Talkback: In Defense of Rihanna

October 16, 2013
By

By Muna Mire

pouritThe hugely delayed video for Rihanna’s single ‘Pour It Up’ has received undue amounts of negative attention since it dropped a couple weeks ago. Initially slated to be hosted on Vevo, ‘Pour It Up’ was actually taken down right after it was posted (within about a half hour) due to backlash against its “explicit content.” Vevo then asked Rihanna for a censored version, which she provided. The censored version of the video has since been reinstated to the site. Most — if not all — of the critiques that have been made in the media are centred around the fact that the video features a very scantily-clad Rihanna twerking atop a throne, twerking in shallow water, and yes, twerking on a stripper pole.

First, a little primer on ‘Pour It Up’. The video was actually co-directed by Rihanna. Her director begged off the project for reasons unknown at the last minute in September. Call me a cynic, but judging by the backlash, I would venture that he didn’t want his name attached to something so overtly in affirmation of raw female sexual agency. In many ways, I’m glad he did because the video would have been a very different one if a man had been given the lone director’s credit. Either way, in typical Rihanna fashion, she didn’t waste much time worrying about it. In the video, Riri showcases her own newly acquired pole dancing skills. Her Instagram evidences the fact that she’s been taking lessons from personal trainer Nicole “The Pole” Williams, who appears in the video herself and whose mind blowing audition tape for ‘Pour It Up’ was released as a teaser to the music video (it currently has nearly three million views on Youtube). This should be surprising to no one, as the lyrics of ‘Pour It Up’ are clearly about the strip club:

Strip clubs and dolla’ bills, I still got mo’ money

Patron shots can I get a refill, I still got mo’ money

Strippers going up and down that pole and I still got mo’ money

4′o clock and we ain’t going home, cause I still got mo’ money

Money make the world go round, I still got mo’ money

Bands make your girl go down, I still got mo’ money

The fact that there are no men in this video stood out to me immediately. Upon watching the video and discussing it with my friend and porn star Loree Erickson, I realized Rihanna is assuming the positionality of both sex worker and consumer: the lyrics are about her showering strippers in money, but in the video we see her on the pole. Needless to say, the entire setup is very queer. And what’s more, the aerial performances in the music video are truly impressive: athletic, synchronized, artful, and somehow — despite outcry to the contrary — they are not demeaning to the women who performed them. Now, would I have liked to see a music video that actually showed what life is like for sex workers? Yes, the ‘Pour It Up’ video is a case study in fantasy, not realism. Am I thrilled about her comical devotion to money? Not really, but there are other things I like about the video. Namely, how Rihanna situates herself relative to sex workers as a woman in the rap game.

I’m a Rihanna apologist; I’ll admit as much up front if asked. Despite her more problematic moments, the best parts of ‘Pour It Up’ are an encapsulation of everything I love about her. In ‘Pour It Up’ Rihanna is paying homage to the long tradition of dancehall queens like Patra, Lady Saw, and Carlene whose musical stylings, aggressive in-your-face sexuality, and aesthetic she heavily borrows from (that blonde wig, for example). This tradition is about unapologetic women using what they have to get what they want — which is the bottom line of Rihanna’s video (and ultimately, her career). I choose to defend Rihanna particularly because the criticisms lodged at her are too often anti-Black, anti-woman, anti-Caribbean, and in this case, anti-sex work. So, let’s get into why the public’s reaction has been condemnatory instead of supportive.

Several prominent women have decided to take it upon themselves to call Rihanna out for behaviour they see as irresponsible. Sinead O’Connor, Annie Lennox, and others have come out decrying the fact that a) women musicians of the younger generation are being exploited for their sexually charged public personas, and b) that these young women are acting as poor role models to their even younger fans. There are several problematic assumptions at work here. First, it seems that it’s only female artists who are asked to serve, over and over again, as role models for young people. There is a clear double standard, and it almost always comes back to policing women’s sexuality in the public spotlight. It should be apparent, but female pop stars are not required to serve as anyone’s role model. In Rihanna’s case, she certainly did not communicate that serving as a role model was a priority for her. In fact, she has pretty much said the opposite. If you don’t want your kid listening to Rihanna, that’s on you. Plain and simple.

riricashSecond, the criticisms that young female musicians like Rihanna have been receiving about selling their sexualized image to the music industry are almost always whorephobic. It’s paternalistic and antifeminist to condemn what a woman chooses to do with her body, including the choice to engage in sex work (be it stripping or otherwise). It’s no mistake that the dollar bills Riri is throwing around in the video have her likeness on them. She is making the claim that, in some sense, she is selling her body like the strippers and dancers in her video. And she doesn’t have a problem with that. Far from it, she embraces it. Rihanna is the opposite of whorephobic. Of course, there is the legitimate question of whether she is appropriating experiences that are not her own for profit, but for the most part it is refreshing to see that Rihanna chooses to ally herself with strippers and dancers in a way that other rappers (including female ones) do not. Riri has no interest in being “one of the boys” because she’s down with the hoes. That is subversive; it’s also pro-queer and deeply feminist.

