Here she is my friends… just sit back and adore her.
Our society has a long history of believing a person’s behavior, style of dress, relationship history, or lyrical prowess as indicative of their moral standing. With regard to sexual acts specifically, though, they are used even more often to give meaning to a person’s worth. Sexual morality is about controlling some else’s life, as expressed in Nancy Fischer’s Purity and Pollution. Magazine articles, newspaper, radio and TV talk show hosts love to paint our society as “morally corrupt.” And who do they attribute this corruption to more than others? Female celebrities.
But the issue at hand is the arbitrariness of sexual immorality. There is no one, all-powerful governing force that establishes the moral from the immoral when it comes to sexual practices. As Fischer describes, “there is no universal agreement as to what constitutes sexually immoral behavior.” The only “governing force” that people freely give power to is our culture, our society. We use normative thought in order to dictate our sexual lives, sexual freedoms and adventures. What is “acceptable” in different parts of the world may not be for us, here in America; and even in America, what may be understood as “normal” at my high school, in regards to sexual politics, could be viewed as “disgusting” at another.
As I alluded to before, sexual immorality is hardly ever tied to specific acts anymore (for the most part), but instead, it is often judged according to who is engaging in those acts. If you are not in a committed heterosexual relationship but are engaging in sexual acts, you’re susceptible to critique and shaming. Fischer points out how this concept has changed over the last few centuries, but now, sexual behavior has come to be seen as “indicative of some deep truth about the individual’s character.”
Sexual morality is about controlling someone else’s sex life in various ways, whether that be name calling, gossiping, dirty looks, etc. People use degrading terms in order to create a differentiation between them and the person they are attacking. As Fischer puts it, the speaker wants to call attention to the fact that they would never do what that person over there is doing. This type of statement is a “downward comparison,” and it involves and individual policing and degrading other bodies as they lift up their own self-image. So in this way, sexual morality is not just about controlling the sex life of someone else, but also about establishing a hierarchy to lift oneself and stigmatize others.
Be it that we live in a dualistic culture, where we conceptualize and see the world through a set of various binaries (right/wrong, good/bad, etc.), we tend to latch these judgments onto bodies based off of the associations we establish. Moral arguments are made to establish one as good, and the other bad. When we call someone “dirty,” as Fischer notes, we are invoking a pollution metaphor and implying that someone is contaminated and unworthy. We see this rhetoric play out with BDSM culture, migrant women in new nations, as well as down low culture for Black males.
Something that doesn’t neatly fit into hegemonic society’s vision of “good” and “pure” is ostracized, condemned and portrayed as corrupt. Moral boundaries are created to keep those who are different, out of the conversation. Sexuality, in particular, is the main axis that conversations of morality are attached to. Power relations are inevitably embedded within these conversations, too. When we look at the documentary Rape In the Fields or even the stories of migrant workers in Lebanon, we see the ways in which certain bodies are painted as “bad,” simply because these bodies often lack social capital and power just given their current circumstance–butI would argue because they are female bodies, as well.
This logic bleeds over into conversations about Rihanna.
As mentioned early, female celebrities are often the site of highly politicized rhetoric in regards to sexuality. Rihanna is no foreigner to judgment about her clothing choices, song lyrics, dance performances or Instagram posts.
It’s unfortunate that she cannot just exist as a sexual being without have issues of morality surrounding her (thanks society!). Because she wears minimal clothing, poses nude for magazine covers, sings songs about S&M or boys giving her oral sex, she is nasty, dirty, a terrible role model, polluted, immoral, and just plain bad. In fact, Instagram removed her account for a several months because of her “inappropriate content.” This policing of women’s bodies and degradation of their morality is unjust and extremely problematic.
But beyond the images we see of her or the lyrics we hear, people also find fault in her because of her actions and choices with relation to certain men. She was painted as a “slut” because of allegedly being involved with multiple male celebrities.
Yet, fact of the matter is, we know nothing about Rihanna’s “moral” stance. Just like we know nothing about anyone else’s besides our own. Rihanna is an artist, a record breaker, and an example of a young woman who embraces her body and sexuality in a way that gives her sexual agency, freedom, and control.
I understand that her being a celebrity makes for a different conversation than for the average woman, but even so, I’d wager to say most of us still hear similar commentary in our everyday lives..wouldn’t you? What is the appeal (aside from lifting oneself up) with tearing other people down? Do you find yourself having a hard time differentiating a person’s actions, clothing choices, etc. from their character? Why do you think that is (or isn’t)?