The Problem With Miranda July’s Interview of Rihanna

It is easy to fall into the dreamy molasses worlds Miranda July paints. Her carefully constructed sentences are sticky-sweet and engulfing, a magnetic literary phagocytosis. Parts of her New York Times interview with Rihanna made me feel like she had pried the prickly, protected thoughts from the darker corners of my mind, unwrapped them, and turned them round and round in her hands as if they were important and beautiful, worthy of collecting and displaying.

It was a self-indulgent piece- we learned more about Miranda’s emotions than we did about Rihanna- but who doesn’t love the gushy squirming you get in your stomach when you read about falling in love and perfume lingering on your blouse, right?

And, Rihanna dropped some serious word-gold that cool girls everywhere are going to be smearing on their bathroom mirrors and quoting to the crushes they want to impress and emailing to their parents for months. She told us, for example, that, ‘‘Guys need attention. They need that nourishment, that little stroke of the ego that gets them by every now and then. I’ll give it to my family, I’ll give it to my work — but I will not give it to a man right now.’’.

Still, I left unsatisfied and unsettled, like I had been tricked by the quirky language and addictive feel-good vignettes into ignoring the reality of the piece: that Miranda tries to appropriate Rihanna’s unique black narrative while simultaneously fetishizing her in a way that erases the possibility that she even has a racial struggle. Despite her beautiful diction and compelling portrayal of womanhood, Miranda’s uncomfortability addressing race means that she was the wrong person to conduct this interview.

I was especially alarmed when Miranda wrote, “Witnessing Rihanna’s profound enjoyment of fashion is one of the great vicarious pleasures of this era. We all detonated the Met Ball in that giant yellow cape. We were all the first black face of Dior. We were all punk enough to wear the silk-screened jeans of SonyA Sombreuil. Being Rihanna just feels good, at least from the outside.”

Sorry Miranda, but we were not all the first black face of Dior. And, holding this title is not entirely a pleasure. While, of course, Rihanna can and should feel proud of her accomplishment, it is important to note that being the first black face of Dior is not just an exciting resume line, not merely part of Rihanna’s “profound enjoyment of fashion”. In fact, it is not a title she chose for herself in the way she chose to wear a giant yellow cape to the Met Ball. That Rihanna is the first black person that Dior deemed worthy of representing their brand does not mean that she is post-racial, but rather, indicates the persistent racism existing in our pop culture landscape. This unequal playing field is not one any person of color would choose to play on. The pride of being selected does not come without the constant struggle to be acknowledged, a fight Miranda does not acknowledge enough.

Miranda hints that she gets the difference between her experience and Rihanna’s when she says, “Being Rihanna just feels good, at least from the outside.” but she never expands on what she means by this. She fails to explicitly address why the they are in different positions, why trying on blackness vicariously might only be fun from the outside.

In fact, throughout the rest of the piece, Miranda tries to pretend that there is no difference between herself and Rihanna. She paints herself as sheepish and awkward in Rihanna’s presence, whom she constructs as a flawless deity. But, while this act seems well-intentioned, it actually allows her to avoid engaging in the kind of legitimate, nuanced racial discourse that makes her uncomfortable. She insinuates that the singer is so beautiful and powerful that the struggles other black women experience no longer apply to her when she muses about whether Rihanna is post-racial and asserts that, “a body as perfect as [Rihanna’s] can never really be naked or vulnerable”. She seems to think that blackness is an identity you can shed if you are pretty or rich enough. In fact, at times, it seems that Miranda thinks she is at some kind of disadvantage in her relationship with Rihanna, which feel like disingenuous self-deprecation given the tremendous power Miranda holds as both the interviewer and as a white woman.

As the interviewer, Miranda is responsible for every stage of Rihanna’s portrayal. Especially in this article, which reads more like a fiction piece than a straightforward interview, there is an ever-present sense of Miranda’s authorship. It is as if Rihanna is a character that she has created. So often, the quotes Miranda selects serve her greater purpose- to sculpt a dreamy, emotional fantasy world, rather than to inform us about the specificities of Rihanna’s experience.

Though Miranda allows Rihanna to speak about race for a few paragraphs, she quickly moves the conversation to celebrity culture in general, asserting that we’re all just souls that, “stay constant even when the outside changes, or when the heart makes mistakes. Souls don’t really care about good or bad, right or wrong — they’re just true. Everlasting.”

This kind of language, while overflowing with charm, is problematic as it lifts Rihanna from the specificities of her personal narrative, suggesting that race doesn’t really matter. Miranda seems to think that if we dig down deep enough, we can fit Rihanna nicely into the white hegemony that ostensibly makes everyone so comfortable, that is such an intrinsic part of Miranda’s construction of “relatable”.

The shared experience of being a woman permeated throughout the whole piece but the conversation about race was restricted to the one stiff question Miranda uncomfortably, mechanically asked. Miranda explores the complexities of bodily concerns and feminine vulnerability regarding post-pregnancy vaginas but fails to acknowledge that people of color have numerous complex anxieties regarding race. If Rihanna is “human enough” to have fears about her vagina getting too big after having a child, how could she be ever conceivably be post-racial? Miranda selectively allows Rihanna to be vulnerable at times that suit her own interests, in conversations where Miranda is always an active participant, and flattens her experience in areas that make Miranda “uncomfortable” because she cannot relate to them first-hand.

Of course, the piece need not be entirely about race. But, if it claims to be a “very revealing conversation”, if it aspires to show us what it’s really like to be Rihanna in 2015 (evidenced by not only the title, but also the numerous personal, specific questions), then it should not focus only on the parts of Rihanna’s life that Miranda can relate to. Rihanna should never be an appendage in Miranda’s work, especially not in an interview about her, and a supposedly holistic portrayal of womanhood cannot stop at a portrayal of white womanhood.

Miranda can certainly write a pretty sentence. But I wish someone else had interviewed Rihanna. Perhaps someone who doesn’t muse about whether a person can be post-racial- someone who is eager to explore rather than flatten the intricacies of racial identity.

The most telling sentence in the piece was, “[Rihanna] hesitated, and when I nervously began to apologize, she interrupted.” Rihanna isn’t awkward or shy talking about race. She has a narrative to share and she isn’t afraid to do so. Conversely, Miranda is constantly nervous that she might not “get it”, that she has misspoken. But, rather than use a writer who will sidestep the question to avoid making a mistake, why not use one who will speak boldly and knowledgeably based on shared experience? This is not to say that there is one “black experience”, or that Rihanna wouldn’t have some sort of privilege over, say, a middle class interviewer, but rather, that Miranda’s tendencies are dangerous, alienating, and flattening. Miranda showed us that there is more to being a woman than answering the question “What is it like to be a woman?”, so why don’t we learn the same about being a person of color?