Rihanna Doesn't Have To Be A "Strong Black Woman," And Neither Do We

We subject ourselves to modern superwomanhood: running ourselves ragged, trying to pay our dues to the women who had to stifle themselves so that we could earn the opportunity to occupy space.
Publish date:
January 8, 2013
celebrity, domestic violence, Rihanna, strongblackwoman

Rihanna has proven herself quite the media mogul. Just a week after snagging a #1 spot on the billboard album charts with her recent release, “Unapologetic,” the entertainer has announced the addition of an executive producer credit to her already impressive resume.

The Style Network is about to get bad-bitchified with her new fashion-competition show, “Styled to Rock.” Her uphill climb, (in stilettos, no less) to entrepreneurial maven hood has caused me to seriously ponder two things:

  1. Will she come up with a concept to rival smizing?
  2. What does she symbolize as a pop culture icon in our current media environment?

For the sake of brevity, I’m just going to tackle musing on #2.

If these credentials belonged to a starlet whose public image was less fraught with tension, we might all be clamoring to crown her “flawless queen” -- but the image upon which her empire is built is difficult to sell convincingly as role model material. For starters, she calls herself a rude girl. Isn’t that pretty much automatic disqualification for role model status?

She also seriously straddles the line between playing up harmful jezebel stereotypes and opening a space to converse about black women as agents of our own desire. We watch her scantily clad body gyrate as she moans about various sexual longings, and we are forced to ponder whether it’s kinda cool and transgressive or totes lame and performative.

And then, there’s the no small-fries matter of her presumed reunion with Chris Brown and the fact that her past two albums have hinted heavily at themes in their tumultuous relationship. Should we be concerned that the way this material is being presented glamorizes destructive patterns, or should we be grateful that such raw explorations of this confusing terrain are now part of this decade’s mainstream pop cannon?

Though I certainly doubt Rihanna herself is crafting all the nuance of her presentation, she performs it so well and in a manner that appears neatly tailored to her that I don’t get the impression she is completely a pawn either. I’m going to base my argument off of the way that her public offerings read as a narrative.

For decades, black feminist scholars have grappled with the implications and dangers of the “Strong Black Woman” trope. It was first named by academic, Michele Wallace, toward the end of the second wave and later shortened to “StrongBlackWoman” by cultural critic, Joan Morgan in 2000.

This idea refers to the way that black women are defined by a warped cultural notion of “strength” as the basis of their identities. We’re not talking about the everyday resilience that is needed to navigate life; the StrongBlackWoman is about tightrope-walking perceived perfection.

The most recent comprehensive analysis of the StrongBlackWoman has been done by political scientist, Melissa Harris- Perry in her book, “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotype, and Black Women in America”. She eloquently elaborates on this confining identity, musing: “She is always prepared to do what needs to be done for her family and her people. She is sacrificial and smart. She suppresses her emotional needs while anticipating those of others. She has an irrepressible spirit that is unbroken by a legacy of oppression, poverty, and rejection."

She is unbreakable, invulnerable, and can conquer anything.

She’s got an unlimited well of strength, and there is always more to lap up when that last sip dissolves upon tongue-tip.

She does everything “right.”

And she doesn’t exist.

Melissa Harris-Perry reminds readers that this magical figure was initially developed as a way to fight back against the damaging racial stereotypes thrust upon black women (the lazy, government mooching “welfare queen" and the hyper sexed “Jezebel,” for example).

Many of our foremothers would adopt this persona out of necessity. They would publicly repress very normal, human sexuality in order to maintain an impossible façade of strength.

They would never dream of airing the trauma they were facing out of fear that it would be used against them to validate some sort of inherent pathology, even if expressing these feelings could prove healing catharsis. And many of us young thangs are their faithful daughters -- we subject ourselves to modern superwomanhood: running ourselves ragged, trying to pay our dues to the women who had to stifle themselves so that we could earn the opportunity to occupy space. But now, as we struggle to phoenix rise, how many of us finally feel entitled to the air we breathe?

Many of us have internalized this imperative to suppress our own desires and imaginings.

Sometimes we forget, in the midst of community uplifting, that we still belong to ourselves. What if we interpret the fruit of our matriarchs’ fight in a different way? Perhaps we can begin to shed the “strongblackwoman” front and live openly as dynamic, full-bodied people. Maybe we can honor the women who sacrificed so much by stepping into our collective right to express and quell our yearnings in the ways that we see fit, sometimes crudely.

And perhaps, we can even exercise the right to navigate our traumas organically, in the ways that honor our very own individual processes. To hopefully come to a place of full circle healing because we are ready to, and not because we feel pressured to maintain the appearance of “doing healing right.”

Rihanna signals cautious progress in these ways, even though our grandmothers may clutch their pearls with uncertainty.

With her sexuality and its performance, she is the main act, not a video vixen relegated to tail-feather shaking in the background. She says foul-mouthed things on Twitter and maintains this steady confrontational persona. Rih is just doin' Rih. And this is precisely what makes her such a compelling character to watch. Her believable transparency is the greatest source of her power. She succumbs to no one's comfortable perceptions of perfection.

When it comes to her interactions with Chris Brown, it is more complex.

Rihanna refuses to pander to the public by staying silent or staying one-dimensional, choosing to sing only about love or only about pain. She rejects those options in favor of working out her wounds publicly; her songs and public sentiments chronicle emotions all across the spectrum in an order that makes sense to her.

She refuses to remain passive as onlookers pin fantasy upon her. She asserts her own interpretations of her life's events. Rihanna neither completely shirks from nor is utterly defined by her pain.

When caught off guard by a reporter’s queries about her relationship with Chris Brown, she snaps at the invasion. When approached empathetically in a nurturing setting with Oprah, she allows her complicated emotions to unfurl beautifully, allowing fans a glimpse into her psyche. And if you’re familiar with the percentage of women whose lives have been altered by a domestic violence incident, then sadly, you can surmise how many fans find communion with her in this space.

Of course, it’s a huge stretch to expect younger audience members to see these layers of meaning on their own, but shaming Rihanna for not performing all of these "shoulds" in regards to her emotional healing (i.e., "She should get away from her abuser.”), we miss the opportunity to start the very real and constructive dialogue about what the healing process for a domestic violence survivor so often looks like.

More often than not, it is long and complicated. There are often many reunions.

By discounting the stark reality that this is the way abuse cycles often operate, and choosing to place the onus of responsibility on Rihanna, we miss out on the meaningful dialogues we could have about changing our culture to make placement in a black female body safer.