Rihanna just released her music video for her hit single “Bitch Better Have My Money”, a song based on a real experience where her previous accountant cheated her out of millions of dollars. I have now watched the video several times, and I’m currently assembling a bountiful offering to leave at the altar of BadGirlRiRi. However, not everyone is as ready as me to praise Rihanna, a lot of feminists (mostly White) are upset; further they are calling the video misogynist. I have read think piece after think piece, and have found some patterns: many feminists do not have the appropriate knowledge base to apply a critical race analysis to their dissection of popular culture, you can apparently try to discredit future backlash by saying you don’t care if people think you don’t understand race, and lastly you can apparently not fully watch a video before writing a critique and then publish said critique in a major publication (the woman they kidnap never dies, why do people keep saying this ???).
There is a lot to unpack in this video, from the subversion of racial and gender power dynamics to violence against women by women. Though I’m a fan of the video over all, it is important to note there are problematic elements. I mean I am watching a women being tied up, hung upside down topless, being forced to consume drugs and alcohol, and knocked out with a bottle, all this amongst being repeatedly stuffed in a damn trunk. Violence against women is pervasive and a real problem in our culture, so is it right to excuse the violence we see in Rihanna’s video? We shouldn’t excuse it, but we should look at its socio-political meaning. Further, as Mikki Kendall reminded me in a recent TWIB appearance, sometimes we like problematic media, and that’s ok. After all we can still critique and analyze the images and narratives we consume, but still tear up the dance floor when “Get Low” comes on.
As we have a dual relationship with the media, our existing power dynamics shape our art; additionally, our consumption of popular culture and other cultural mediums have a broader social impact. So what about the violence in Rihanna’s video? Is she playing into existing social power dynamics that demean and marginalize women or is she subverting these norms? Rihanna is a visionary and the creator of some of the most important cultural artifacts of our time; she showcases her brilliance here by taking a narrative rooted in history (Black women at the service of the White elite) and flipping it on its head. However, in the end it is still a member of a marginalized group whose pain the audience mocks.
There is conviction and intention in every frame of this video, and unfortunately those within the feminist movement with the largest platforms and microphones are only scratching the surface. So I have decided to delve deeper and unpack this iconic video.
The decision to make a girl group of kidnappers:
The trio of badass ladies hitting the open road with the accountant’s wife in the back served up some Thelma and Louise/Crossroads realness, and perhaps Rihanna wanted to pay homage to these iconic films (yes. Crossroads is iconic). Rihanna’s choice here is intentional. She could have chosen huge burly men and charged them with the task of lugging the huge case full of bound, white woman around on the road trip. However she chose two women, one Indian and one White as her accomplices. She showcases women making a successful team and their camaraderie. Rihanna’s character knew when she had to get what was hers, it was two women she could rely on. Further, she plays with racial power dynamics by clearly making the female sidekick of color her numero uno and having the White girl do the grunt work i.e. lugging around the case and taking care of their victim while she vomits and Rihanna rolls her eyes and gets high. Women of color have been taking care of white women, their homes, and their children for centuries. When Rihanna makes the White female the least important member of the group and makes her do more of the grunt work, she is flipping the script on racialized gender dynamics.
Why make the woman rich?
Barbara Ellen at The Guardian
makes the case attempts to make the case that because she is rich and white we lack empathy for the kidnapped victim, and thus condone the violence she endures throughout the course of the video (read the Ellen piece if only to dissect her use of ‘gangsta’). Yes, we live in a patriarchal society, but to argue that there is a larger cultural trend of not empathizing with rich, White women is a reach at best. Especially since we live in a country that still has difficulty understanding that Black women even feel pain. But let’s talk about why the woman in the video is rich and not some homely middle class accountant’s wife. Rihanna’s accountant has stolen a large amount of money from her, and we can infer that he is using that very money to give his wife a lavish lifestyle complete with couture pantsuits and designer undergarments. So, when we watch the kidnapping victim parading around her lavish hotel room and later make the connection that the wealth that surrounds her is at least in part due to the exploitation of Rihanna, we are able to see a narrative rooted in history. This white couple has stolen wealth from a Black woman and is reaping the benefits of her hard work. If only that scenario solely existed in Rihanna’s revenge fantasy world.
Hanging her from the ceiling upside down while topless:
This is arguably one of the most controversial scenes in the entire video. It was also my favorite. It took me more than one watch to figure out why the image of a white woman hung upside down swinging stuck out to me more than a naked, bloody Rihanna in a case full of cash. When we look at the history of protecting White womanhood in this country, any discussion would be remiss without talking about lynching. Many Black men were lynched publicly for perceived slights against White femininity. Many White women were complicit in this brutalization of Black men and were present at public lynchings. There was a period of time in this nation’s history where a White woman’s account of a Black man flirting with her would get him killed, and as Dylan Roof shows us Black people are still killed in the name of White women. Further, White women were often complicit in these violent, racist acts done in their name, while simultaneously ignoring the sexual violence White men had been subjected Black women to for centuries. So seeing this white woman hanging upside down, well in some ways it felt like retribution.
Why cast Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen as “The Accountant”?
Several pieces decrying Rihanna as a violent misogynist and an anti-feminist named the actor playing the accountant, yet for some reason neglected to name any of the females in the video besides Rihanna…hmmmmm. Mads Mikkelsen plays Hannibal Lecter on NBC’s Hannibal, and this casting choice is brilliant. That TV show is about a serial killer. If you can watch and praise that, why not BadGirlRiRi and her almost as equally badass henchwomen? (Also, there is an episode of Hannibal where one of the victims is strung up in a barn, and I didn’t see any think pieces on it.)
There are layers upon layers in this video and unfortunately most “feminist” critiques miss almost all of them. Chief among them is the
inadequate non-existent analysis of the role of race in the video or an understanding of the history of racism within feminist movements. Racism has been a part of feminism since its first wave White women have been throwing Black women under the bus and dehumanizing them since before the first suffragette marched for her right to vote, and in a lot of ways mainstream feminism hasn’t gotten much better. So when Black women watch this video, Rihanna doesn’t just get back at her accountant, she tells White women that she’s about her money more than she’s about them. As for me, BadGirlRiRi is the queen, and I’m going to watch this video again, this time with popcorn.
For some other takes on the BBHMM video check out:
Mia McKenzie on Black Girl Dangerous: This is What Rihanna’s BBHMM Says About Black Women, White Women and Feminism
Sunny Singh of Media Diversified: So We’re All Still Talking About Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money?