—by Bianca Betancourt @bybiancabee
Rihanna is kind of like your best friend.
I realized this fact in the midst of a photo shoot a few weeks ago, when in the midst of hair teasing, blush contouring and fashion styling, the group of women producing the shoot together all had different yet similar sentiments towards the Caribbean expat turned pop-star.
The common thread throughout the conversation was the fact that through every moment in our lives in the past decade, there was a Rihanna moment mirroring our emotions through it at all.
The evolution and metamorphosis of Rihanna in pop culture is probably only rivaled by the original pop diva, Madonna, but RiRi’s being more personal because of her recent opening up regarding her personal life in recent years.
I like everyone else, was obsessed when she first entered upon the pop music scene—Pon de Replay was an instant bop and it was unknowingly refreshing to see a young Black female artist so easily making it within the industry. Some of my fondest memories as a young girl are plugging my foam-capped headphones into my CD player (a sign of the times) to listen to A Girl Like Me the entire way through. (“Breaking Dishes” is a classic.)
Though I saw parts of myself in Rihanna—being Black for one while also being ambitious—what I was that Rihanna could never be was sheltered. Everyone remembers where they were the night news alerts everywhere broke that she had been assaulted by then boyfriend Chris Brown. Friendships and relationships everywhere were divided determined on how you viewed that moment in time—me being barely 14 years old, physical assault and abuse was a concept I was lightyears away from understanding—and fortunately so. All I really knew that evening and for years after that was that my heart broke for her.
Rihanna’s image post-assault drastically changed—and rightfully so. I was still in high school when Rihanna released Rated R and I distinctly remember staying up late, posted in the loft of my childhood home listening to each song and grimacing in disappointment. There were multiple reasons for this—I wasn’t into hip-hop yet (I didn’t even listen to the genre regularly until college and two boyfriends later constantly insisting I give it a try) but also the fact that I couldn’t relate to what she was singing about anymore. Being only 16, I related to fluffy heartbreak and teenage angst—not anger, not abuse, not even resentment.
From the outside, her lack of interviews and new introvertedness towards the public seemed off-putting and confusing to those who were used to the flirty, smiling girl from Barbados. Looking back years later, it’s obvious via her music and via her image, Rihanna was just trying to figure herself out again after one of the most traumatic experiences anyone can possibly go through. The style changes, hair color constantly being in rotation and the lack of apologies over her newfound non-cookie cutter image (showing all the skin, smoking all of the weed); Ri was all of us post-heartbreak, and years later, I completely regret turning my nose up at her during this transitional period in her life.
A decade later, Rihanna is the most sincere example of a modern feminist (maybe even more appropriately so, womanist) that we have in pop-culture today.
She’s not about sunshine and rainbow feminism—a la Taylor Swift—that requires pretending that every woman on Earth is her best friend. She’s not afraid to express her flaws—like jealousy or selfishness—when it comes to what she wants out of her personal relationships. Most evidently, she doesn’t apologize for how she chooses to present herself—feminine one day, tough or sexy the next—her seeming ability to be an emotional chameleon is a reflection of the range of personalities that everyday women transcend through in their lives.
Like Rihanna, womanhood isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience, and rather than playing into the narrative of effortless perfection a la every other female celebrity since the dawn of Hollywood, she continues to be honest, unapologetic and simply herself—a girl, kind of like us.