When my editor suggested that I write about Rihanna this week, I ran screaming in the other direction. (Well, not literally. Journalists aren't that physically active. But I did mope and overeat, which is like running and screaming without the sweat and noise.) My first instinct was that I would rather juggle sacks of used needles than try to say something about this repellent and depressing soap opera while it's still unfolding, chapter by sordid chapter.
On some level, I wanted to shove this aside, not pick it apart. For every question raised by reports about the Grammy-weekend abuse that Rihanna allegedly took at the hands of Chris Brown, there's an easy answer. Maybe too easy. What kind of pig hits a woman? Ummm ... a criminal. Or an overentitled celebrity. Or someone who grew up watching men hit women, as Brown has said he did. Pick the option that best matches your sense of misplaced sympathy or knee-jerk contempt. And what kind of woman gets back together with the man who hit her? A fool. Or someone who is so self-hating she thinks she had it coming or so in love she imagines it won't happen again. Or someone who might have grown up believing that it's no big deal. Choose your favorite rationalization as your stomach turns. And that's leaving out the considerable percentage of ugly commentary that reminds us that we're not such a ''post-racial'' nation after all.
What lessons should we draw from this? Okay, I'll play. Here's what they call the ''teachable moment'': Don't hit women. And don't give men who hit you a chance to hit you again, ever. But if we really need Rihanna and Chris Brown, or any celebrities at all, to teach us that, we are in seriously bad shape.
On the Internet, we are being told right and left that Rihanna is a role model for young women, the glib assumption being that she automatically agreed to don that mantle the moment she decided she wanted to be a successful recording artist. An ABC News website report called ''Rihanna: Role Model No More?'' quotes a 15-year-old girl as saying that Rihanna is ''not sending the right message to kids.'' Fox News also labels her a role model and says she deserves to lose her career if she doesn't do all she can to put Brown behind bars. On Yahoo! Answers, someone recently posted the question ''What kind of role model is Rihanna to woman [sic] if she takes back Chris Brown?''
While we're all immersed in blame-the-victim thinking, let's take a step back in the direction of collective sanity and stipulate for the record that, yes, Rihanna is officially a terrible role model. Wait, let's rephrase that. Alex Rodriguez is a terrible role model. Rihanna is just a young woman who is completely unqualified to be a role model. We might become a more compassionate nation of pop culture gossips if we started considering the difference.
Maybe we could all take a minute off from clucking ''Don't do it, girl!'' alongside Oprah to ask ourselves what on earth made any of us think Rihanna was a role model in the first place. She is a singer — after all, only a singer — who became famous as a teenager because a couple of years ago, she sang one song in which she found new and interesting things to do to the word umbrella, and another (''Don't Stop the Music'') in which she expressed her desire to blow off steam by going to a club and hooking up with a stranger. There's nothing wrong with that. The songs are catchy and sexy, she performed them well, and people liked them, so she became a big success. Good for her! She lived the American Idol dream and didn't even have to stand before the judges and make that most creepily self-absorbed of all American Idol arguments — the one that goes, I deserve this more than the next guy just because I want it soooo much. That line of thinking, by the way, probably deserves to be inscribed on the tombstone of this decade as it limps toward its interment.
But role model? Have we lost our minds? If we really think that being famous now automatically qualifies you as someone whose example should be imitated and followed by young people, then that can only mean we now believe that fame in itself represents a form of moral superiority. Or perhaps we're all just looking for new ways to beat up Rihanna and get away with it.
Some stories make everyone feel dirty. I hope this one goes away soon.