After releasing their videos, “Run the World (Girls)” and “Man Down,” Beyonce and Rihanna, respectively, have outraged feminists and concerned parents alike for seemingly polarizing reasons.
“False sense of achievement,” “lies,” “hypocrite” and other phrases and terms of vitriolic nature have been hurled at Beyonce from her supporters and dissenters alike due to the fact that she dares to say in her lyrics that women will not be disrespected. While spouting these lyrics, the singer is seen in what can be interpreted as a post-apocalyptic world where hundreds of women dance in unison in militaristic, but still quite sexy, fashion, and the men have to sit on the sidelines. While it is true, as many have pointed out, that women have always and continue to be mistreated in vast numbers, taken advantage of, and reduced to farcical archetypes such as the age-old madonna/whore symbol, can she truly be blamed for little girls casting their impressionable eyes upon a pop star by creating a so-called facade in a pop anthem? Or are we going to let her words of “girl power” co-exist with facts to present to aforementioned little girls so they know where we as women stand now, and where we can get to–i.e., the realization of Beyonce’s lyrics–if in fact we believe that the lyrics are an ideal to aspire to?
On the other hand, Rihanna, who has actually had to publicly deal with abuse by her ex-boyfriend, has angered the Parents’ Television Council for her new video which depicts her shooting and killing the man who has sexually assaulted her. No stranger to controversy–the same advocacy group was also outraged by her hyper-sexualized video for “S&M” only a couple of months ago–this time it seems that Rihanna’s video seems all too tangible. Unlike Beyonce, the singer from Barbados is addressing the very real issue of abuse upon women, and is now being questioned as to whether her depiction of said act helps or hurts the domestic violence cause. The issue appears to be more with the images of murdering her abuser after the fact, not during the act of abuse (so it technically can’t be claimed self-defense), and that is an understandable concern for parents. Yet attacking Rihanna for a video that, while providing a very distinct and powerful message, also stands as just another entertainment vehicle for the singer to further promote her album, seems all too easy for them to do.
The problem with the criticisms of both videos is that they are only targeted at the performer, and not those that stand behind them as well. Just as Tyler Perry is only one black filmmaker out of thousands who happens to get the most attention because of his apparent ubiquity, Beyonce and Rihanna are only two female performers who happen to sell the most records, concert tickets, and magazine covers. Hollywood and the music industry alike are a business, and what sells most is what we are shown most often; the system’s homogeny itself needs to be addressed as opposed to only the women whose music we buy in record numbers. Could depictions of “female empowerment”–and what does such a loaded phrase actually mean, anyway?–use a little more variety besides Beyonce proclaiming her financial independence on every album, Rihanna asserting her sexuality in videos and interviews, and Lady Gaga just being, well, Lady Gaga? Of course. More Lauryn Hills and Adeles in mainstream popular music will always be greatly welcome.
But if you’re a parent and are terrified that pop stars are going to corrupt your young girls into believing that women can be just as powerful as men without acknowledging that we still have a long way to go or that promiscuity = feminism, then perhaps you are missing a balance in parenting skills. Ideally, women would not only be paid the same as men for doing the same work, or significantly less susceptible to abuse of any kind, but we would also be allowed to tell our stories and live our lives without being told we have to follow certain rules. The pop stars only represent a certain kind of female model, and any child with enough guidance from the people who are actually in their lives on a daily basis, will know that beyond the words and images on the screen are real issues worth caring about and seeking to vanquish. As Oprah, a woman who does in fact, run her own cultural empire if not the world, would tell us, we should use the singers’ videos as a “teachable moment.”