Unfortunately, her critics don’t see it that way. Dr. Helen Wright, a former president of the Girls’ School Association in England says of the ‘Pour It Up’ video that, “No matter how much people may talk about its artistic merit, it nonetheless objectifies and therefore demeans women by casting them in the mould of whore.” For Wright, all whores are victims — they necessarily lack agency. The language of exploitation that second wave feminists like Wright, O’Connor, and Lennox are using to be “critical” of Rihanna and even Miley Cyrus (and there have been comparisons) denies these women agency in their choice to be slutty. This critique is tired; slut shaming and whorephobia are antifeminist. And while there is a separate conversation to be had around race and appropriation in the case of Miley Cyrus, it seems that no one is actually interested in having that conversation. I honestly think most people are angry because Miley is testing the limits of her newfound, somewhat awkward sexuality in the public eye, and not because she is appropriating Black culture for cool points. She has the right to be slutty, however. She does not have the right to appropriate, not when Black bodies remain universally despised but white bodies performing Blackness are “edgy.” Certainly not when Rihanna will have a much harder time owning her sluttiness because of the ways in which patriarchy and racism overlap.

Finally, these critiques miss the much bigger point — that women are centered in ‘Pour It Up’. It is their talents, skills, and agency that takes the stage. Rarely do we see women looking as powerful as they do in the video for ‘Pour It Up’ and that’s a real shame. Women owning their bodies and declaring their sexual agency isn’t something we should be afraid of — even (or perhaps especially) if they are doing so on a stripper pole. And while it would also be wildly inaccurate to state that all women engaged in sex work are doing so because it’s personally empowering and what they want to be doing, I don’t think this video makes that claim. It’s time to leave the second wave behind; the most vitriolic of Riri’s critics are not young feminists but middle-aged women. They don’t speak for me or most of the women who actually listen to Rihanna’s music. And besides, it’s far from perfect, but the ‘Pour It Up’ music video was made under the direct creative control of a woman and there are actually, literally, no men in it. The male gaze is nonexistent here, or exists as an afterthought: do Rihanna’s critics know how rare that is in the music industry?

______________________________

munaMuna Mire is an organizer, writer, and a Black girl from the future. A recent University of Toronto grad, she is on the editorial board of {Young}ist, a young people-powered media start up. You can find her freelance work at Rabble.ca, Huffington Post, and Bitch Media. Her interests include movement building, postcolonial literature, feminisms, and speaking back to The Man.

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14 Responses to Talkback: In Defense of Rihanna

  1. Lisa Johnson on October 16, 2013 at 6:10 am

    I love this and agree with it! I am also a Rihanna apologist, and I love this queer and anti-whorephobic reading of the video. However, on the statement, “it’s time to leave the second wave behind,” I would just note (as a third-waver who has criticized the second wave but also tried to highlight its complexity) that it is important to recall the suppressed history of feminism’s second wave (the sex radical side). Pro-sex-worker feminist philosophies have their roots there.

  2. Amina on October 16, 2013 at 7:39 am

    Trash.

  3. Ratchet Rachel on October 16, 2013 at 9:15 am

    Muna Mire is absolutely on point! I read “Pour It Up” in the same fashion. The women in that video, including Rihanna, are athletes, artists, and business minded. That video is an ode to the Goddess!

  4. Irene on October 16, 2013 at 10:38 am

    This is an honest and very thoughtful analysis, thank you for writing it – it seems to be such a rarity these days. In seeing recent commentary from Sinead O’Connor, I’ve felt so disappointed because she has been such a strong source of inspiration. And I wonder, what happened to the Sinead of “Daddy I’m Fine”?

  5. Daily Feminist Cheat Sheet on October 16, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    […] In defense of Rihanna. […]

  6. tania on October 17, 2013 at 9:17 am

    I have mixed emotions about the video. Rihanna admitted in her interview with Oprah of “faking it until she felt comfortable presenting herself a certain way” or something along those lines. So, it’s hard to tell if this is something she really wants to do. She reminds me so much of Britney Spears. A young woman being pressured to sell herself a certain way. When Britney recently came out and said she didn’t want her new video to be too sexual, her people quickly came out and tried to clean up her comments. I know Rihanna helped direct this video, but it could be a matter of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” The music industry is cold hearted and chews people up and spits them out. Especially, young women pop stars. They exploit their body, looks, and youth then move on to the next one. I think that is where Sinead O’Connor was coming from with her letter. She’s been in the industry, behind the scenes. I think her comments from a pure place of love/concern. I think she sees the lack of balance of representation of women singers today. Yes, there is nothing wrong with being empowered with your sexuality, but why is that the only image being shown of young singers, especially young black women singers (with the exception of Janelle Monae)

    • Desirae on October 17, 2013 at 5:29 pm

      I agree with you. I also feel like the balance is very off. If you look at the talent coming from other countries, they rarely revert to being just sexy and using their bodies to get attention – Florence + the Machine, Adele, Ellie Goulding (all beautiful women with TONS of talent, not using their bodies for shock value, because that’s what it comes down to). Yet, our most popular female artists (Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, etc) sexualize seemingly everything and feel they have to be OUT THERE in order to gain popularity. Popularity and attention do not equate to respect. The music isn’t even respectable.

      I’m not against women doing what they want with their bodies. That is indeed anti-feminist. But I am against making it sound like these actions are empowering for us. The overall message being sent is that it is okay to objectify us, and that yes, we are nothing more than sexy.

  7. Sarah on October 17, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    So… You’re encouraging female celebrities to continue glamorizing the objectification of women, but criticizing them for borrowing a dance from another culture?

    • adikia on October 18, 2013 at 4:54 pm

      Mire seems to be suggesting that every person, especially women in this case, have the right to freely express themselves and their sexuality as they see fit and without judgement, at least to the extent that it doesn’t exploit and/or appropriate the culture of a marginalized group for personal profit. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

      Also, Rihanna seems to be fairly self-conscious of her own choice to objectify herself, at least in this specific video, in the sense that HER OWN IMAGE IS MONEY. In the video, that image-money pays her and allows her to pay for what she wants.

      The video also seems to implicitly suggest that, like the strippers who sell a fantasy image for money, Rihanna is exactly willing to do the same, thus making her endeavors quasi-equivalent to those of the women who are stripping. She also goes a step further by suggesting/boasting that her image is so solid that its already money, her image is money in the bank.

      As Mire indicates, she actively and unabashedly chooses to make these associations and present herself in this way. To the extent that she does do this, she also seems to be expressing some degree of solidarity with the other women who are stripping/pole dancing in the video, which is noteworthy in itself.

      In some ways, the video is almost a critique of celebrity culture, as it exposes – in a very explicit, provocative, and even cynical way, the hidden reality of what is necessary to be a successful celebrity at her level and beyond. No matter what type of celebrity you are – you must sell your image to the public in order to remain successful.

      Rihanna is making an open display of that reality, embracing it, claiming it, and making it in her own image (which happily happens to to be interestingly subversive). She takes control of the situation, masters it, and bends it to her own purposes.

      In a sense, she is making the statement that she is owner of her own image, the agent of her own agency, within an otherwise exploitative medium.

      That’s pretty freakin’ tough!

      That said, when she starts singing about the vacuity of fame, celebrity, money, wealth, etc., then I will be really excited.

  8. adikia on October 18, 2013 at 3:58 pm

    What a wonderful essay and reading of the video! Thanks!

  9. Joanna on October 20, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    UGH. This truth especially your last paragraph.

    Great essay!

  10. […] Talkback: In defense of Rihanna […]

  11. Ann Randle on November 13, 2013 at 9:57 pm

    I loved reading this post, as it’s very well written argument, and only after I read it did I watch the Rihanna video for the first time.

    I saw money, young fit skin, expensive brands, young fit bodies without faces, bling, young women nearly nude gyrating, fur coats, young asses in the air. I couldn’t help but associate it all with “these are the status symbols money can buy” – fur coats, jewelry, big brands, and young women. The male gaze might be nonexistent, but it reads as an advertisement to buy young women.

    The most interesting image in it was her fur coat dragging in the water. I was hoping it was a reference to natural women’s moisture when they are aroused but I think I read too much into that shot.

  12. Philly on November 14, 2013 at 3:18 am

    What a load of bollocks…industry hoes keep breeding and as generations go women will become more dumb and probably just powerful in a pole. Strong women or weak little girls playing with the big cats. I wonder how many men made money of pour it up? But apparently riri is the boss cos she is pole dancing and owns it!? Any1 in the public eye or simply on our tv is a likely role model in today’s society so sayin celebs dnt choose that isa joke. They dnt mind these kids ccoming to see them twerk in concert. Its a joke and so is this article.

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