by Siofra McSherry
Rihanna is a fascinating cultural figure whose output I always consume with pleasure, as she has continually defied the expectations of her genre. Her new video has generated a reaction that is intriguing in itself, with young fans expressing their desire to be kidnapped and tortured by their idol, like the video’s hapless hostage. Dazed & Confused and breathless fashion folk like it because it delivers Tarantino-lite, Instagram-filtered retro visuals with blood spatter and cult film references. Many more love it because it shows a Black woman taking power, unapologetically and unambiguously, from a white man, and that is something I can show up for. However, what has horrified me and many feminists is the fact that the video perpetuates the idea that the way you signal power is to beat up women, and the higher the social status of the woman (white, thin, blonde, wealthy) the more power you derive when you degrade her.
Some have suggested that the hostage—played by Rachel Roberts—is a legitimate target because of her race and her class. The first category is more complicated. It has been suggested that this spectacle of violence against the person of a white female is legitimate given the generations of systemic and person-to-person abuse from white womento Black women. But abuse is not a hierarchy anyone would really want to be at the top of, and the historical system is not in any way being meaningfully deconstructed here. We see an individual woman of colour taking power over an individual white man via the patriarchy's favourite technique, violent domination, and especially via the abuse of his wife, who is treated as his property. The empowerment of one woman comes at the expense of another. We know this story because we have seen it over and over again: Rihanna as protagonist takes the place of the male abuser that is this narrative’s native and its audience, and re-enacts her own—and our—abuse upon a subjugated female so stereotypically feminized that we are encouraged to not even see her as a person.
Therein lies the second category: class. The female victim of BBHMM is a parody of a woman, some women have said; a cartoon representation of all-American feminine aspiration, rich, white, thin, with an impractical dog, and therefore not a reasonable object of empathy. Her symbolic value overrides her personhood. Even her breasts override her personhood. The stark difference in the treatment of Rihanna’s nudity and that of her female victim is telling. Rihanna’s body is adorned with the blood of her antagonist and the cash she has earned for displaying it, in an unambiguous statement of power and control over the circumstances of her nakedness. This is the same point made so magnificently by her appearance at last year’s CDFA awards wearing nothing but Swarovski crystals. Her victim, on the other hand, is gagged, suspended, silenced, her breasts filling the screen in lieu of her agency or characterisation. The male victim, of course, remains clothed throughout. Nobody wants to see a naked accountant, right?
Rihanna’s character in BBHMM expresses a legitimate rage as a woman of colour in the most hostile of industries, a psychotic iconoclast, and she is adored for it. I am told that I am not the audience for this work, that this is a warning, a recalibration, a calling out of the historical, collective complicity of white womanhood in patriarchy and systemic racism; and that may be true. However, the target of the video’s violence is yet another sacrificial, stripped, tortured female body, objectified beyond the point of standing for anything, even herself. The target is not the patriarchy, nor racism, nor even an individual male abuser, as in the video for Man Down. In that story Rihanna’s revenge killing of her character’s rapist is questioned in the lyrics, which express guilt and sorrow. The Rihanna of 2015 seems to have evolved beyond regret or moral nuance. Even Tarantino’s unpleasant revenge fantasies are directed at Hitler, or slave-owners, or the guy that shot your entire wedding party and stole your baby. In BBHMM Rihanna is pissed that someone withheld part of the $120 million she is worth—an offence that calls for a lawyer, not dismemberment. The major brunt of the fantasy isn’t even bourne by the actual perpetrator.
In the end, the point of BBHMM is the glorious spectacle of a young Black woman wielding power with an icy and unwavering focus on the fulfilment of her will. However, while power may mean gaining the upper hand at any cost, empowerment implies liberation from the system that oppresses, not its endless restaging. I could watch Rihanna be a badass all day, but I must question whether the means by which she gains and demonstrates power—through the subjugation of another woman—are useful or constructive in the long run.
Siofra McSherry is a writer, researcher and doctoral scholar. She has published her poetry widely and writes art reviews for thisistomorrow.info.