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

Photo: Getty
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If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.