's 'boys on the side'. Instead of being hoisted up by their own petards, the hook up culture is supposedly feminism at its most socially uplifting. Indeed, 'no strings attached sex' is how many young women are actually pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. The question of female sexual power has therefore recently been dominating cyberspace, again. The September issue of The Atlantic urges that "hook up culture is bound up with sexual freedom and that feminist progress depends on its continued existence." According to field research based on observed self images, delaying sexual gratification or looking for relationships limits young women's options in the real world. The last thing women want is to be tied down.
"Hooking up is part of a larger romantic strategy and part of a larger 'sexual career'. For an upwardly mobile, ambitious young woman, hookups are a way to dip into relationships without disrupting self-development or schoolwork. Hookups functioned as a 'delay tactic' because the immediate priority, for the privileged women at least, was setting themselves up for a career. (So instead of) being viewed... as socially corrosive and ultimately toxic to women, the hookup culture is an engine of female progress—one being harnessed and driven by women themselves." (Hanna Rosin, "Boys on the Side", September, 2012).
Rosin's article has – as you would expect – proven too divisive, and merely displaces the question of sexual dominance and exploitation. Some women view the emotional housekeeping as a breath of fresh air, while others wonder if it merely contributes to an already toxic environment. It goes without saying that millions of people have been 'hooking up' for as long as they've been able to have casual sex. The history of sexuality cannot, however, be so conveniently divided into distinct periods and norms. People's sexual attitudes remain subject to change and contestation. Nonetheless, Rosin's depiction does capture something worth noting: young women using their sexuality to determine their place in the pecking order.
The 'hook up culture' isn't just about sexual pleasure or having multiple partners: it has more to do with succeeding in a man's world and beating men at their own game. Since female sexuality is linked to upward mobility, it's a foregone conclusion that the hook up culture is self authenticating and empowering. The only problem is Rosin downplays an important value: feminism's roots in humanism. "Boys On the Side" sidelines men and women equally and encourages negative examples of fe/male empowerment. It remains bound to the idea that the ends justifies the means, and so other people are just a means to an end (as opposed to having individual intrinsic value or worth). The article defends a culture of competitiveness and narcissism: women's true romance ends up being just status seeking and material success.
It therefore engenders its own fairy tale by suggesting that there is no "value higher than sexual power/conquest, any morality deeper than personal consent or contentment and any goal greater than success at someone else expense." The hall of mirrors reminds us, however, that we can never lose sight of women's shape shifting image in popular culture. The idea that women own their bodies remains a misconception. Whether we like it or not, their bodies belong to the body politic.