When I set out to write this article, I remembered the day the Bitch Better Have My Money (BBHMM) video was released and its immediate reception on Twitter and Tumblr. Provocative as it is, the (white) feminist reception was not surprising as they either lauded it as a feminist anthem, or discredited it for its depiction of sexual violence. It feels weird to look at the video in a measuring way. Or even to look at anything and think, “that’s a real feminist thing”. ‘Feminist’ isn’t a static, unchanging quality. It’s a word used to describe a kind of active commitment to a truth: that all wom*n are complex and dynamic people, despite what oppressive cultures might otherwise say.
Counteracting the common assumption that female performers have little creative freedom, Rihanna directed the BBHMM video herself, posting on Instagram that she was nervous before it was released. It makes it easy to take it for what it is. Living in a world that commodifies blacknesses into a single, essentialised blackness, we’re reluctant to accept diversity of perspectives and intention from black artists. There is overlap between black artists as long as there is shared history and culture, but Rihanna is clearly uninterested in fitting a mould. Rihanna went bad in 2007. She ran out of fucks to give. To be bad is to refuse.
Rihanna refuses feminism so long as it holds her to moral standards. BBHMM is not a song for all wom*n to sing. It is a survival song for the wom*n at the bottom of the heap. It is about taking what is yours, because it was never going to be given to you anyway. It is a song about radical entitlement, to what you deserve, and accepting no less.
The white feminist gaze looks on black wom*n, black media, looks to images of black empowerment to see what can be taken. The white feminist looks to the wom*n of colour in their circles, their Facebook groups, waits for their comments, to regurgitate later without credit and with a newfound egoistic authority. White feminist attachment to black feminist politics, to wom*n of colour politics, is exploitation of labour. It’s not theirs to take.
And so, this video is confronting for white feminists. While they’re used to happily consuming imagery of powerful white wom*n working within The System, BBHMM presents a fleeting image of semi-oppressive power that they can’t appropriate. Rihanna offers them the position of the kidnapped wife, or the position of the henchwom*n who does a little extra heavy lifting. That’s it.
Rihanna refuses to be consumed by men so long as it does not overwhelmingly benefit her. Rihanna says no to the eyes that follow her braless figure. No—unless you have something that I want. She’s not looking for a man. The men look for her, but she only shows her clear latex clothed body when she kills yet another man who fucked her over. Her body is not waiting for you. It is hers, and it’s covered in the blood of yet another man who fucked her over. Does that upset you?
The final image of the video is Rihanna bloodied, calm, sitting on a chest of money. The transaction is already completed—she is naked, but not selling herself as much as she is reminding us of what she is already worth. Her song ‘Pour It Up’ is filled with visual links between her body and the cash it commands. She strips for nobody, her nipples are pointed diamantes, a panning shot of her crotch is interrupted by a glistening Chanel logo. Accepting the 2014 Fashion Icon Award at the CDFA Fashion Awards, she wears a translucent crystal gown, and remarks later: “Do my tits bother you? They’re COVERED in Swarovski crystals, girl!” No less, from Maya Angelou: “Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise / That I dance like I’ve got diamonds / At the meeting of my thighs?” Coming out of histories of being sold, of being a body to be used by others, black people’s relationship to capitalism is complex. Rihanna embodies her wealth in reference to those histories: she has momentarily bought her body back.
Angelou’s poem ‘Still I Rise’ follows: “Out of the huts of history’s shame / I rise / Up from a past that’s rooted in pain / I rise / I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide / Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.” Rihanna is rising, and very literally takes the elevator up to abduct the white wom*n. They’re on the same level. She barely looks at Rihanna, a classed and racialised moment of being invisible, and a fatal mistake on her part.
The video is about race and revenge. Rihanna reveals a man to be the ‘bitch’, something that might have been surprising to some unfamiliar with how the word is used in African American vernacular (AAVE). Also, the ‘wife being in the backseat of my brand new foreign car’ wasn’t as thrillingly queer as I initially wanted to imagine.
Representations of sexualised violence are not subversive, though wom*n perpetrating the violence isn’t the norm. Rihanna isn’t interested in presenting an image we can all comfortably play around with. She’s getting what she wants, and if white wom*n get in her way, she won’t extend them the humanity that they refuse her on a daily basis. The wife is returned in the end—the ransom plan didn’t work, a comment on even the value of white wom*n within white patriarchal supremacy. Rihanna shows her range of weaponry, each tool designated for a particular kind of man. Though the white wom*n receives the brunt of maltreatment throughout the video, the focus of Rihanna’s anger is pointed to men.
Cultural representation is dynamic, neither seeking the ‘truth of our experiences’ as Stuart Hall discusses, nor where identities are fixed carbon copies. Instead, representation is a process of exploring, of re-imagining. It can be used to humanise people, defying stereotypes and forming sites of empathy and connection. But representation also helps to reprocess and grow within our own identities. Representation can be where you see yourself for the first time. The BBHMM video and song instead have an emotional, political power. One which is not dependent on the maltreatment of the white wom*n itself, but what that maltreatment represents in a culture which necessarily places people within a hierarchy: prioritising yourself.