Rihanna's edgy new music video is mind-blowing - and misogynistic
If you haven't seen Rihanna's two-week old music video Bitch, Better Have My Money, you're clearly in a minority: it has been viewed over 25 million times since its release.
The 'Language, Nudity, Violence' warning at the beginning of the 7-minute video - co-directed by the singer herself - turns out to be an understatement.
The song itself - which has been talked about less than the video, a telling sign - is ordinary. It's club music, and it will play at top volume in nightclubs and cars for a few weeks. Had it not been accompanied by this video, it would likely have stayed on the charts for a month and then sunk quietly away.
It's possible to respect Rihanna as an artist even if you aren't part of the #RihannaNavy, the loyal army of fans that automatically catapult anything she does to number one on the charts.
She's the top singles artist of the digital music era, with Reuters reporting that she's the first artist to sell 100 million digital singles. So it's entirely possible to salute the space she has carved for herself as a hyper-successful singer/ songwriter in a male-dominated industry without being enamoured of her talent.
And I do.
But this video? It's got problematic written all over it.
Not because of violence, though there's enough of that here to make a serial killer insecure. Not because it's so angry it could burn a hole through your skin (the presence of Mads Mikkelsen from Hannibal is either clever casting or poetic accident). Not even because of its gratuitous use of nudity, blood and OTT imagery - think Rihanna in a swimsuit, lounging on top of an inflatable pool on an oil tanker, shooting a Uzi submachine gun into the air.
Rihanna is the top-selling singles artist of the digital era, having sold over 100 million digital singles
No, at the heart of all that's wrong with this video is violent misogyny, and it's all the more disturbing because it comes from a woman of such extraordinary influence.
The storyline is straightforward. An accountant has defrauded Rihanna out of money, so she kidnaps his wife/girlfriend, a wealthy white woman. The singer's 'gang' then proceeds to stuff her into a trunk, strip her naked, swing her upside down from a rope, knock her out with a bottle, forcibly intoxicate her and then almost let her drown in a swimming pool.
When she still doesn't get her money back, Rihanna finds the accountant, straps him to a chair, cuts to a collection of knives. Cut to a 'happy' ending: a naked Rihanna covered in blood, smoking weed, sitting on her trunk of money.
Readings of the 7-minute video have celebrated it as an unabashed signal of women's empowerment, the refusal of a woman to accept being cheated, and her unapologetic drive to recover what is rightfully hers.
This is a powerful video about a powerful woman. It's also a deeply problematic one
And it's definitely all of that. This is a powerful video about a powerful woman.
Except that's not all that's going on here.
It's 2015, and a powerful woman is using another woman to get back at a man. And she's using her in the most abusive, cliched ways possible: nudity, stripping, intoxication, humiliation.
As if that weren't bad enough, the accountant himself gets to keep his clothes on. Doesn't equality need to involve equal humiliation? No. But when the perpetrator of the crime doesn't get sexually humiliated or assaulted; when his female partner is tortured and pays for his crimes; when the woman's humiliation is drawn out over several very graphic minutes, it's hard to call it anything but what it is.
It's a depiction of abuse of power, just as we've accused men of doing for decades.
In an interview with the Guardian, supermodel Rachel Roberts who stars as the blonde wife, argued against reading too much into it. "Whether or not you like what she's doing in the video, Rihanna is portraying a strong woman who is fighting back, even if her methods are obviously highly questionable. Beyond that, I don't think it's particularly useful to argue the politics of the video - it was always meant to be over-the-top and not taken too seriously."
Except you can't choose your politics halfway. A video that's a show of female strength but falls into the same traps as male power is a step back, not ahead. And a woman like Rihanna - whose influence, strength and power don't need any validation - celebrating that trap in blood-spattered technicolour is the most destructive move of all.