On Saturday night, in the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, the cast paid parodic tribute to those who had fanned the flames of controversy this summer, and could now be consigned to history—as Miley Cyrus sang a plaintive version of “My Way.”
These figures included Kim Davis, the homophobic Kentucky clerk who has made denying LGBT people their rightful equality her Christian mission, “the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion,” and Rachel Dolezal, the civil rights activist who “passed” as a black woman—or, as SNL put it, “claimed to be black”—for 20 years.
SNL may have been premature: Davis and her handlers at the Liberty Counsel want to extend her time in the spotlight for as long as possible, and the pop star Rihanna apparently sees Dolezal as a hero.
In an interview with Lisa Robinson in Vanity Fair’s November issue, for which she is the cover star, Rihanna said: “I think she was a bit of a hero, because she kind of flipped on society a little bit. Is it such a horrible thing that she pretended to be black? Black is a great thing, and I think she legit changed people’s perspective a bit and woke people up.”
Rihanna—photographed for the magazine in Cuba by Annie Leibovitz-- has not yet elaborated on why she believes Dolezal’s changed people’s perspectives and how she woke them up, or how she “flipped on” society.
The remaining, insoluble issue about Dolezal is that she pretended being black for whatever her own ends were. The elaborateness of the ruse, and the magnitude of the lie, for many outweigh any social good the faking of her ethnicity was supposed to achieve.
The act seems not heroic or radical, but rather strange, sad, and rooted in a complex and fractured past. And many people on social media, in the spirit of the SNL sketch, just wished this whole thing had been put to sleep.
Although Twitter rounded on Rihanna, the pro-Dolezal view the singer was proposing was advanced the same day by the writer Wesley Morris in The New York Times.
In a beautifully written essay about the various blurred lines around sexuality, race and gender in America today, Morris wrote that “there was something oddly compelling about Dolezal, too. She represented—dementedly but also earnestly—a longing to transcend our historical past and racialized present.”
That doesn’t lessen the lie, or everything that flowed from it—deception is deception, after all—but Morris is imagining Dolezal, as Rihanna does I think, as a cultural leitmotif, and convincingly so.
In the criticism of Rihanna over Dolezal, what Twitter commenters surfed over was the rest of her Vanity Fair interview, which is full of dish, insight, and eloquence—not least around the genuine frustration she feels at having her name forever associated with being a victim of Chris Brown’s violence.
The interview sketches a complex depth to the singer many might find surprising. It would probably enrage her critics, as well as stout and good feminists, that she confesses to still having mixed feelings about Brown.
The desire is for Rihanna to set a crusading example—to eternally repudiate, reject and condemn him, and to assert her own strong-after-all empowerment narrative from that notorious wreckage.
Rihanna makes clear to Vanity Fair that real life is far less clear-cut. One admires her honesty for not giving pat, simple, audience-pleasing responses—instead, they are thought-out, nuanced, and demand careful reading.
Robinson asks Rihanna if she thinks she’s always going to be a poster child for victims of domestic abuse.
“Well, I just never understood that,” the singer says, “like how the victim gets punished over and over. It’s in the past, and I don’t want to say ‘Get over it,’ because it’s a very serious thing that is still relevant; it’s still real. A lot of women, a lot of young girls, are still going through it. A lot of young boys too. It’s not a subject to sweep under the rug, so I can’t just dismiss it like it wasn’t anything, or I don’t take it seriously.
“But, for me, and anyone who’s been a victim of domestic abuse, nobody wants to even remember it. Nobody even wants to admit it. So to talk about it and say it once, much less 200 times, is like ... I have to be punished for it? It didn’t sit well with me.”
That response may seem uncomfortable to campaigners, because Rihanna’s case was so powerful, and was seen by so many. She knows what was expected of her, and how she fell short in people’s eyes.
The interview makes clear that while she has a full awareness of what she endured, she asks that if we’re all going to gawp and opine, we should at least understand how the situation was for her personally. Yes, she’s a talking point; she also has her own heartbeat.
Rihanna accepts how totemic what she publicly went through was, but also asks that people treat her as human rather than celebrity case study, or social example to be set.
The singer was “quiet and thoughtful” when talking to Robinson about reuniting with Brown in 2012, and asking the court to lift the restraining order against him.
“I was that girl, that girl who felt that as much pain as this relationship is, maybe some people are built stronger than others. Maybe I’m one of those people built to handle shit like this. Maybe I’m the person who’s almost the guardian angel to this person, to be there when they’re not strong enough, when they’re not understanding the world, when they just need someone to encourage them in a positive way and say the right thing.”
