There are quite a few BDSM signifiers in the video to BBHMM. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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Rihanna's BBHMM video has horrified many feminists – but I saw an empowering BDSM fantasy

The last time I looked, a heavy black leather collar covered in D rings is not what supposedly goes with a bikini this year.

Rihanna's “Bitch Better Have My Money” video is giving me life. I have loved the song since I first heard it. The infectious, pulsing trap chant, whose lyrics are less important than its anxious beat - the intensity of its threat - is already the song of the summer.

The song was written by Bibi, a fierce young woman from Berlin who was “in a ratchet mood”. She unleashed her anger on tape at LA's ROC Nation studios, especially for Rihanna, who snatched it up and made it hers.

The video just makes me love it more.

The seven-minute film is already a popular and commercial triumph, and will certainly speed the song to - as the song itself predicts - complete dominance at clubs worldwide this year. But it has horrified many feminists.

I wonder if the people who critique the sexualised violence of Rihanna's triumphant #BBHMM video have never thought of revenge. Perhaps, they are forgiving enough never to experience those thoughts of bloody, gleeful pay-back, springing unbidden to mind, years later. I am not one of those people, and now I know that even the most glamorous woman in the world can feel such hate.

Spoilers follow: The inspiration for the video's titular Bitch was an accountancy firm that swindled Rihanna out of millions of dollars in 2009, nearly bankrupting her and leaving her with a mould-ridden Beverly Hills mansion that she had to sell for a huge loss. First world problems, indeed. But put yourself in her shoes. She was a woman betrayed by accountants that she trusted, and left in a cash-poor position in a crucial period of her career. She was angry enough to sue, which is never an easy choice for a high profile person. The loss of nearly nine million dollars must have been a powerful personal violation to Rihanna - one that was going on against the much more well-known backdrop of her ex Chris Brown's physical abuse. In Rihanna's case, her accountants settled for ten million dollars. Now she's made that money back many, many times over; her revenge fantasy is that much more seductive because it comes, so obviously, from a position of recovery, strength and confidence.

The financial violation of women is commonplace, and widely unacknowledged. From the lowest to the highest echelons of labour, we’re paid less than men. We’re routinely screwed for raises, in divorce settlements, and in the closing of big deals in entertainment. Women are not supposed to care about money under patriarchy, but money is survival; choice; security. Getting hit there hurts, and it's personal. The wound can tingle with ghost pains, even when every penny of the money has been earned back. About five years ago, a charming sociopath swindled me out of thousands of pounds. Time and therapy have only dulled the ache; I still remember him, and still, occasionally, in my lowest moments, wish the worst on him, in graphic detail. I can imagine Rihanna hearing Bibi's song, and feeling ratchet: snapping back to 2009, to that feeling of frustration, of impotent rage and fear. Her revenge fantasy does not pander to violence. Its violence is a cleansing, a reckoning, crafted lovingly by the artist: fierce, resurgent, rich, brilliant and as beautiful as she is. Perhaps we are trembling before her anger because we know just how carefully, and how successfully, she crafts her own image. When we see her anger, we really believe it. It's too close; too intimate. We look away.

The video's violence has repulsed critics, but I wasn't the only woman to exult in Rihanna’s justice - play. "There was a joy in watching her take vengeance on mediocre white male entitlement to money, women and power. She's tapping into a kind of frustration that we never let out," said a freelance journalist friend. Our visual culture makes space for male revenge fantasies, or a space for female revenge crafted by a man, a la Tarantino's Kill Bill, which has clearly inspired Rihanna. But is there a space for a cleansing, exclaiming revenge, for the most beautiful woman in the world covered in gore?

I will put my content note here, for kidnap, assault and murder. Here's how the story supposedly goes. In her self directed video, Rihanna’s two henchwomen, accomplished model Sita Abellan and Instagram artist Sanam, and she kidnap the blonde, aquiline wife of Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen’s snide Bitch. In a funny, graceful scene, the immaculate wife, played with humour and gusto by Rachel Roberts, stalks out of her flat, clutching her fluffy Pomeranian. She steps into the elevator to see an insouciant Rihanna and her great big case. The door closes, and when it opens again Rihanna is dragging the case with the wife trapped inside. According to one narrative, now she's bound, stripped, tortured, humiliated on a yacht, forced to drink and smoke cannabis, and ransomed, to lead the accountant Bitch to a fatal meeting with Rihanna, from which the singer emerges, bloody. We see her lounging in the chest filled with her money. Some say that Ri kills the wife, too, drowning her in a pool in an earlier scene; we see what looks like her body, hidden under a float. In that narrative the video is a self indulgent, sordid, pandering, violatory tale.

But the timeline for that theory doesn't work out - at the fateful ransom handoff, we see the wife nestled in the opened case, alive. She's not drowned in the pool scene - she's hiding from that cop, now in league with her kidnappers. Her husband has laughed off her ransom, as he parties and shags other women, rolling in his money; and so, she has defected. Eight out of ten of my Facebook friends believe the wife was set free. TV critic Miss Banshee offers the view that I believe: "The whole point is that they bring [the wife] into this world and like a gang, they have to bring her in through fire. Not once - not once is she fighting back. Not once does she look anything but cautiously excited. Her last scene is (clearly alive) swinging from a chain, after partying with the ladies," said Miss Banshee in a Facebook chat.

There are quite a few BDSM signifiers in the video. The last time I looked, a heavy black leather collar covered in D rings is not what supposedly goes with a bikini this year. Nor is a translucent latex dress what you wear to a murder scene; swinging someone slowly back and forth like a human pendulum in inverted suspension isn't a usual torture method. Rihanna went out of her way to depict fantasy violence, not a graphic, direct Natural Born Killers spree. In one reading, the film has two layers; one that's a straightforward revenge killing, and one that - at the very least - suggests a BDSM fantasy, one that foregrounds female dominance completely.

I acknowledge the essential point made by Helen Lewis in these pages that real BDSM requires consent, and this video shows no explicit consent. Rihanna won't be the first to offer a fantasy scenario in art where consent isn't discussed, or happens offstage. Some fantasies - intended as strictly such - explore nonconsent. Perhaps these kink signifiers, so clearly and consciously placed, are a reminder that this is only a fantasy. It’s not real, but anyone who has ever wanted revenge can relate to it. Yes, the video is ambiguous, but the video's theme is, as so many have said, flipping the script. Its central joke is the reveal of the Bitch's unexpected identity. It invites us to consider: what else is hiding in plain sight?

Rihanna has long shared her interest in kink with the world - in songs and videos like S & M, and in interviews. Perhaps I was primed to see it in #BBHMM, but to me the video “coded” kink. I had to watch three times before I could even begin to see the horror that some feminists see in it. To me and others who read consent in the Bitch’s wife, the suffering of the Bitch's wife will always be a jumping in; a ritual ordeal in a lush, vibrant fantasy. To us, the video's vengeful, dominant Rihanna was a vital, joyful contribution to the year of Furiosa. She's bathed in blood; she steals the warlords' wives.

#BBHMM is an imperfect fantasy. We don't see consent. That's true, though, for much of BDSM erotica. Consent is assumed to have been negotiated offstage in stories and many videos - although some hot authors like Sinclair Sexsmith are now including negotiation in their erotica. One of the first things a new kinkster learns is that it is never like the porn or the sexy stories - you have to talk about interests and limits together. If it is meant to be BDSM, that lack of explicit consent makes #BBHMM potentially dangerous, particularly if the wife changed her allegiances mid - kidnapping. But it won't be the first or the last artistic work to misportray consent, or the most dangerous; that award goes to Grey.

Critics aren't thinking twice when they routinely question Rihanna's artistic choices, and her agency. Violence as an expression of Black female empowerment in art has long threatened white feminists, but not everything is a graduate class in feminist theory. Rihanna doesn't have to tick off all our feminist boxes for us to cheer her on. She was beaten black and blue and nearly choked to death by Chris Brown when she was barely grown, and look at her now. I'm proud of her. As the wonderful Black Girl Dangerous said so well, Rihanna has the right to be selfish. She has as much right to muster hundreds of people to make a video called “Bitch Better Have My Money” as the Beatles had to record Taxman, or as Carol Ann Duffy had to write the graphic Salome, a poem that is taught for GCSEs. Rihanna has every right to use guns and violence, and sex, and drugs, in her videos, just like the boys do. Progress is never orderly or predictable, and it never goes where we want it to go, but it moves forward anyway. And #BBHMM, for all its violence, is progress. It does not reify patriarchal tropes: it appropriates them, however imperfectly, however problematically. Like it or not, #BBHMM will empower a lot of little girls, and grown women, all over the world, across race and class divides, and I don’t think it will empower them to violence, but to success and confidence.

Without asking Rihanna, the director - and I've tried, and I am still trying to talk to her - we will never know what she truly meant by the video's shocking, glorious violence. Perhaps it's better to let it speak for itself; its ambiguity is, in itself, a message. Perhaps Rihanna is telling us that things are not always what they seem.

***

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

 

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.

DES WILLIE/BBC
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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution