“My tits bother you?” Rihanna famously, gleefully, said to the media on the red carpet at the CFDA Fashion Awards in 2014. The question came in response to a reporter’s inquiry into whether the singer’s entirely see-through outfit would get her into “trouble.” Rihanna’s thoughts on the matter? “They’re covered in Swarovski crystals, girl!”
The same year as the CFDAs, she bared her chest in what was dubbed a “shocking” spread for Lui magazine, and was subsequently banned from Instagram for posting the shots. By now, Rihanna showing her nipples is par for the course. Her latest music video, for “Needed Me,” released on 4/20, was the fourth in a row to feature them. Only, the conversation is about more than tits: time and again, the media finds fault with Rihanna for simply being Rihanna. Each time she drops a video, the same tired debate rages: does the exposure of her body mean she’s being objectified? Does she perpetuate misogynist stereotypes? The Daily Beast and Slate both debated whether “Needed Me,” the Harmony Korine-directed, strip club-set gore fantasy, was “gratuitous” or “empty exploitation.”
But the measure of real power in Rihanna’s music videos has little to do with how much, or little, she’s wearing. In the 2015 epic, “Bitch Better Have My Money”—her most contentious visual treatment to date, and the first in which she bared her nipples—she goes out of her way to show us that nudity does not equal vulnerability. And it’s captured perfectly in one shot: that final image of her lounging, totally nude, smoking a blunt. She’s lying on a pile of money she’s rightfully owed; she’s covered in the blood of a rich white man. It’s perhaps the most potent image of Rihanna in existence. To interpret her in this instance as a passive sexual object, or vulnerable victim, because she happens to be naked, would be to entirely miss the point.
There have been occasions when she appeared much less powerful, despite wearing much more. The video for “Pon De Replay,” directed by Director X, was a fairly typical visual for an emerging female artist in 2005. Rihanna danced on a platform to get the attention of a male DJ, and there are close shots of men watching her. In another early video, 2006’s “SOS,” Rihanna was caressed and carried by her male back-up dancers. In both—and also, to an extent, in 2007’s “Shut Up And Drive”—there was a sense of seeking validation from voyeuristic male eyes and hands. But things began to change after the release of 2008’s Good Girl Gone Bad, the album that’s considered a major turning point in her career, in which Rih assumed more creative control. Male approval is nowhere to found in the majority of Rihanna’s visual catalogue: as Fusion point out, of Rihanna’s 38 music videos, 16 are absent men. That’s a breakdown purely by the numbers: if you look at how men are used in Rihanna’s videos, things get more interesting. After 2008, it was more likely that not that close-up shots of men in her you saw in her videos was either the grimace of a lover she was spurning, or the frightened gasp of a murder victim.
When men are present in Rihanna videos, they’re usually a backdrop, like in “Umbrella” or “Disturbia.” Occasionally, she dances with them—but the dynamic of these scenes is important (because it would be unfair to assume that a man’s mere presence could objectify Rihanna). In “Don’t Stop The Music,” she dances with a man while the spotlight fixes on her, leaving him in the dark, and making eye contact with the camera the whole time. In “Rude Boy,” she pokes fun at her male dancers, lifting up their clothes for the camera.
To Rihanna, being naked does not mean you lose your agency. To Rihanna, dancing does not mean you lose dominance.
But even when men aren’t present—including “Only Girl In The World,” “You Da One,” “Pour It Up,” “Kiss It Better,” and many more, where she dances totally alone—critics throughout the years have still cried ‘objectification’ at Rihanna’s dancing. A spokesperson for U.K. charity Safermedia commented on the “Pour It Up” video in 2013 saying, “[Rihanna’s] crude, tasteless and explicit dancing [tells her fans] that it is good for women and girls to sell their body, and right for men and boys to see women purely as a sexual commodity.” This sentiment is often echoed in mainstream media, which frequently portrays her dancing as “explicit,” “raunchy,” and “dirty.”