These are moving words, and an eloquent summation of what being in the kind of abusive relationship the pair had was like for her. It is also not recognizably therapy-speak, or practiced PR polish.
“A hundred percent,” Rihanna replies when asked if she thought she could change Brown. “I was very protective of him. I felt that people didn’t understand him... But you know, you realize after a while that in that situation you’re the enemy.”
Rihanna even goes on to explain the warped terrain of an abusive relationship—or her abusive relationship, at least.
“You want the best for them, but if you remind them of their failures, or if you remind them of bad moments in their life, or even if you say I’m willing to put up with something, they think less of you—because they know you don’t deserve what they’re going to give. And if you put up with it, maybe you are agreeing that you [deserve] this, and that’s when I finally had to say, ‘Uh-oh, I was stupid thinking I was built for this.’ Sometimes you just have to walk away.”
Far from being the bad example she is held up as—as someone who returned to their abusive partner—in this interview Rihanna sketches, with an honesty few in her position in contemporary pop culture have, the psychology of being in an abusive relationship. One would hope her words echo in the most useful way possible with others undergoing similarly difficult situations.
Her last real, official boyfriend, Rihanna tells interviewer Lisa Robinson, was Brown—“when they briefly got back together three years after his arrest for assaulting her in 2009.”
Robinson notes that she seems to have a freewheeling, party-centered life away from the stage, but Rihanna makes it clear that what we see is what photographers photograph when she goes out. We don’t know her.
She is very clear that does not want to have sex for fun, as Robertson wonders she might have the freedom to.
“If I wanted to I would completely do that. I am going to do what makes me feel happy, what I feel like doing. But that would be empty for me; that to me is a hollow move. I would wake up the next day feeling like shit.”
The maintenance of self-respect in a relationship seems paramount for her too, “when you care enough about somebody and you know that they care about you, then you know they don’t disrespect you. And it’s about my own respect for myself. A hundred percent.”
The amount of public attention she has received has made her protective, she said, about starting relationships and others’ intentions toward her, and men were too worried about being accused of being a “pussy” if they acted in a gentlemanly fashion, which she personally appreciates.
She is holding out for the ideal, but keen to ensure the relationship is as equal as possible—or she has the opportunity to make sure she is as present as she should be.
“You have to be screwed over enough times to know, but now I’m hoping for more than these guys can actually give. That’s why I haven’t been having sex or even really seeing anybody, because I don’t want to wake up the next day feeling guilty.”
That guilt Rihanna describes is the most recognizable, admirable of guilts. She is also refreshingly direct and real about sex. Yes, she gets horny, she says. “I’m human, I’m a woman, I want to have sex. But what am I going to do—just find the first random cute dude that I think is going to be a great ride for the night and then tomorrow I wake up feeling empty and hollow?...I can’t do it to myself. I cannot. It has a little bit to do with fame and a lot to do with the woman that I am. And that saves me.”
That’s a refreshing combination of sex-realistic and sex-positive—the sensitive reality far different from the unsubtly drawn vixen characters she plays in her videos—and yet one can’t help but be a little sad, because it also signals the kind of knowledge usually reserved for those with far more years on the clock than Rihanna has clocked up.
Work helps to distract her from loneliness, she says, and is “fearful of relationships,” because while she wants someone to be “completely faithful and loyal,” she can’t give them “the attention they need” from her.
Rihanna knows everything she does is watched and read into. “Artists sign a deal to make music; we didn’t sign to be perfect, or to be role models. We’re all flawed human beings who are learning and growing and evolving and going through the same bullshit as everybody else.”
True, and she also knows any mistake, or perceived mistake, will be seized upon by the media. There is no whining about this, just an acknowledgment. You sense she knows how she wants her life to be, and lives it as best she can. Unlike many celebrities, Rihanna doesn't kvetch about the goldfish bowl, she just gets on with swimming around it as happily as possible.
Rihanna isn’t complaining about the gilded cage she is in, merely noting the presence of the bars with the roll of an eye, then getting on with making her crazy, controversy-magnet videos, like “Bitch Better Have My Money.”
The best moment in the interview comes when Rihanna does imagine the “very extraordinary gentleman, with a lot of patience,” she imagines materializing in her life “when I least expect it.” Rihanna, it is piercingly clear, is a romantic; a realist and a romantic, but a romantic nonetheless.
However, she remains utterly Rihanna, lest you’re rushing out to buy a corsage in hope and preparation. When Robinson wonders about this Mr. Right turning up on a white horse, Rihanna quickly corrects her, “Probably on a black motorcycle.”