Anna Burnside: Rihanna is flirting with dangerous messages
RIHANNA does not figure largely in my life. I would recognise her if I met her in Morrisons. I may have inadvertently curled my biceps to one of her jauntier tunes, or flicked past her sub-Spearmint Rhino moves on MTV.
I vaguely remember an annoying song about an umbrella.
What I have not forgotten is her swollen, bruised face staring out of a shelf of gossip mags. In 2009, the star’s then boyfriend, R&B singer Chris Brown, smashed her face in the night before the Grammy awards.
After a brief reconciliation with Brown – who was sentenced to six months’ community service for the attack – she dumped him and spoke candidly about her horrible ordeal.
“This happened to me,” she said on American television. “I didn’t cause this. I didn’t do it.” Taking him back was, she insisted, a mistake. “[I was] so far in love, so unconditional, that I went back. That’s not what I want to teach people.”
The worldwide reaction to her assault showed her the impact her actions could have. “It was a wake-up call for me, big time. Even if Chris never hit me again, who is to say that their boyfriend won’t? Who’s to say that they won’t kill these girls?”
After that I stopped noticing her for a couple of years. An unhappy conjunction of events has, however, brought her back into view. Rihanna is designing a range of clothes for River Island. She also appears to have got back together with Chris Brown, spending time with him on a yacht in Capri.
It looks like a smart move from an undistinguished fashion chain. Rihanna’s brashly bonkers style chimes exactly with how young girls want to look today (how they would look if they too were a callipygous 5ft 8in, with chocolate-milk skin and an unlimited budget).
Her workwear of S&M swimming caps and PVC stockings is a little extreme for an evening down the bus shelter, but her off-duty uniform is perfect.
Rihanna owns the mad patterns with titchy shorts and shoulder-banging earrings adopted by a generation that’s tired of wearing the same skinny jeans as their mothers.
Not for her the high theatrics of Gaga, or Beyoncé’s breastfeeding blouses. At Radio 1’s recent Hackney weekend she chose a leopard and tiger print top, fishnet cycling shorts, gold hoops that would hold a hand towel, and baroque sunglasses. Swap the fishnet for denim and it would not look out of place in Primark on a Saturday afternoon.
What’s more, Rihanna actually shops in River Island (and Top Shop and other pocket money-priced establishments) and mixes her bargain finds with pricier designer pieces.
As Rihanna acknowledged on her TV interview, this demographic of celebrity-worshipping lassies look to stars like her for guidance and inspiration. It’s what teenage girls do.
I personally thought Siouxsie Sioux was Jesus, Germaine Greer, Joan of Arc, Cathy and Claire all rolled into one. Every major decision was prefaced with the question: what would Siouxsie do? Had Chelsea Girl (the forerunner of River Island, selling hacking jackets and nasty cheesecloth shirts throughout my own Clearasil years) introduced a Sioux-designed range of thigh-length boots and mesh bodysuits, I’d have been first in the queue.
This impressionable group already follows Rihanna’s every move. Her hair, nails, tattoos, outfits and love life are documented and discussed in minute detail.
Some of the messages she transmits are fine. Her body, while highly enviable, is not free of flesh. Her Twitter account is full of pictures of her in a bikini, drinking beer and enjoying herself.
So what message does hanging out on a yacht in the Riviera with the guy who gave her a black eye give to them? Not a good one.
It says that what he has done is forgivable. It tells their boyfriends that this kind of behaviour, pulping your partner’s beautiful face in a furious rage, is acceptable in a relationship.
I type this sentence reluctantly, but if Rihanna, with her millions and supreme self-confidence and smoking curves, really thinks this loser is the only one for her, and that he will never raise his hand to her again, then she has the right to invite him back into her life (although I hope that she has Googled “domestic violence recidivism” and thought long and hard about the depressing statistics this reveals).
What about River Island? It is not just paying for Rihanna’s insights into the positioning of pockets or the benefits of salmon over teal. It is buying her stardust, her chutzpah, her image. It is setting her up as even more of a role model than she is already. It loves her when she is photographed in its Aztec-print tube dress. Will it feel the same when she is photographed with another black eye, or broken nose, or stitches in her cheek?
If they get back together and if Brown does it again, where will that leave its brand? Will it support her and give the proceeds of her clothing range to Women’s Aid? Will it condemn violence against women and stress to its teenage customers that it is never ever acceptable?
Or is it putting its fingers in its ears and humming Rihanna’s song S&M – “Sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me” – very loudly and hoping it goes away? Is she? For everyone’s sake, I hope not.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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