Many feminists (mostly scandalized white ladies) say RiRi’s eminently GIF-able, winkingly referential revenge fantasy — which she co-directed — is misogynist and anti-feminist.
Many other feminists — particularly women of colour — argue that what Rihanna is doing is downright radical.
Despite its implied violence against women (we’ll get to that in a sec), I don’t think the video is particularly misogynistic or anti-feminist.
In fact, I don’t think “but is it feminist?” is the argument we should even be having.
Here’s the plot: Rihanna is ripped off by her accountant — he’s the bitch who better have her money — so she kidnaps his pretty blonde wife as part of a revenge plot, erroneously thinking he’d give a shit about his wife (spoiler: he doesn’t). So, Rihanna takes matters into her own hands, hacks up the accountant, then lounges in a trunk filled with her cash, covered in his blood.
(Now, many viewers think the wife was also murdered, but I didn’t interpret it that way at all. In fact, it appears as though she is granted admission into RiRi’s coterie of badass henchwoman; after all, she, too, has reason to enact revenge on a husband that wouldn’t pay her ransom. As for that infamous pool scene in which the wife is floating face down? Based on chronology, I think it’s entirely possible that the wife is holding her breath, hiding from the cop that’s sniffing around.)
The video is both disturbing and cartoonish. It’s often uncomfortable and occasionally even funny. But it’s also incredibly subversive. As Melissa McEwan writes:
Visually, there are a number of references to revenge films like “Kill Bill,” which itself is an homage to martial arts and exploitation films. Except: In those films, female heroes tend to have been turned into superheroes by being brutalized by men. (Tarantino is a repeat offender in the “rape turns women into superheroes” trope.) Here, we aren’t subjected to seeing Rihanna’s revenge hero be harmed in order to establish her motivation. Her motivation is her own damn agency. That’s radical.
Indeed, the BBHMM video is, many ways, all about agency. It’s about a black woman assuming a power position and taking back what is rightfully hers. It’s about a woman rejecting societal expectations of How a Victim Should Be (p.s. everyone needs to fuck right off with the gross “as a victim of assault, Rihanna should know better” narrative). It’s about an artist making the kind of music video she wanted to make, without apology, with all the tools available to directors such as Tarantino. That’s pretty feminist from where I’m sitting.
Still, I’m inclined to agree with the Guardian‘s Rebecca Carroll, who writes:
The obsession over what constitutes feminism in mainstream media and popular culture strikes me as resolutely anti-feminist. As for the misogyny – really? That’s just dumb, shortsighted and so deeply patronising. Because the assumption here is that Rihanna isn’t smart enough to anticipate the various interpretations of her work. She knows. She doesn’t care. I don’t either. What I care about is that Rihanna has the agency to create her music and direct her career on her own terms.
Indeed, that question — BUT IS IT FEMINIST? — is boring, simplistic and unproductive. After all, there is no definitive, agreed-upon scoring rubric for what is or isn’t feminist. Determining whether something is feminist or not is largely going to depend on how you interpret the thing as well as on your feminism, which might look different from my feminism.
And yet, all that doesn’t stop the tiresome debate about whether or not Celebrity X, Y or Z is feminist. And it certainly doesn’t stop us from placing certain women on Feminist Pedestals and then acting surprised when they disappoint us.
Feminism is not a binary. Feminism is a lens through which to view the world. Here at SIAC, we use it as a lens through which to examine pop culture. Rather than asking ‘is it feminist?’ I find it more useful to ask: how does this thing, be it video, film, song, book, reality show, trend, whatever, help or harm women? Does it empower women — or does it contribute to their oppression? Does it perpetuate a damaging cultural norm or stereotype — or does it work to dismantle it?
Sometimes, these questions have complicated answers.
As someone who thinks sexualized violence is gross, I can certainly understand why some people might think the BBHMM video harmful for women. But then the question becomes, harmful for WHICH women? To that end, I highly recommend reading Mia McKenzie’s powerful post at Black Girl Dangerous on BBHMM as it relates to race.
I don’t underestimate Rihanna; I believe she is capable of nuance and complexity as well as of being provocative. I believe a video for a pop song can be challenging. I mean, BBHMM certainly is. Rihanna has made a piece of work worthy of discussion, analysis and criticism.
As for my feminist analysis: dismissing all the ways in which BBHMM video tears down the status quo — and underestimating the woman behind the lens — is more harmful than its content.
Edited: July 9, 2015 — fixed typo and grammatical error.