Rihanna's BBHMM shows sexualised violence against women. Photo: BBHMM screenshot
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Let's talk about Rihanna's video

Spoiler alert: the sexualised torture of a rich white woman is still sexualised violence against women.

Hear that sound? It’s me firing up the hot take machine. You have been warned. Also be warned that this post contains images and discussions of sexual violence.

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Apparently, unlike all other artistic output ever, writers are not supposed to respond to Rihanna’s video for Bitch Better Have My Money. Yesterday, I read a discussion of it on a music website where one of those involved said: “To those currently drafting your thinkpiece about how it wasn’t very #feminist of Rih to torture that poor rich lady: nooooo one cares about your basic-ass probably non-intersectional praxis. Rihanna doesn’t need to spell it out for you if you still don’t get it yet; time is money, bitch.”

Time is indeed money, and although technically I am being paid to write this, I should really be writing something else  right now— something which isn’t even a “thinkpiece” (the hot new internet way to dismiss anyone having an opinion you don't agree with, like when you describe “pieces people want to read” as “clickbait”). My other article has got, like, interviews in it and shit. It talks about workforce structures, equal pay, childcare entitlements and how they disadvantage women throughout society, and — yet, here we are. 

So I’ll try to keep this brief. Or at least hammer it out and move on with my life. It was not very feminist — not even very hashtag feminist — of Rihanna to “torture that poor rich lady”. That is because it is not very feminist to torture women. Even if they are white. Even if they are rich. Even if you are a woman yourself. Sorry if this comes as a surprise. (Scotty, gimme me more power! The hot take machine cannae take it!)

I respect Rihanna as an artist, and as a woman in a male-dominated world. And not every action can, or has to be, feminist — I hate this stupid fashion for asking “are high heels feminist”, “is the hijab feminist” , like those are binary categories and you can just bang your gavel and declare one way or the other. I am, in the words of Simone de Beauvoir: “Half-victim, half-accomplice; like everyone else.” So is Rihanna. We all make our accommodations with the status quo. 

It’s also perfectly possible for a music video not to be feminist and still to be artistically worthwhile, or ground-breaking, or satirical, or hard-hitting, or emotionally affecting, or a multitude of other positives. I recently wrote about the film Ex Machina, which is explicitly concerned with the objectification of women. To achieve its artistic aims, it actually has to objectify several women. This is not very hashtag feminist, on the surface, but it is artistically interesting — and the result of a conscious artistic choice.

I wish I could say the same about what Rihanna has done in this video. Here’s the plot of BBHMM. Rihanna’s accountant has ripped her off, so to wreak her revenge she kidnaps his girlfriend — who is portrayed as a spoilt white bitch, complete with tiny dog and fur coat. She strips the woman — 

And forces her into a warehouse:

Where she is shown hanging upside down- 

Later, she is taken to a motel room, blindfolded, used as a prop for a party, then fed booze and weed:

Later still, she is drowned in a swimming pool.

It is only at this point that Rihanna takes her grievance up with her male accountant: 

Surprise! He gets to keep his clothes on! He doesn’t get sexually humiliated, or put into a context that’s heavily suggestive of sexual assault. His death doesn’t even get that much airtime, really. Five seconds later, RiRi is smeared in blood and relaxing in a big trunk of cash.

I tried looking for a bit of back story to explain this video yesterday, and then came to the conclusion — you know what, it doesn’t matter. Not to get all first-year undergraduate, but the meaning of the video is primarily in the actions and images contained within the video. That’s how most people will experience it. It’s possible there is some amazing explanation that puts a totally new spin on what happens here. If so, I’m all ears. (Well, and a bit of frown.)

Because to me, here is what it looks like is happening here. This video uses one of the most tired tropes — using a woman’s pain to hurt a man. There was once a noble tradition of this in newspaper stories: the linguistics professor Deborah Cameron cited a great example from the 1980s in one of her books: MAN FORCED TO WATCH WIFE’S RAPE. The poor bloody guy, eh? That must have really put a downer on his day.

So, I don’t like that. From the way the video narrative progresses, it’s implied that the ultimate object of Rihanna’s ire is the man, but she uses his woman to get to him. This is pretty much “fridging”, and there is a big body of work about what a tired trope it is, particularly since it implies that only men have feelings worth bothering about, and women’s pain is only interesting insofar as it makes men’s lower lips go wobbly to think about their delicate little flowers being hurt. (I’m looking at you, Liam Neeson.)

Then there’s the sexualisation of the violence. I’ve had a couple of people raise the BDSM scene — bondage, domination and sado-masochism —  and how images of sexualised violence might be OK in that context. They seem to have missed the fairly massive point that the main thing about BDSM, the KEY THING about BDSM, if you will, is that it’s supposed to be consensual. Non-consensual BDSM is just assault. Even if you’re wearing an excellent latex outfit.

I’ve written several times about my problem with the use of rape as entertainment in video games and series like Game of Thrones: sexual violence for the purposes of titillation is really creepy. Ditto sadism: I nearly gave up Grand Theft Auto V because there was no way to skip scenes where you had to torture someone. (Eagle-eyed readers will also note that this is a CYAP, or “cover your ass paragraph”, to fend off the inevitable accusation that I have given lots of other problematic media a pass and am being unfairly hard on Rihanna as a relatively rare successful black woman in the music industry. Believe me, I bore people constantly about problematic media. I don’t get invited to parties because I hang out by the snacks and bore people about problematic media.)

Let’s put this bluntly: a lot of men who get off on images of women being tortured are going to be turned on by this video. It’s a sexy video. Rihanna is an astonishingly good-looking woman, with a well-documented allergy to clothes. This is all meant to be a turn-on. And then the anguished face of a woman in pain, swings into view . . . how’s that erection working out for you now? 

I want to finish up by talking about race, which I am think I am definitely not meant to do. This is where the basic-ass nature of my praxis is really going to be revealed. I’ve read some suggestions that the video is supposed to be disturbing — it’s a comment on how black women’s bodies are routinely sexualised and objectified in our culture in a way that is both racist and misogynist. Ah, goes this line of argument, you don’t like it when it’s a rich white woman dangling on the hook? Where were you when worse things happened to black women?

Yeah, this is true. No one should deny it. There is a hierarchy of victimhood in our society —  if you get kidnapped, raped and murdered, you will make more front pages if you’re white, pretty and “virginal” than if you are black/Hispanic, a mother, an older woman, an immigrant, a sex worker or any other category that apparently downgrades your death from a tragedy to a commonplace. 

But the answer to that is to make more noise, to raise our voices louder, when women who are doubly disadvantaged are objectified and marginalised — not even up the score with a bit of rich-white-lady torture. In Catharine MacKinnon’s searing essay on this subject, she speaks of the white woman as a “‘woman, modified’ . . . meaning she would be oppressed but for her privilege”. As she points out, being white does not exempt a woman from sexism — it merely means that she does not also experience the oppression of racism too. 

As MacKinnon adds:

. . . This image seldom comes face to face with the rest of her reality: the fact that the majority of the poor are white women and their children (at least half of whom are female); that white women are systematically battered in their homes, murdered by intimates and serial killers alike, molested as children, actually raped (mostly by white men), and that even Black men, on average, make more than they do. If one did not know this, one could be taken in by white men’s image of white women: that the pedestal is real, rather than a cage in which to confine and trivialize them and segregate them from the rest of life, a vehicle for sexualized infantilization, a virginal set-up for rape by men who enjoy violating the pure, and a myth with which to try to control Black women. (See, if you would lie down and be quiet and not move, we would revere you, too.)

I’m not sure if all those statistics are still true, by the way; but the point stands. Even rich white bitches, the type with tiny dogs and fur coats and partners who have taken Rihanna’s money, experience sexism. 

So yes, I’m going to read more about the racial angle from better-qualified people than me. And I’m going to reiterate: a music video doesn’t have to be feminist to be a worthwhile artistic expression. But I think that if the video is making a point about race, then the fact that a white man and a white woman receive such different treatment is worth exploring. Trying to be more intersectional - to explore the way that different oppressions overlap and modify each other - should not mean we end up arguing that sexism does not exist as a force in its own right. I've seen sexism; I know it exists. Sometimes it looks like a naked woman in pain, hanging from a rope. 

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Now listen to a discussion of Rihanna's video on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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Despite its Brexit victory, the hate-addicted right rages on – but the left is silent

The Brexit victors aren’t addicted to independence. They’re addicted to hatred.

