Rihanna Unleashed: Black Bodies, White Bodies and Empowerment in BBHMM
When acclaimed hip hop artist Rihanna released her music video Bitch better have my money in 2015, the audience response was mostly negative: critiqued by several white feminists as “crude, unwieldy, misogynistic” (Ellen 2015) due to the depictions of violence and exploitation of a white female victim. To be sure, Rihanna’s video is violent and narrates a black women’s journey of anger, violence and power. However, in my opinion, through the use of controversial imagery, violence and sexualisation of the female body, the video is an ‘unsaid’ commentary on the historical relationship between race, human capital and hegemonic systems of power. In this video, Rihanna occurs not only at the level of ‘what’ is being represented, but also, ‘how’ she is being represented, ultimately ‘framing the framer’ and making a bold statement by means of the unsaid. In this piece, I would like to offer a different perspective and an analysis of the video which received some complex critiques. I argue that through the mechanism of irony, Rihanna disrupts the hegemonic systems of power; white systematic power and “white solipsism” (Yancy 2008). Based on this notion, this piece will explore how chauvinistic language and stereotypical representation of an angry black female body becomes an expression of black women’s cultural and economic empowerment through modes of irony, in a society dominated by a hegemonic order of whiteness.
In the context of the video, by reclaiming the use of chauvinistic language and dark visual depictions of violence, Rihanna plays on the stereotypes of historical images of black bodies, such as that of the angry black women, to disrupt hegemonic systems of power. As we know, in the North American society, the history and portrayal of the black body is fundamentally linked to the white gaze, a gaze which depicts the black body as monstrous; something which is to be feared. This preconceived historical view of black bodies as angry, big and monstrous is reinforced in the use of particular music lyrics when Rihanna says “Y'all should know me well enough and Ballin' bigger than LeBron.” Furthermore, this very notion of monstrosity is depicted through Rihanna’s physicality in Bitch better have my money from the moment we are introduced to the white “pure” wife; a representation of hegemonic normative femininity and beauty. In this regard, Rihanna’s blackness is the diametrical opposite as “the black body is constructed as antithetical within a binary logic that points to the white body’s own […] as normative” (Yancy 2008). I believe that it is this very notion of blackness that Rihanna uses as a weapon to disrupt the hegemonic feminine beauty ideal by subjecting the wife to various abuses such as stuffing in a truck, hanging her upside down naked, etc. This oppression of the ‘universal ideal’ is in turn disruption of white systematic power since it puts the black body in position of power. As a result, in my opinion, Rihanna defies the normative hegemonic power system through the mechanism of irony by (re)claiming the value of her as well as the labor of black people.
The actions and aggressive behavior of Rihanna depicts the stereotypical image of ‘the sapphire’ when viewed from the white gaze, however, a ‘mode of combat’ irony becomes a weapon to displace the hegemonic structure and ultimately becomes an expression of black women’s cultural and economic empowerment. In my opinion, Rihanna deliberately uses irony to represent an angry black female body not only to disrupt the white gaze, but also claim the value of her work; the same labour and capital which was made off the backs of black women and slaves throughout history however was enjoyed by white supremacists. The title and chorus of the video itself “Bitch better have my money, pay me what you owe me” reveals the powerful and bold nature of Rihanna claiming her capital which is being exploited by the white accountant and his wife. As demonstrated in the video, the accountant is revealed to have stolen Rihanna’s property, as a result, Rihanna kidnaps the accountant’s wife; his property. According to Hutcheon, “Irony becomes ‘a negative passion, to displace and annihilate a dominant depiction of the world’ […] In this view, irony’s intimacy with the dominant discourses it contests – it uses their very language as it’s said – is its strength” (Hutcheon 29). In my opinion, by embodying the image of the ‘sapphire’, Rihanna portrays something more than the said and frames the framer by combatting the figure of an angry black woman through the unsaid; the unspoken violence, discrimination and exploitation faced by black bodies throughout history. Accordingly, this hidden meaning behind the stated one ultimately challenges white solipsism and leads to black women’s cultural and economic empowerment.
I think that through the mechanism of irony, Rihanna’s video illustrates what Fanon called, “the historic-racial schema” (Fanon cited in Butler 1993) bringing to light the historical contingencies and different kinds of violence experienced by black bodies. Thus, white feminists’ reading of the video reveals the perceived depiction of black bodies, which is that of an angry black woman; however, I think that they fail to read past white solipsism. As stated by Hobson, “In a culture that is more comfortable with black forgiveness than it is with black anger, such narratives will be difficult to engage beyond blanket condemnation” (Hobson 2015). To be clear, I am just offering a different interpretation of the video as I think that Rihanna’s unapologetic embrace of power and violence illustrates her insistence on getting paid for her labour while exposing the histories of those thousands of black workers who experienced oppression due to white systemic power. I believe that the stereotypical visual depictions and powerful language in BBHMM calls attention to viewing the video through a different lens, even if that means looking past preconceived beliefs and representations of black bodies throughout history.
Butler, Judith. Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia. Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising. Routledge, 1993. 15-22.
Ellen, Barbara. “Rihanna’s self-indulgent video is not clever. It’s pure misogyny.” The Guardian. 5 July 2015. Web.
Hobson, Janell. Rihanna Unchained. Ms. Blog Magazine. Web. 8 July 2015.
Hutcheon, Linda. Risky Business: The ‘trans ideological’ politics of irony. Irony’s Edge. Routledge, 1994. 9-34.
Yancy, George. Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Litfield, 2008. 16-20.