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.

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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.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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