The weirdest thing about Brexit is how angry the victors are. You would expect the losers to be sore – but open any British newspaper and it’s as if getting what they wanted has rendered the winners yet more snappish. At any time, you can guarantee that the medium least likely to offer principled opposition to any assault on democracy is the British press. Even so, it’s astonishing to open a copy of the Daily Telegraph and find that a byline has become a mere technicality, a breakwater for the eye. Page after page, countless squads of identical bald clones drone on – all chorus, no counterpoint – ranting about the evils of a Europe, which, in theory, they are supposed to have vanquished.

What is the point of having so many writers when they all write the same article? It turns out that it wasn’t Europe they wanted to leave. It was contemporary Britain. They’re not addicted to independence. They’re addicted to hatred.

In the United States, television and newspaper reporters have understood that their president is out to get them. So they are fighting back, challenging him on his lies in a way that the BBC does not dare. Women, African Americans and Latinos have all staged impressive demonstrations to disrupt the idea that the current state of affairs in the US is either necessary or, more important, normal. Republican senators aiming to take away their voters’ rights to health care have been facing impassioned town-hall meetings. There is exhilarating satire on television.

But over here, the 48 per cent of people who feared a loveless future of cringing isolation, austerity and social backwardness have been largely content to take defeat on the chin, as though cowed by the fact that so many of the poorest among us don’t agree.

In Britain, the silence is eerie. We know from experience that it takes time for artists and film-makers to respond to sudden changes of temperature.

Margaret Thatcher was first elected in 1979, but it wasn’t until 1982 that we were enlightened by Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff; My Beautiful Laundrette didn’t ­arrive until 1985; and it was 1987 before Caryl Churchill gave us Serious Money – a full eight years after Thatcher’s election.

All three works may enjoy an enduring power and authority denied to the collected speeches of Norman Tebbit. They define the era. But they all came too late to do anything more than raise morale. The damage had been done. You may feel that the musical of Billy Elliot nailed Thatcher’s government definitively, but it began to offer its insights 15 years after her resignation.

Politics in the West is in a mess because no one can answer the question of why Western labour should continue to enjoy its relative privileges when labour in the rest of the world can offer to do our work so much more cheaply. The standard answers from left and right are equally unconvincing and polluted by residual imperialist attitudes to race. Conservatives swing wildly. On some days, they behave as if they can continue to enjoy the free movement of capital while planning to forbid the free movement of labour. On others, they pretend that they still believe in the same market that failed so spectacularly ten years ago.

Neither position is coherent, and the mix of the two is crazy. But the left has done little better to explain how social justice can be advanced in the face of an international buffeting that has no care for workers’ rights.

In 2015, Ed Miliband, the then leader of the Labour Party, went into the general election without having decided whether he was or wasn’t going to defend the Keynesian public spending that had saved Britain from the corruption of the banks. The present leader of the Conservative Party, always marching fearlessly behind a thick cladding of popular prejudice, is implementing a European divorce against which she campaigned only a year ago. Small wonder that people have so little hope of Westminster.

Historically, we have always been taught that change comes from below. When people suffer intolerably, they overturn the cause of their suffering. Yet they still need representatives who can articulate their needs. Revulsion has to bubble up soon, but so do policies.

In our daily lives, we all meet people who are thoughtful, kind-hearted, efficient and serious. We encounter such people in medicine, in education, in law enforcement and in social care, and it is their generosity and foresight that make life worth living. Yet Theresa May is content to hug close individuals who would be thrown out of any job but politics. Her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was sacked by the Times for lying. Her Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, was accused of trying to interfere with a prison inspection report while he was justice secretary, and he banned sending books to prisoners.

Most inexplicable of all was the elevation of Liam Fox, her International Trade Secretary, who is in permanent disgrace because he has refused fully to admit wrongdoing for overclaiming expenses and using public money to pay a close friend who attended 57 per cent of his Ministry of Defence engagements without security clearance.

Why on earth are such people promoted by a vicar’s daughter who boasts of her moral values? It is in that disparity between who we are and how we are represented that the best hope of opposition lies.

Disbelief will shade into outrage, even if Labour continues to be led by a man blithely indifferent to the practicalities of getting ­anything done. Confronted with the ascen­dancy of scoundrels such as Fox, Grayling and Johnson, anyone, from any part of the UK, will agree with Karl Marx: shame is the only revolutionary emotion.

David Hare is a playwright

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition