Watching the opening scene of Rihanna's #BBHMM video, I was reminded of the iconic Michelangelo Antonioni film, L'Eclisse. In the film, Monica Vitti wanders through a breakup with her financier boyfriend, struggling to reclaim ownership of her own identity, to overcome her total objectification within the relationship. There's the immediate similarity of the beautiful blonde ciphers, the icy properties of men with money, but that alone made it clear Rihanna has some shit she wants to say, and it's important. The video's drop coincided with predictably polarized reactions. A thinkpiece on Refinery29 declared it "Not Safe For Work or Feminists" while Twitter accused Rihanna of glorifying violence against women, and condemned the "kidnapped female" trope. We weren't sure it was all that clear-cut, so we brought in two of our favorite cultural commentators and feminists, writer Karley "Slutever" Sciortino and artist Rachel Libeskind, to chime in.
Its female victim is symbolic, not literal
KARLEY SCIORTINO: The character of the female to me seems to be almost inhuman, she represents an idea of what society thinks of femininity: tall, blonde, white, skinny, submissive, big tits, the little dog. They seemingly intended to make it as obvious as possible that this is an unrelatable caricature of femininity. The possession and object of this powerful white guy. The character seems intentionally unreal, a parody of society's idea of woman, she's almost a Barbie. She is what society expects women to look and act like, and she's directly juxtaposed with Rihanna and her girl gang, which are more realistic depictions of women.
It's our gateway to challenging music video stereotypes
RACHEL LIBESKIND: What was "normal" when we were kids in 2000 has pivoted tremendously in the last 15 years. What was hyper-sexualized or shocking in a Toni Braxton or Ashanti video is now sweet and safe, completely normalized. What we expect to see and are okay seeing [today] has widened and with that comes seeing women as perpetrators of a kind of violence—power. It's about pushing the portrayals of women even further. I feel like this video is the gateway to desensitizing us to a completely new depiction of women who are powerful and violent but aren't like, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.
...And sexual stereotypes
LIBESKIND: Look at what's happening politically with marriage equality—which really means that a homosexual lifestyle is accepted into mainstream American culture—as well as what is on trend: 50 Shades Of Grey. It's just jarring for a woman to be the dominant, perpetrating the violence, rather than a man. The aesthetics of the video make sense in a culture with a widening acceptance of different types of sexuality.
It's shocking—but not for the obvious reasons
LIBESKIND: It's rare to see Rihanna as a harbinger of violence, when we are used to seeing her as a sexual object or as a "woman in love"and in "BBHMM", she makes the white, female victim the object of sex, and the receiver of [Rihanna's] own violence. Aesthetically it almost reads like a lesbian BDSM movie. It fetishizes violence but with an empowering message: RiRi is a BAD BITCH who, like any man, demands to get paid and will not get walked all over.
It powerfully reclaims female nudity
SCIORTINO: It's good to normalize the female body. In so many music videos where you see nudity it's framed in these really specific ways: abstract female body parts just looking hot. When Rihanna's naked she isn't posing in a hyper-sexual way, she's covered in blood and she'll cut your dick off. She looks powerful, but it's almost casual, normalized. It's not about just showing nipple, it's about showing a powerful representation of the female body, powerful sexual images where women are in charge of the way that they're being viewed, rather than being shot by a male photographer, bent over with their tongue out.
It's a reminder to go after what you're owed
LIBESKIND: I think the seed at the heart of this song and video is how notoriously difficult it is for artists (of any kind) to get their due payment, and statistically much harder for females to get paid, or get raises or bonuses or promotions. Her white male accountant may be a stand in for a manager, a record label exec, but he's the villain here, and this video is really about the lengths a female artist will go to get paid. I think in some way, this song may be a kind of oblique anthem about standing your ground to get the money you are owed.
It's not just about sex and gender
SCIORTINO: This isn't necessarily about gender or feminism, it seems like a deliberate critique of a lot of things, including privilege. The way the woman is depicted isn't, to me, entirely blameless, she represents a kind of selfish person who stands by in an unjust society because it benefits her. The real conflict, for me, is between Rihanna and the guy. This is a society where rich white guys have all the money, and Rihanna is a black woman reclaiming the power that's owed to her. It's revolutionary
It's a throwback to the power of 90s hip hop icons
LIBESKIND: I feel like the violence, the sexuality, the nudity [of the video] are part of a long legacy of hip hop and R&B songs, but it's disturbing and shocking because it's an all female cast. If these actions were done by men we'd barely notice, but it's still shocking to see a female covered in blood after getting violent retribution. I love Eminem but he glamorized and normalized violence against women, and this reframes that. It also throws back to the power of Foxy Brown and Lil' Kim, the original gangstresses.