Matthew Vos: Rihanna The Anti Role Model

Wednesday, June 29, 2016 - by Matthew Vos
Matthew Vos
Matthew Vos

I’m hunting a role model for my daughters.  I’m an average middle-aged white guy who with my wife has two adopted minority daughters.  And so, when the local paper featured the AP article, “Rihanna, Rhimes at Black Girls Rock!” I was intrigued and heartened.  Perhaps this Rihanna – beautiful, cool, accomplished, and successful – will be just the exemplar I’m looking for in my hunt for prominent and virtuous female minority role models. 

Raising daughters isn’t easy, especially when the racial challenges of growing up in a white family are thrown into the mix.  And the world around my daughters seems poised to devour their innocence and goodness.  The efforts my wife and I make to help them see themselves as desirable, whole, and gifted young women, are diluted by Netflix shows like Pretty Little Liars, crass YouTube clips, and a continual parade of same old you-are-your-beach-body messages enticingly placed at eye level in every grocery store except Aldi.  And then there’s Instagram.  But perhaps a new messiah has emerged. 

At “Black Girls Rock,” Rihanna offered girls the sage advice, “The minute you learn to love yourself you will not want to be anybody else,” and continued, “Role model is not the title they like to give me… (but) I think I can inspire a lot of young women to be themselves and that is half the battle.”  Perhaps jealous such wisdom didn’t spring from my own lips, I began wondering whether self-actualization of the Rihanna variety is the sort of thing I want for my daughters. 

What is it Rhianna has done that is worthy of emulation? Is the way she has come to “love herself” and “be herself” something to which my daughters should aspire?  Should I push them toward her?  Will I soon find myself saying, “Would Rihanna wear that to school?  I don’t think so young lady!”  And so, with hope in my heart, I set out to learn more.

My first step was to look up Rihanna’s latest recording.  After perusing previous work like “Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded,” “Unapologetic,” and “Bitch Better Have My Money,” (and really, who among us hasn’t held back similar sentiment on occasion?), I found her 2016 work: “Anti.”  Anti contains 16 songs, and retails on Amazon for just over $15 dollars – a small price to pay for a life coach.      

Next I examined the song titles.  Eleven cuts are labeled “explicit.”  Now explicit isn’t itself a bad thing; it could simply mean clear and coherent – a challenge to weak grammatical constructions.  So I looked up the lyric from each song…

…When I regained consciousness I decided against purchasing the recording.  What if someone found it in my car?  What if my wife knew I had it?  The whole business just seemed risky.  Perhaps I’m showing my age; perhaps I’m old fashioned; perhaps the f-word and the n-word and the lure of gratuitous sexuality have, for me, lost their luster. 

If Anti represents Rihanna, she seems little more than angry, sad, and lost.  I find here little of the beauty of the world, of the virtue of innocence, of the character of self-sacrifice, of genuine sadness for what has been lost, or of hope.  If these sixteen songs stand in testimony to “being herself,” Rihanna has not yet appropriated the character required of a role model.

I hope to shield my daughters from Rihanna’s just-be-yourself wisdom.  To me, her words steal innocence and render pitiable more virtuous living.  And while I’m undoubtedly missing some important subtext, Rihanna’s words should not guide my children through the turbulent teenage years:

But they will.  And it will be difficult to stop them. 

I’m disheartened that Rihanna is venerated as a role model.  She makes life for our daughters a little harder, a little bleaker.  What Rihanna misses is that the key to identity and personhood is not found in clutching at the self, but in sacrificing for others – for the sake of what is good, and for those who are most vulnerable.  Gaining the self comes from pouring out the self.  Rihanna has not yet learned this, and is not yet a suitable role model. 

But she could be… were she just a bit more willing to dispense with being herself.


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