But dancing, sexy or otherwise, does not automatically make Rihanna a prop in her own film (especially not in “Pour It Up,” which she co-directed). In her videos, dancing is about two things: power and fun. It’s very rarely, if ever, explicitly about sex—as Director X noted when speaking to The FADER about Rihanna’s “Work,” dancing in Caribbean culture in particular is not automatically sexualized. “In West Indian culture, a dance is a dance,” as he put it. “Dancing and sex are tied together in America—if you're dancing with somebody that means you're sleeping with somebody. But that doesn't mean that in our culture it's the same.”
The female dancers in Rihanna’s videos are not defined by appearance but ability. In “Pour It Up” and “Needed Me,” she is framed by strippers and pole dancers, in a celebration of their formidable skills. Colorado College Gender Studies professor Heidi R. Lewis wrote of “Pour It Up”: “We see...the stripper as an athlete, as an artist—not as an object lacking autonomy and self-determination, as a silenced body, reduced to appearance.” Nicole “The Pole” Williams, one of the dancers featured in the video, supported this stance in an interview with Red Bull Music Academy: “There’s nothing demeaning about me doing something athletic on a pole. I’m doing the same thing that you would see a gymnast do in a gymnastics competition.”
To Rihanna, being naked does not mean you lose your agency. To Rihanna, dancing does not mean you lose dominance. So her power isn’t diminished in her music videos: over and over again it’s actually asserted. There’s the time Rihanna played a mechanic in an all-female garage; the time she played the commander of all-male military troops; the time she set fire to a douchebag boyfriend’s clothes. Rihanna has never been a victim in any of her music videos. So why do people repeatedly view her as one?
In a recent panel for BBC Radio 1Xtra on the subject “Can women ever be as successful as men in the music industry?”, I was asked to field a question I’ve heard many times before: what did I think of pop stars “like Beyoncé and Rihanna” using their sexuality in their art? The implication was that the women are perhaps being exploited, and that their success is worth less, because they are sexual beings in the public sphere. The question lingered in my mind for a while afterwards, not least because it’s always those two names—Beyoncé and Rihanna—who come up in these discussions. But aren’t they also two of the most powerful women in the business?
The exploitation of young female pop stars’ bodies by the male-dominated music industry is a problem—but Rihanna is no victim of that predatory narrative. Note the video for “S&M,” one of her most controversial: among the rope bondage and banana eating, Rihanna walks gossip blogger Perez Hilton on a leash, and shows gagged reporters writing the word “SLUT” about her on a notepad. She was quite bluntly criticizing the media’s two-dimensional reading of her—and true to form, the media response to the video mostly focused on its sexual nature.
“Bitch Better Have My Money” was no more controversial than the average Quentin Tarantino movie, but Rihanna, a black woman, receives much more backlash for exploring the same territory as a white man.
When watching all of Rihanna’s videos together, a familiar artistic thread becomes apparent: mirrors, thrones, lone dance sequences, nudity, and revenge fantasies are common tropes. It becomes unquestionable, over the course of 38 videos, that Rihanna is the author of her own image. And yet, her critics continue to undermine this agency. As Rebecca Carroll pointed out in The Guardian in 2015, “Bitch Better Have My Money” was no more controversial than the average Quentin Tarantino movie, but Rihanna, a black woman, receives much more backlash for exploring the same territory as a white man. Her gory videos are read as outright sinister, and the exposure of her body is constantly assumed to have been ordered by someone other than herself.
But Rihanna’s videos scream self-ownership. Take the frequent use of mirrors: most recently, one of the most GIF-able moments of the double video for “Work” was of Rihanna, in a packed West Indian restaurant, dancing to her own reflection. As “Work” director, Director X, noted, the mirror is a hallmark of West Indian dances: “It's something that you see in these kind of places...It felt like a great way to give her a master performance, something that is about her.” As she gets caught up in admiring her own capabilities, these performances are visual ways of asking, “My tits bother you?” Rihanna wants you to know that the only viewer’s opinion she cares about is her own.
In the 1970s, radical feminist Angela Dworkin explained what it means to say women are “objectified” in her book Woman Hating. “Women are objects, commodities,” she wrote. “It is only by asserting one’s humanness every time, in all situations, that one becomes someone as opposed to something.” Objectification isn’t rooted in sex and power alone. It’s defined as the loss of ownership and subjectivity; it means total passivity; it means being a two-dimensional non-human. But in every single one of her videos, including “Needed Me," Rihanna’s entirely in control.