The November edition of UK Vogue has just landed on my desk with a thump, bringing with it the turn of the season and an army of delicious autumnal fashion to do battle with the drop in temperature. (OK, that's a lie. I bought it myself from the magazine kiosk on the Euston Road with £4.10 scraped together with the last two and one pence pieces in my wallet, but the former sounds much more glamorous and fashion-y as befits the style bible).
Anyway I digress. Staring back at me defiantly from the sky-blue cover in Giorgio Armani Privé and short blonde wig was Rihanna. I felt disappointed. My usual enthusiasm deflated like a burst balloon.
Rihanna is a beautiful, successful and talented young woman at the top of her game and her Vogue debut has been highly anticipated – plus we all know celebrity sells magazines. I (only just) accept the fashion connection – her style evolution has been fascinating to watch and she steps out in all the right names. Finally, I applaud Condé Nast for recognising that not all Vogue readers are white, emaciated and hail from Notting Hill (although the cover comes not without some controversy - Alexandra Shulman has had to respond to the blogosphere and confirm that no skin lightening has taken place for Rihanna’s cover).
What I do have a considerable problem with is that ultimately I no longer consider Rihanna to be an empowering role model for women, due to the tiresome onslaught of raunchy images and lazy and offensive lyrics. I am bored of the vulgarity – she may be bad but she’s perfectly good at being degrading.
Before I am accused of being prudish, I am not a prude. A couple of Rihanna tracks have been hanging around on my iPod for a while now and I can’t deny that I’ve probably danced along after a few drinks in a club. Plus, if men can talk openly about sex through the medium of music then why the hell can’t women? Madonna's been leading that battle for decades. As Dodai Stewart, deputy editor of the US pop culture blog Jezebel, points out, female artists are systematically encouraged to capitalise on their sexuality. 'Female artists are definitely sexualised more often, which helps sell albums, but they're also criticised for being so sexual. Women can't win'.
This may be true, but Rihanna is not helping the battle. On the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in April 2011 she is described as Pop’s Queen of Pain and we are seduced into turning the page to find out about Sexting, Bad Boys & Her Attraction to the Dark Side. Yawn.
Jay-Z was photographed on the cover of the same publication in a suit and a tie. Much more interesting.
So, why has it got to be dirty and submissive to get attention? Rihanna says she is no role model and wishes people would stop trying to make her into one. In the Vogue article she says ‘people – especially white people – they want me to be a role model just because of the life I lead. The things I say in my songs, they expect it of me and [being a role model] became more of my job than I wanted it to be’. Like it or not Rihanna, being in the spotlight and all the advantages of success bring some responsibility - women, especially young girls, automatically look up to you (and men are looking you up and down).
To me, Rihanna continues to present an extreme portrayal of female over-sexualisation. You can’t escape the demeaning lyrics. When I see the music videos for S&M and Love the Way you Lie I don’t see art or something to admire. I see the glamorisation of domestic violence. Which is not romantic. It is just ugly. Her new video for We Found Love? Seen. It. All. Before.
It was Natasha Walter and Kat Banyard who last year were campaigning for a change in the law to stop the ‘pornification’ of society which they said promotes violence against women. Rihanna is hardly doing the cause any favours with her own take on pop-porn. Is this really the message we want to send out to our future stars – wear less, shatter the boundaries and give the men what they want?
I persevered and read the Vogue article in full, searching for something other than raunchiness and I was surprised that she came across as quite endearing and earnest. She has sold over sixty million singles and twenty million albums and is also involved in many philanthropic projects, with her own Believe Foundation created in 2006 to help terminally ill children. So why don’t we see more of this rather than her backside?
So, that is why I am ultimately disappointed with the choice of cover for November. You can reserve this type of 'role model' for all the Zoo, Maxim and FHM readers; for the men who still think it’s acceptable to shout abuse at women in the street or grope women in a bar after a few too many drinks, thank you very much.
The December issue of Vogue featuring a strong, intelligent woman who cares about other women? Cheers. I’ll (Drink to That).