Rihanna Unchained

I must confess that Rihanna is a guilty pleasure of mine. While pop stars like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift have claimed feminist identities, Rihanna refuses to toe political lines, rejects respectability politics, and unabashedly engages in bad behavior. Our society expects oh-so-high standards for women and people of color who must self-present as “role models.” Rihanna is having none of that.

So, when the Internet reacted acutely to her latest provocation—the “Bitch Better Have My Money” music video—I was prepared to be shocked; instead, I found myself more puzzled and intrigued by the over-the-top displays of violence and sexual spectacle. Keep in mind, however, that I’m watching a video conceptualized and co-directed by a black woman who is clearly invested in power for herself—as Rebecca Carroll noted—and I’m doing so after a volatile month in which black women’s victimization made headline news. When teenage girls like Dajerria Becton are violently assaulted by police for attending a pool party, how could I not relish seeing a smiling, bikini-clad Rihanna outwitting a clueless sheriff while hiding her kidnapped victim in the pool? And when cold-blooded white supremacists like Dylann Roof gun down African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina—the majority of whom are black women—and families of the victims offer forgiveness to the killer, which is later interpreted by the wider public as necessary “racial healing,” how could I not appreciate Rihanna’s revenge fantasy against someone who did her wrong? This is a needed reminder that, while forgiveness is the higher virtue, sometimes we just want to vent our rage at injustice.

Is Rihanna’s video messy, sexist, anti-feminist, outrageous? It has its moments, both feminist and anti-feminist, however, reducing its narrative to whether it’s feminist or not seems rather shortsighted. We live in a world in which racist killers raise the specter of white womanhood—and raped white womanhood in particular—to justify the murders of black women and men. That Rihanna would recycle the same spectacle of victimized white womanhood—as a way to harm white manhood—is a complicated critique of these problematic gendered racial narratives. Not to mention her own critique of certain women who collude in white capitalist patriarchy, as the video clearly shows the “trophy wife” of the accountant (the “Bitch” who absconded with her money) enjoying a lavish lifestyle, funded by stolen money, thus highlighting the ways that elite women are viewed in terms of oppression rather than sisterhood.

As Gloria Steinem once noted in “The Masculinization of Wealth,” sexism has caused many of the working class to vilify women of wealth, often more harshly than men of wealth. However, such women who align with the capitalist interests of their husbands, sons and fathers, who indeed can take over financial institutions and perpetuate the same oppression, are often condemned, not for their womanhood, but for their close proximity to economic, social and racial power.  In other words, as Rihanna demonstrates in her video, the targeted wife is not “innocent” when she enjoys wealth based on the exploited (or stolen) labor of others. And in a storyline that could have turned the tables in which this character joins Rihanna and her posse in solidarity and sisterhood in seeking revenge against her husband (who is also revealed to be a “cheater”), the pop star refuses such easy alliances.

While Mia McKenzi argues, “black women often see white women as the same as white men,” Rihanna is a bit more complex than simply equating white womanhood and manhood. Intriguingly, Rihanna’s fellow kidnappers include another white woman along with a woman of color. It is rather telling, actually, that when given the chance to identify with either the trophy wife or one of Rihanna’s accomplices, too many white women critics have chosen to identify with the former. Even in fantasy, the idea of being a black woman’s ally in the quest for monetary reparations is too much to imagine for some, especially in a culture that has deemed elite blonde womanhood as the epitome of feminine ideals. The hyper-visible white blonde, fashion-model, Barbie doll beauty standard is too alluring and often shown in need of defense, even against the “shock-and-awe” provocations of a black pop star.

Rihanna is quite deliberate in her choice of Canadian actor and model Rachel Roberts; she is the beauty ideal in our culture and the specter of white womanhood that white supremacists violently defend and that marketers promote as a “universal” ideal. That she is subjected to various abuses—stuffed in a trunk, hung naked upside down, drugged and knocked unconscious—is akin to little girls destroying their “perfect” dolls precisely because such beauty models are viewed as oppressive (the “doll” metaphor is most obvious when Rihanna’s posse take turns literally “dolling” her up in a motel room). In literally objectifying the “kidnapped” white woman (the type that mainstream media offers up in 24/7 coverage), Rihanna’s video subverts standard tropes of victimized womanhood through the spectacle of bad-girls-on-the-run. There is even space for sisterhood here since the kidnapped wife is not raped or beaten in the motel room but is instead shown enjoying herself at this all-girls party, which complicates this as more than a “misogynistic” story.

Of course, the “value” of this wife is rendered satirically since the so-called “Bitch” (as Rihanna cartoonishly reminds us that the subject of her rage is the husband and not the wife) could care less that she has been kidnapped. He has already replaced her with other women. It is here that the video takes a darker turn towards feminist critique when Rihanna refocuses her vengeance in a twisted Valerie Solanas-type manifesto. We are spared the actual scenes of this “cutting up men” scenario, but her various knives and chainsaws allow our imaginations to run wild, not least of which is a naked, money-covered and blood-soaked Rihanna at the end, reminiscent of Carrie after her night of vengeance.

What is particularly striking about Rihanna is her unapologetic embrace of violence and power in her songs and videos. When the fictive targets of violence are white, as rapper M.I.A. discovered with her controversial “Born Free” video, the public reacts disapprovingly to these narratives by women of color. We also, as Zeba Blay has pointed out, tend to be more comfortable when men like filmmaker Quentin Tarantino produce such narratives. Here, a “Rihanna Unchained” is a more disturbing scenario, perhaps because of her own history with intimate partner violence. However, I would argue—especially in the context of TMZ releasing a photo of her battered face without her consent, in the wake of Chris Brown’s assault—that Rihanna has since refused the “victim” image foisted on her and instead boldly engages with violent narratives to reposition herself in terms of power and survival. Her “Man Down” video, which invited controversy for its depiction of a rape survivor gunning down her assailant, is one such example.

As a provocateur, Rihanna seeks attention, and in Madonnaesque fashion, she delivers in spades. However, it is her flipping of masculinist scripts—the reclaiming of chauvinistic language, the cartoonish and flippant treatment of violence, her insistence on getting paid for her labor, and her reenactment of machismo through her hyper-feminine fashionista presentation (replete with an all-girl posse)—that makes the BBHMM video much more layered than a simple woman-hating narrative, as some have labeled it. Both the women and men who seek to exploit her will have to contend with a black woman’s rage. And in a culture that is more comfortable with black forgiveness than it is with black anger, such narratives will be difficult to engage beyond blanket condemnation.

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.