In the past several months, Beyonce, Lena Dunham, and Rihanna have taken intense heat for the following ills of society:
1. Sexism overall, specifically their own capitulation to sexism by refusing to wear pants, or clothes, at given times in their performing lives. Other problems apparently include their sexiness, their sexuality, and, in the case of Lena, the sexiness of others on screen with her.
2. The fraught history of women taking their husbands’ last names upon marriage.
4. Violence against women.
6. General lack of morals and possibly the decline of civilization.
Now, I am the first person willing to overanalyze pop culture, to hold up its artifacts as evidence of social issues or, at minimum, accessible entry points into serious discussion. I do believe that Beyonce’s displays of extreme feminine empowerment, coupled with unapologetic sexuality, are worth noting. I do think Lena Dunham has given us a perspective on young womanhood worth dissecting. I do feel that Rihanna’s public persona — tough, edgy, and sexually voracious — and the parts of her sad private life that have become common knowledge — her abusive relationship with Chris Brown — are a juxtaposition we must process at some level, if only to make sense of them for the young women watching it all.
But we need to make a distinction between starting interesting discussions inspired by these women and blaming them for every issue they evoke. And we need to remember that the end result of these discussions needs to be action on the issues, not against the performers who bring them up.
The crazy amount of Beyonce chatter online over the past few weeks, namely due to her Super Bowl performance and subsequent announcement of her “Mrs. Carter World Tour,” directed an awful lot of its bile right at the brilliant Ms. B. According to her critics, she pranced around too suggestively in too revealing an outfit, and then gave in to further sexist pressures by adopting her husband’s last name for her tour. We already debated these specific issues in another post, but my point today is this: Whether you think Beyonce is demonstrating against sexist pressures is one thing; but you cannot blame the woman for creating those pressures. If anything, she’s a victim here. (Even though we maintain she definitely isn’t, of course.) Oh, and the Mrs. Carter business? She did not invent the tradition of women taking their men’s names.
Now, Lena Dunham. She has taken a lot of criticism, some of it quite sound, for not making her show, Girls, diverse enough. (We’ll refer you to the paragraph above on the sex stuff and the naked stuff, and to this post we wrote about her.) But, you guys: She did not create the entertainment industry that has shut people of color out for its entire history, and she cannot reverse this problem by herself.
Rihanna is a particularly fraught case of victim-blaming, given the history of victim-blaming in cases of domestic violence. But the fact remains: She is a product of our society and her specific environment, not the one who is the problem here. We need to work on the root of the problem — what drives partner violence — not on Rihanna. I maintain that we can still refuse to watch or listen to Chris Brown, and urge others to do the same; he is part of the problem of violence against women.
We get it. It’s much easier to rail against pop stars and writer-actresses than it is to fix sexism, racism, and violence. But at some point we need to start figuring out the hard stuff, and leave the famous ladies alone.