Hanging upside-down, swinging like a pendulum and naked, the grimacing face of the female victim from Rihanna’s new (NSFW) “Bitch Better Have My Money” music video seems to be the face that has launched a thousand think-pieces. In seven disturbing minutes, Rihanna takes revenge on her dodgy (white) accountant by kidnapping his (white) wife, stripping her, hanging her by her feet, using her as a party prop, and drowning her.
Although some commentators have praised the music video as a testament to black female empowerment, others have criticized Rihanna’s decision to sexualize violence against white women in the process. Consequently, Rihanna’s work has sparked renewed debate around the relationship between feminism and anti-racism.
Both sides make compelling cases. Making a woman suffer for the sake of hurting a man implies that, as Helen Lewis writes, “Women’s pain is only interesting insofar as it makes men’s lower lips go wobbly.” Perhaps more disturbing is the sexualization of violence throughout the video, which has attracted significant ire on social media.
On the other hand, there are parts of the video that function as inspiring images for black women who wish to own their sexuality. Despite labelling the video as “violently misogynist”, June Eric-Udorie concedes that:
“…in those [inspiring] moments, I’m fist pumping the air because in the world we live in, everybody wants to control a woman’s sexuality. So to see a black woman use her body the way she wants is a revolutionary act in itself.”
With many feminists arguing that the video is misogynistic, and a groundswell of support for Rihanna coming from black and minority ethnic (BME) people, it seems difficult for those concerned with both kinds of oppression to navigate such contested territory. One may reconcile the disagreement by admitting that both sides are correct; the music video is misogynistic, and it is also empowering for BME women.
Is it acceptable, as Rihanna’s defenders argue, to fight one oppressive power structure (racism) with another (patriarchy)? I empathize with those who argue that it is. Some areas of white feminism are significantly less loud in their condemnation of violence against women of color. Rihanna’s reclamation of what was owed to her by the white, wealthy couple was a symbol of power for many BME women; it appealed to the fantasy of reclaiming wealth and dignity in the context of structural racism. Her “incredibly bold assertion of power…deserves our respect and a deeper context than ‘is this feminist or not.” The inclusion of sexualized violence may also have boosted coverage of the video’s otherwise empowering message, specifically into circles that would not otherwise be exposed to it.
Rihanna is also, as Simone de Beauvoir once remarked (quoted in Helen Lewis’ article), “Half-victim, half-accomplice; like everyone else.” Lewis goes on to remind the reader that “we all make our accommodations with the status quo”. This is a powerful point; women should not be ridiculed for wearing make-up whilst criticizing beauty ideals, just as Occupy protestors should not be derided for drinking at Starbucks.
All that said, one can empathize without condoning. This is where anarcha-feminism comes in. As I have previously written, anarchism is typified by a skepticism towards power structures, and the consistent anarchist recognizes the contradiction of using one form of oppression to eliminate another. For this anarcha-feminist, Rihanna’s use of misogynistic imagery is — though understandable — not validated by her music video’s anti-racist undertones. Supporting sexualized violence in the service of anti-racism is, for anarchists, like carrying the One Ring to its destruction by wearing it.
This approach acknowledges that one should not combat kyriarchy by wielding the tools of oppression. Fighting one form of oppression with another has a history of spectacular failure: from the homophobic consequences of Canadian anti-pornography laws to harmful transphobic sentiments in some areas of radical feminist thought. Alternatives to such approaches have been posited by various anarcha-feminists and anarchist race activists.
One must also question the mindset of those who would argue for such a position. Social justice advocates should be guided by an empathy towards many marginalized groups. Feeling more strongly about the issues affecting a group you are personally a member of, or indeed close to, is understandable. But widening that sphere of empathy should be a vital aim.
Rihanna’s controversial new music video has successfully focused attention on the relationship between race and gender. There is truth behind accusations of misogyny, but there is an equally strong case to be made that it represents a radical empowering of black and ethnic minority women. However, when it comes to the question of whether the latter is justification for the former, the anarcha-feminist answer is a resounding, though empathetic, “no”.