Tue | Jan 25, 2022

Devon Brewster | Rihanna’s ceremonial dress: Much ado about nothing?

Published:Tuesday | December 7, 2021 | 12:05 AMDevon Brewster/Guest Columnist
Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley (left) and President Dame Sandra Mason (right) honour superstar Rihanna as a national hero during the presidential inauguration ceremony in Bridgetown, Barbados.
Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley (left) and President Dame Sandra Mason (right) honour superstar Rihanna as a national hero during the presidential inauguration ceremony in Bridgetown, Barbados.

On November 30, Barbados took a bold step to become a parliamentary republic within the Commonwealth of nations, joining 33 of the 54 member states who either became parliamentary republics at independence, like my country, Dominica, or doing so at some point later. An occasion of this kind had not happened in nearly 30 years - not since Mauritius took that bold step in 1992. A whole generation had never seen something like this before. No doubt, it was a momentous occasion.

As Barbados bade farewell to Queen Elizabeth as its titular head of state, another queen rose to the highest rank of National Honour in Barbados to become its 11th national hero. Robyn Rihanna Fenty, a daughter of the soil, is known simply as Rihanna for her success as a singer-songwriter and one of the world’s newest billionaires through her namesake cosmetic company. The shock, surprise, and mixed feelings aside, one thing seems to be the most topical matter arising therefrom.

A faction of society characterises it in a particular way. I love mnemonics. They help me remember challenging concepts as a medical student. Let’s use PAID - they describe this thing that irks them to the point of disregarding her remarkable achievement as Pendulous, Awful, Inappropriate, and Degrading. How dare she, they ask, opt not to wear a brassiere, electing instead to have her breasts swing freely beneath the silk in an off-the-shoulder orange dress by Bottega Veneta?

Famous and well-respected Jamaican broadcaster Fae Ellington told the Weekend STAR that she thought Rihanna’s dress inappropriate, noting that her immediate reaction was, “Oh my God! What’s that!”

INHERENTLY CONSERVATIVE

Two truths are worthy to note. First, she is not the only one with that opinion. Quite a few folks share the same view, and that is their right. The second truth is that it is understandable why many might feel this way, especially the more mature among us. As much as we may often deny it, while some of us acknowledge the ongoing shift, we are inherently conservative.

This conservatism, political and cultural, manifests itself in the things we consider sacrosanct: our positions on controversial matters like reproductive rights and sexualityw. Both are intricately tied to our religiosity – our ideas of how people must conduct themselves in specific settings; our speech, our hair, and among other things, what we wear. In fact, up until three years ago when Prime Minister Andrew Holness found that prohibiting people who wore sleeveless attire from entering government buildings found no basis in law or official government policy, access to offices of the State in Jamaica was, among other things, highly dependent on what one chose to wear. I hasten to acknowledge that many of these de facto rules and judgments in the court of public opinion target and police women more than men. If you look at any dress code, it is almost invariably twice as long or specific for women as it is for men.

The ire about Barbados’ newest national heroine’s choice of dress for the function raises two matters that I think are worth looking into: How should our ideas of appropriateness change in the context of a broader tidal shift towards more liberalistic tendencies within our society? Should it change at all?

I would start by suggesting that Barbados is among the most progressive societies in the English-speaking Caribbean. There is an interesting admixture of love for conservative tradition (they are nicknamed Little England for a reason) and an appetite for liberal social reform. I also think that there are, perhaps paradoxical, many points at which sacred and secular meet to birth Bajan identity. I say this to suggest that even the arguably radical move to deviate from the mould we expect National Heroes to fit into is a testament to their embrace of the social evolution taking place there.

I am not proposing that we ‘dash weh’ our principles, morals, and values or ‘fly di gate’ on standards that have upheld this society for decades. Instead, I am inviting us to broaden our perspective just a tad. If we do so, then perhaps we might appreciate that we are better off as a society that allows the exercise of one’s freedom to express one’s self, even in dress, somewhere along a spectrum that falls between extremes.

POLICING OF WOMEN’S BODIES

The other matter is policing of women’s bodies and dress. If I didn’t know better, I would suggest that perhaps we should blame that solely on the relative simplicity of men’s official wear. A simple suit and tie with a clean haircut, and we’re all set. For women, however, if their hair wasn’t a big enough struggle to put in order, they are more inclined to be concerned about colour, texture, tightness, and how revealing their choice of dress might be. Most of the parameters that women use to determine whether they should wear a particular article of clothing is deeply grounded in the likely response of society to that choice. Unfortunately, this reality places severe limitations on most women who dare not defy cultural and traditional standards. That choice doesn’t make them weak, but having the unmitigated gall to overcome that pressure, like Robyn, to me, speaks of a unique kind of strength. It is, therefore, high time for us to focus on empowering our girls and women to understand that they are not bound to conform to standards inherently stacked against them. They must understand that even when their bodies unjustly offend, like Maya Angelo, they can and should rise.

As for The Right Honourable Robyn Rihanna Fenty, I congratulate her on her achievement. I choose not to focus on her dress or nipples but to acknowledge her remarkable accomplishments and credit Barbados for aptly identifying her as an ambassador and for recognising her worthiness, in their view, for this national honour. I think it sends a strong message to the youth that the unimaginable is possible and that we, too, can aspire to any position of honour within our societies even while the vibrancy of youth is still on our side. It is also a lesson for everyone that life goes on beyond the critiques of onlookers. People found fault in what Rihanna wore on November 30. Others, if not including the same who had issues with that dress, found that her attempt at a more conservative look the next day, even covering up her henna tattoo, left much to be desired. Life.

Devon Brewster is from Dominica and a medical student at The University of the West Indies, Mona. Send feedback to dmalcolm.brewster@gmail.com