I know, I knowwww — no one’s supposed to talk about Rihanna’s new video (TW for graphic violence and pornographic imagery). Reasons we are to sit down and shut up on this one include, as pointed out by Helen Lewis, thinkpieces and basic, but also white feminism (a term that is commonly used by white liberal feminists against other feminists in order to dismiss critiques of objectification and the sex industry but that doesn’t really seem rooted in an intersectional analysis of women’s oppression) as well as a bunch of other expressions and accusations employed (to the great thrill of men) in order to silence women who want to talk about sexist violence. But oops! I don’t care. I don’t care about your liberal brownie points or your shit third wave postmodern first year gender studies twitter essay posturing about how subversive and in control Rihanna is. Yeah she’s in control. Yeah she’s talented (though, full disclosure, I’ve personally always found her music boring.) But just because you like an artist or a TV show or Kim Kardashian or Tyler the Creator or Game of Thrones or Nick Jonas (you would be shocked at the number of angry Nick Jonas fans I’ve heard from) or what-the-fuck-ever doesn’t mean women have to stop talking or thinking critically about those things. Especially when those things sexualize abuse and contribute to the global oppression of women. And I especially I don’t care when it’s dudes lecturing women about what they can and cannot speak about, calling us oppressors for daring to have an opinion about our own oppression. And I have witnessed far too much of this of late. If you are a man and you want to rep for misogyny, don’t. Put your dick and your fake-ass politics away and stop policing feminist discourse.
SO. All that’s out of the way. I won’t get into all this too deeply, because it’s been written about eloquently and at length elsewhere, but here are the basics, from my perspective:
1) A male accountant fucked Rihanna over. Why not create a video sexualizing and abusing him? Why choose to play out a violent fantasy on his girlfriend that plays on themes of date rape and BDSM? Oh right. Because misogyny. What’s the fun in holding powerful men accountable for their actions when we could profit from further objectifying and oppressing women? We all know pornifying men will get us nowhere and that women are easier and more popular targets. This is not an original idea. This is most the obvious way to create media that will appeal to the masses.
2) The to-be-abused woman is objectified from the get-go. I fail to see how this is defensible. Is objectifying white women ok now? Why and in what universe?
3) Rihanna doesn’t have to be a feminist and her video doesn’t have to be feminist, but stop defending the video from feminist critique. Women are allowed to have opinions about representations of women and women’s bodies in media and pop culture.
4) I hate rich people as much as the next person, but that doesn’t mean I think rich women deserve to be subjected to ritualized sexualized torture. For example, I don’t believe it is any more acceptable to rape rich women than poor women, despite their positions of power. If we’re going to take down the powerful, I’d prefer we not do it by reinforcing patriarchal ideals. That doesn’t help.
5) Rihanna is perfectly capable of making the point that “one does not fuck with Rihanna” without also using violent pornographic imagery. I want her to get back at the greedy accountant who fucked her over, but not at the expense of women. Objectification isn’t going to liberate Rihanna anymore than it will liberate any other woman.
In conclusion, the way to address systemic power structures is not by reinforcing those power structures and systems of oppression or by making them our own. If I get rich, that won’t end class oppression. If I behave more “like a man,” that won’t liberate my sisters. Rihanna has every right to her anger, as does every person who is part of a marginalized group, but, at the same time, defending the misogyny in her video isn’t necessary in order to acknowledge that.
Men get off on this imagery, all day every day. And it results in the actual abuse and deaths of women, worldwide — mostly of poor women of colour. Men seek out marginalized women, in particular, to abuse. In Canada, Indigenous women have been treated as disposable, funneled into prostitution and then ignored as they disappeared from our streets. Ninety per cent of women in “massage parlours” across Canada are Asian women. Black and latina women are stereotyped in prostitution and pornography, subjected to racist abuse on top of the run-of-the-mill sexualization.
All women are vulnerable under patriarchy.
What happens in real life, every single day, to women and girls everywhere is almost too upsetting to think about, yet we’re to celebrate that very imagery in Rihanna’s video as empowering? No.