Leave Beyonce, Lena, and Rihanna Alone Already

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.

3. Racism.

4. Violence against women.

5. Promiscuity.

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.


Author: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong grew up deep in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, then escaped to New York to live in a succession of very small apartments and write about pop culture. In the process, she became a feminist, a Buddhist, and the singer/guitarist in an amateur rock band. She also spent a decade on staff at Entertainment Weekly, cofounded SexyFeminist.com, and now writes for several publications, including Women’s Health, Runner’s World, Writer’s Digest, Fast Company, and New York‘s Vulture. Her history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2013; her collaboration with Heather Wood Rudulph, Sexy Feminism, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013. She is the author of the Why? Because We Still Like You, a history of the original Mickey Mouse Club published by Grand Central in 2010. She has provided pop culture commentary for CNN, VH1, A&E, and ABC, and teaches article writing and creative writing. Follow her on Twitter: @jmkarmstrong


  1. regeya says:

    “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. ”

    Society forced her to return to her abuser?

  2. WhyarewhitepeoplesointoRhianaandChris says:

    I am so grateful for you!!!! A white girl who is finally speaking up for all women. This insane obession with Rhiana is insane. The show on SUV last night was totally out of control. So Rhinan and Brown messed up they are young and incidents happen. We have no proof that Brown is a serial beater or abuser that remains to be seen. They are friends. They work for the same producers who obviously thought it would be good for their PR to be seen together at the Grammys so what? Now everyone on the literal planet has something to say don’t people pay their bills, feed their kids or walk their dogs anymore what the hell is happening to society. And no offense but why are so many white people so consumed with two low class black performers from the hood. IF these folks were just living in the poor black part of town in your local city most whites would never pay any attention to them. are whites threatened that they might marry and produce beautiful children. Do white women want chirs that bad? Do white men want Rhiana that bad??? Whats up white folk??? Pay more attention to your own folks like the fact that your perfect Jennifer Lawerence is a weed junkie. Please please please stop paying otherwise non important not particularly talented ghetto folks so much attention just because they are mixed race and attractive. Leave it alone and try paying your bills on time for once.

  3. Libby Rubrenstien says:

    I am really disturbed by all the attention being paid to mixed race black women. I am part jewish (father) part black (mother) a decade ago no one noticed me. Now people pay two much attention to me. I am 35 married and really boring. It is all because of a look. What the hell is going on here. I work for a domestic abuse center and I am sorry to tell you folks that most black girls that are abused don’t look like Rhiana. Most of them look like really poor undereducated versions of Michelle Obama. Most are from poor neighborhoods most don’t have a father in the home. Unfortunatley this attention to Rhiana fades out the real victims here in the black community. Poor not particularly beautiful black girls who just want someone to love them instead that someone usually gets them pregnant and then beats the hell out of them. I am also sorry to say that most light skinned black girls in this society are still mostly middle class, get married, and live fairly functional lives which is a part of racism. It is really the darker girls who are so victimized and yet society and Hollywood pays no attention to them. Lets remember how we got light skinned women in the first place . Dark black african slave women were repeatedly rapped and abused by white slave masters for 400 years eventually producinng a mulato race. We now call those folks light skinned black folks but the statistics and numbers are there most mixed race folk are still middle class most darker skinned folk are still poor and the victims of severe racism, sexism and classim in this society. Stop paying so much attention to a rich girl like Rhinana and start paying attention to the real unseen victims of domestic abuse in all races. Stop the sterotypes try to solve the problem. We are full to capacity at the shelter I work for in Arizona. IF you read this and care please volunteer at your local shelter. Please please please help us!

  4. Hannah M. says:

    When a woman chooses (of her own free will) to take her husband’s name, I don’t see why it’s a big deal at all. If she’s really into the guy, then being his wife is a very real, valid, and positive part of her identity. Being married myself (though having not taken my husband’s name), I can understand why Beyonce might love being called “Mrs. Carter” – it’s a constant reminder of the man in her life, her close bond with him, and everything they share. I think it’s sweet, not oppressive. And isn’t it very UNfeminist to rail against a woman for making a conscious, empowered choice about her last name?

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