Ever since that hideous day in February when we learned that Chris Brown had beaten Rihanna, I’ve had serious misgivings about expecting Rihanna to represent anything other than herself – one young woman struggling, under extraordinary circumstances, to deal with the all-too-ordinary experience of being a woman who’s been beaten by a man she loved.
After all, while Rihanna may have signed up to be a celebrity, she certainly never signed up to be the poster child for survivors of dating violence. Nor was it her actions that led the public to expect her to be one. So every time she did something that raised the "What kind of role model is she being?!?" question – whether it was getting back with Brown after the attack, posing in bondage gear in Italian Vogue, or releasing an ambiguous song about an abusive relationship as her first single, I tried to remember that she was just one young woman, doing what seemed best for her in a situation she never asked for or deserved.
That’s why I initially avoided RiRi’s sit-down with Diane Sawyer on Friday night. Obviously, with the new album out and the need to do publicity for it, Rihanna was going to have to talk about the elephant in the room eventually – it was a canny move on her part to get it over with in a high-profile interview on her terms. But I mostly felt sad for her that she had to do it – she hadn’t seemed to have any inclination to talk about the incident to the press previously, and it seemed likely that she was doing it now out of necessity and not out of her own desire to speak out.
Boy was I wrong. Rihanna is ferocious in this interview – ferociously honest, ferociously vulnerable in parts, but at all times ferociously sure of what she thinks and feels about all of it, and ferociously aware of how many young girls are looking to her to show them how to think and feel about violence against women. But why am I paraphrasing when you can watch it for yourself?
As moving as it is to see her transform in front of us from a hurt girl who watched her father repeatedly beat her mother (and who feels humiliated that she found herself in a parallel situation) into a Mama Bear choosing to be strong on behalf of all the young girls watching her, what comes next is even more powerful. She has some very clear things to say to those girls, and to all of us, about whether or not being a "strong woman" can protect you from violence (sadly, no), whether being a victim of violence means you weren’t strong (also: no), and whose fault the violence is at all times (the perpetrator the perpetrator the perpetrator). And then she says the most important thing of all, because it so rarely gets said:
Don’t react off of love. Eff love.
Don’t get me wrong. I love love. Under the right circumstances, I’m one of the biggest, schmoopiest romantics out there. But this is the part that gets messed up so often when we talk about domestic violence. Well-meaning educators like to say things like, "If it hurts, it’s not love." But that misses the point entirely. The much messier truth is, you can be in love with someone who is terrible for you. Who is dangerous for you. And me telling you "that’s not real love!" isn’t going to help you, it’s just going to make you feel like I don’t understand your situation. Which is just going to leave you more alone.
Instead, we all need to get a lot more real about love. Love is a feeling. It can be an awesome, exhilarating feeling. It can be the best feeling in the world. But what love isn’t is a guarantee. Loving someone – and even having that person say they love you back – doesn’t mean you’re safe. It doesn’t mean the relationship is healthy or good for you. It doesn’t mean you should stay, or go back. Contrary to the lies Disney fed us, love doesn’t conquer all, and it’s not going to protect you if the person you love is hurting you. Don’t ever let your love for someone else be more important than your love for yourself. You can love someone and still need to leave them. It happens all the time.
Don’t just take my word for it. Listen to Rihanna. She should know.