Ain’t there a woman I can sock on the jaw?
— David Bowie, “Young Americans”
Last week, America greeted the news that hip-pop princess Rihanna was headed for reconciliation with boyfriend Chris Brown. This was the same Chris Brown, for those not keeping track, as the dumb brute who (allegedly) punched in her face like a ripe fruit during a pre-Grammy altercation, rendering her unable to perform and an object of public humiliation.
But in an emotionally and intellectually enlightened era such as our own, humiliation is to be overcome whatever the cost, and our favorite celebs have money and youth to burn. “Domestic violence experts said they were dismayed, but not surprised,” the Daily News reported. “Yet they remained concerned what message this would send to the 21-year-old ‘Umbrella’ singer’s fans.”
No message they haven’t already heard elsewhere — or, indeed, a pessimist might object, most anywhere. It’s morbidly consoling, but ultimately silly and plain wrong, to claim that young women these days are more vulnerable than ever before. (Life in days of yore wasn’t worse for girls just because their options were more tightly restricted. It was worse because they had to rely more fully on bad men, too.) Yet it’s true that girls today are asked to be tougher and more forgiving, sexier and less sexual, more masculine and more feminine. And they’re rewarded accordingly. The more successful a girl wants to be, or is, the greater the risk she has to take on for the punishing consequences of living on the edge.
So Rihanna tops the pops with a song called “Rehab,” and Pink, another of the new-model starlets who’s both hypermasculine and hyperfeminine, cuts a video for “Sober” (notice a pattern?) that climaxes in a rough, heartless makeout scene between Pink and — Pink. With self-abuse like this, who needs boyfriends?
To be sure, critiquing the excesses of celebrity sex is easy enough — so much so that its peddlers, like e-tabloid “queen” Perez Hilton, can easily integrate the ridicule of the trashy into a product that revels in trash. What matters about life in the days of Rihanna is how desperate we are to show that roughing and toughing up our women is a price we’re happy to pay to be as free as we are, and to know it. Any civilization capable of producing Angelina Jolie — and “Fox,” her traumatized, superhuman, suicidal character from last year’s Wanted — has to be free, right?
If we’re too willfully obtuse to cop to this logic, it hasn’t been lost on our friends overseas. In a heroic effort to overcome liberal contempt, the state of Israel has been reduced to playing on our paradoxical passions. “The Brand Israel project,” Haaretz reported,
seeks to counter the country’s aggressive and religious image abroad, using common marketing tools. If Israel is perceived as a hard, unpleasant place, resembling an armed evangelical village in Texas, then it is worthwhile to reveal softer sides to the West.
A year and a half ago, the Foreign Ministry sponsored a photo essay in the men’s magazine Maxim, which presented bikini-clad Israeli models as former soldiers. A survey carried out after the publication showed that the readers caught on to the message and perceived Israel as a more liberal country, more similar to the United States than they had originally thought.
To repeat: draping your girls in sex and violence softens your image in America. Or, that is, liberalizes it — making it both the ultimate in softness and hardness.
Nonetheless, obviously not every girl can be as hyperfeminine and hypermasculine as the stars of page and screen. It takes too much effort, too much talent, and too much support staff. (Even a well-intentioned federal rehab program for the hard-partying unfamous could hardly be expected to work half as well as the exclusive, secluded oases created by the private sector.) For many girls, a culture that reproduces hypersexed expectations of both varieties trickles down as tedium and boredom — a string of uninhibited but unrewarding hookups, and a career-oriented disciplinary default that gives education and learning all the charm of an annual sales competition. For others, both work and play wind up no more or less recognizably average than they’ve ever been for ordinary Americans. And for some, as traditionalists often fear, the model of Rihanna and Pink, of the uzi and the bikini, creates opportunities and pathologies that lead the less fortunate into mistakes from which they can never recover.
Cruelly enough, every culture can flourish atop a pathetic and degraded underclass. The “big girls don’t cry” ethic, flush as it is with the risks and rewards of toughness and freedom, encourages us to write off the meltdowns of females famous and obscure alike as the price of a culture of individual choice. In a free society, some irresponsibility, at the top and the bottom, is inevitable. But the unanswered question we face is what happens to the daughters of what Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam call the “mass upper class,” the female “organization kids” that David Brooks has described. We all seem to want a big, competitive, aspirational middle class, but the wreckage in the fashionable lane is piling up, and the young women of that class have reason to grow cynical and jaded about the dullness that creeps into their simultaneously more manly and more girly lives.
What they’ll need, however, is a real alternative. Our genius for cultural novelty notwithstanding, we still haven’t managed to give them one.