Birds of a different feather: Why not respond to M.I.A.'s Super Bowl halftime bird the same way you would to Johnny Cash, in that famous photo from San Quentin? Credit: Photo illustration by Jennifer McLaughlin

Internet leaks of songs by major artists have become so commonplace—and faked leaks such an integral part of the publicist’s tool kit—that hardly anyone makes a fuss over them anymore. But on February 20 what looked like coordinated leaks of a remix of Rihanna’s “Birthday Cake” featuring Chris Brown and a remix of Chris Brown’s “Turn Up the Music” featuring Rihanna sent pop-culture observers the world over into paroxysms of disgust, titillation, and horror. The response was immediate and impassioned, largely fueled by the fact that a likable pop star had reunited artistically (and, it’s rumored, romantically) with the unapologetic abuser who just three years ago had beaten her till she required medical attention.

If Rihanna’s decision to collaborate with Brown is no more than a ploy to convert outrage into bankable buzz—and it doesn’t take a hardened cynic to suspect that this is at least partly the case—it’s a masterful move, especially considering the social climate. Lately the ongoing culture wars have centered on women’s bodies and minds and what they’re allowed to do with them, and while congresspeople, clergy, and other ostensibly politically engaged Americans argue—in 2012, mind you—over access to birth control and what qualifies as rape, the country as a whole seems to be working out its issues through female pop stars.

For instance take the strangely intense reaction to M.I.A. giving the camera the finger during the Super Bowl halftime show. A large swath of the population reacted to a gesture that at this point in history is only a couple of notches more profane than “dang it” as though it were a full-frontal assault on American decency. (Even Madonna, whose show it was, clucked her tongue.) It’s hard to imagine that audiences and media outlets would have responded with quite the same fervor if a male star—like for instance Johnny Cash, in that famous photo from San Quentin—had flipped us the bird. It’s even harder to imagine that their response would have included allegations that he was a bad parent.

Though M.I.A.’s former fiancee, Benjamin Bronfman, quickly refuted claims that she routinely (and, it was implied, blithely) went weeks at a time without seeing their child, the very fact that the charge was leveled against her—and that it isn’t directed at the great many musician fathers who tour without their kids—sends a clear message that her real crime in many people’s eyes isn’t deploying a quaintly rude hand gesture but rather stepping outside what they consider a woman’s role in society. It’s the same fear of female autonomy that led Representative Darrell Issa to convene an all-male panel to speak to the Republican-controlled Committee on Congressional Oversight and Government Reform about the threat to morality and religious freedom posed by requiring insurers to cover birth control (a panel later in the day included two conservative women). It’s the same fear that poisons everything that comes out of Rick Santorum‘s mouth on the subject of female human beings.

NPR music critic Ann Powers says that our treatment of female pop stars and our current political climate are related in more than just an abstract way. “It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that in the midst of a very contentious presidential election campaign, in which different candidates are struggling to gain control of the process, that difficult-to-grasp and very inflammatory issues of economic inequality have now been pushed aside in the general conversation by these issues of morality and sexuality,” she says. “This is something that’s happened throughout our history.”

How does that relate to pop music? “Pop music is always a reflection of and in dialogue with the larger political conversation,” says Powers. “On one hand you can say that the music and the culture around it is distracting us from what’s important. But you can also say that it’s a lens through which it’s refracted, and these anxieties that these issues bring up are coming out in a different way.”

Taking out issues with women through pop-star proxies isn’t a vice confined to the political right. Our supposedly left-leaning culture industry hasn’t been much better. Though Lana Del Rey did attract some perfectly justified flak for her SNL debacle, most of the criticism that’s been hurled at her in recent months has been rooted in a long-running ideal of subcultural authenticity that doesn’t have any room for a conventionally attractive woman who doesn’t apologize for her conventional attractiveness. A lot of people who probably consider themselves politically progressive, men and women alike, see Del Rey and assume she’s a passive construct manufactured by her management, despite strong evidence of the creative control she’s exercised over her career—the best they can do is point to photographs that prove nothing more than that her fashion sense has improved in recent years and that she’s an ambitious artist with industry contacts. The same applies to bigger female stars like Beyonce: “serious” music fans seem to have an incredibly hard time assigning her any creative autonomy at all, preferring to believe that she simply sings whatever songs her label hands her, even though many of her musical partners have described her as an immensely talented and very hands-on collaborator.

Or take the December New York Times essay in which Toure ponders white women’s underrepresentation in rap music. He comes to the conclusion that the “true barrier to entry” into the world of rappers is the fact that “there is an essence at the center of hip-hop that white women have an extraordinarily hard time exuding or even copying”—not, say, the discouraging effects of lengthy articles in the New York Times wherein the most recognizable name in hip-hop criticism posits white female rappers as the ne plus ultra of inauthenticity. “As soon as white women start rhyming,” he writes, “no matter what they say, it’s seen as cute and comical, like a cat walking on its hind legs. Seeing them try to embody the attributes of hip-hop’s vision of black masculinity is a hysterical gender disjunction: they wear it as convincingly as a woman wearing her husband’s clothes.”

The reaction to the reunion of Rihanna and Chris Brown has been hugely negative, which seems appropriate on one level. I’ve spent lots of time this week thinking about the situation, and it’s left me feeling sad, frustrated, and tainted. It’s partly the familiar sickness of watching someone (seemingly) return to an abusive relationship and partly the maddening experience of watching the public perception of her flip like a switch once again, from skin-deep pop icon to cautionary example, with no time in between to consider the actual person who’s making the decision. I don’t know whether she’s making it because, as her “Birthday Cake” lyrics imply, she intends to make Brown her “bitch,” or if she’s making it because she’s caught in the same sort of cycle that’s claimed so many other women. But if you imagine being in her place—where pretty much everybody feels entitled to share an opinion about what’s right and proper and what you ought to be doing—you can start to see how making such a bad choice could even feel liberating.