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. 

***

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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MP Michelle Thomson's full speech on rape at 14: "I am a survivor"

The MP was attacked as a teenager. 

On Thursday, the independent MP for Edinburgh West Michelle Thomson used a debate marking the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women to describe her own experience of rape. Thomson, 51, said she wanted to break the taboo among her generation about speaking about the subject.

MPs listening were visibly moved by the speech, and afterwards Thomson tweeted she was "overwhelmed" by the response. 

Here is her speech in full:

I am going to relay an event that happened to me many years ago. I want to give a very personal perspective to help people, both in this place and outside, understand one element of sexual violence against women.

When I was 14, I was raped. As is common, it was by somebody who was known to me. He had offered to walk me home from a youth event. In those days, everybody walked everywhere - it was quite common. It was early evening. It was not dark. I was wearing— I am imagining and guessing—jeans and a sweatshirt. I knew my way around where I lived - I was very comfortable - and we went a slightly differently way, but I did not think anything of it. He told me that he wanted to show me something in a wooded area. At that point, I must admit that I was alarmed. I did have a warning bell, but I overrode that warning bell because I knew him and, therefore, there was a level of trust in place. To be honest, looking back at that point, I do not think I knew what rape was. It was not something that was talked about. My mother never talked to me about it, and I did not hear other girls or women talking about it.

It was mercifully quick and I remember first of all feeling surprise, then fear, then horror as I realised that I quite simply could not escape, because obviously he was stronger than me. There was no sense, even initially, of any sexual desire from him, which, looking back again, I suppose I find odd. My senses were absolutely numbed, and thinking about it now, 37 years later, I cannot remember hearing anything when I replay it in my mind. As a former professional musician who is very auditory, I find that quite telling. I now understand that your subconscious brain—not your conscious brain—decides on your behalf how you should respond: whether you take flight, whether you fight or whether you freeze. And I froze, I must be honest.

Afterwards I walked home alone. I was crying, I was cold and I was shivering. I now realise, of course, that that was the shock response. I did not tell my mother. I did not tell my father. I did not tell my friends. And I did not tell the police. I bottled it all up inside me. I hoped briefly—and appallingly—that I might be pregnant so that that would force a situation to help me control it. Of course, without support, the capacity and resources that I had within me to process it were very limited.

I was very ashamed. I was ashamed that I had “allowed this to happen to me”. I had a whole range of internal conversations: “I should have known. Why did I go that way? Why did I walk home with him? Why didn’t I understand the danger? I deserved it because I was too this, too that.” I felt that I was spoiled and impure, and I really felt revulsion towards myself.

Of course, I detached from the child that I had been up until then. Although in reality, at the age of 14, that was probably the start of my sexual awakening, at that time, remembering back, sex was “something that men did to women”, and perhaps this incident reinforced that early belief.​
I briefly sought favour elsewhere and I now understand that even a brief period of hypersexuality is about trying to make sense of an incident and reframing the most intimate of acts. My oldest friends, with whom I am still friends, must have sensed a change in me, but because I never told them they did not know of the cause. I allowed myself to drift away from them for quite a few years. Indeed, I found myself taking time off school and staying at home on my own, listening to music and reading and so on.

I did have a boyfriend in the later years of school and he was very supportive when I told him about it, but I could not make sense of my response - and it is my response that gives weight to the event. I carried that guilt, anger, fear, sadness and bitterness for years.

When I got married 12 years later, I felt that I had a duty tell my husband. I wanted him to understand why there was this swaddled kernel of extreme emotion at the very heart of me, which I knew he could sense. But for many years I simply could not say the words without crying—I could not say the words. It was only in my mid-40s that I took some steps to go and get help.

It had a huge effect on me and it fundamentally - and fatally - undermined my self-esteem, my confidence and my sense of self-worth. Despite this, I am blessed in my life: I have been happily married for 25 years. But if this was the effect of one small, albeit significant, event in my life stage, how must it be for those women who are carrying it on a day-by-day basis?

I thought carefully about whether I should speak about this today, and it was people’s intake of breath and the comment, “What? You’re going to talk about this?”, that motivated me to do it, because there is still a taboo about sharing this kind of information. Certainly for people of my generation, it is truly shocking to talk in public about this sort of thing.

As has been said, rape does not just affect the woman; it affects the family as well. Before my mother died early of cancer, I really wanted to tell her, but I could not bring myself to do it. I have a daughter and if something happened to her and she could not share it with me, I would be appalled. It was possibly cowardly, but it was an act of love that meant that I protected my mother.

As an adult, of course I now know that rape is not about sex at all - it is all about power and control, and it is a crime of violence. I still pick up on when the myths of rape are perpetuated form a male perspective: “Surely you could have fought him off. Did you scream loudly enough?” And the suggestion by some men that a woman is giving subtle hints or is making it up is outrageous. Those assumptions put the woman at the heart of cause, when she should be at the heart of effect. A rape happens when a man makes a decision to hurt someone he feels he can control. Rapes happen because of the rapist, not because of the victim.

We women in our society have to stand up for each other. We have to be courageous. We have to call things out and say where things are wrong. We have to support and nurture our sisters as we do with our sons. Like many women of my age, I have on occasion encountered other aggressive actions towards me, both in business and in politics. But one thing that I realise now is that I am not scared and he was. I am not scared. I am not a victim. I am a survivor.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.