Monday, July 6, 2015

Rihanna's "Bitch Better Have My Money": Violence, Feminism, and Fantasy

Rihanna's "Bitch Better Have My Money" video is causing quite a stir, and the response has swung from playfully positive (Rebecca Nicholson says that with this release, "The music video as an event is back." (Of course, she also says that "this video is more a cartoon than a work that deserves weighty analysis" as if cartoons don't deserve weighty analysis!) to overwhelmingly negative (Barbara Ellen calls it self-indulgent misogyny and lambasts any attempts to look at it otherwise) to gushing displays of fandom (Amy Zimmerman writes that it is an anthem for baddass women) to intellectual analysis (Spencer Kornhaber's response weaves its way through autobiographical implications, racial overtones, and cinematic allusions).

If you haven't seen it yet, here it is (warning: it contains nudity, violence, and profanity).

The buzz that I've heard about the video has mostly revolved around whether or not the video is an affront to feminism, a progressive step for feminism, or completely unconcerned one way or the other.

Before I get into an analysis of the video (and you know I have one), I'd like to take a closer look at what other people are saying about it. Let's start with those who are dismissing the video as misogynistic and anti-feminist.

The aforementioned Barbara Ellen says that "The main issue here is surely: misogyny, who’s allowed to do it? And the only answer can be: nobody. It’s even difficult to excuse it on the grounds of artistic expression, given how crude is the video." She's particularly upset that a clothed male victim was not enough for a revenge fantasy and that a dehumanized, naked, sexualized female victim was added for sizzle and sexiness. She calls the work "blatant female-on-female hatred."

Similarly, Sarah Vine sees no redeeming qualities in the work, citing concern for her 12-year-old daughter and her daughter's peers as the source of her utter disgust with the video. She says, "What we are seeing here is not freedom of expression; it’s de-humanising trash. Such violent fantasies may exist in the mind, but if we allow them to roam freely across our culture, they become real."

Helen Lewis has the most nuanced exploration of the anti-feminist perspective that I've seen. In addition to analyzing the tropes used in the video, she also ventures into a discussion of race. Since Rihanna is seen torturing and killing two rich, white people, there have been a lot of discussions on what race means in the video. Lewis is unconvinced by these interpretations (which I'll get to in more depth in a moment): "But I think that if the video is making a point about race, then the fact that a white man and a white woman receive such different treatment is worth exploring. Trying to be more intersectional - to explore the way that different oppressions overlap and modify each other - should not mean we end up arguing that sexism does not exist as a force in its own right. I've seen sexism; I know it exists. Sometimes it looks like a naked woman in pain, hanging from a rope."

Shannon responds directly to Lewis' critique by admitting that Lewis makes some good points but ultimately says that she likes the video and feels that we need to draw some comparisons to the real-life McKinney pool party and this fictionalized violence of "BBHMM." Many people are rightly pointing out that there has been some mainstream feminist outrage over a fictional depiction of violence against a white woman where there was only silence on the real violence against a black girl. 

Mia McKenzie digs even deeper into the racial interplay in the video by reading it through a lens in which Rihanna's revenge fantasy is one of a black woman pushing back against abuse at the hands of white women: "Imagine if instead of kidnapping the accountant’s wife, Rihanna and her crew kidnapped his brother? Would White Feminists™ be so upset? I doubt it. Because they understand that revenge fantasies wherein women hurt men are pushing back against the harm men do to us. But here’s what white feminists don’t get (and what has them fucked up): black women often see white women as the same as white men. The harm done to us by white men and white women isn’t vastly different to many of us. White women have been unapologetically violent towards black women for centuries. They’ve used the power of the state, of the police, of the courts, of the media, and of individual white men to harm black people, including black women, time and time again. They are as harmful to us as white men are. So, for many of us, kidnapping the white brother or the white wife is all the same."

Jessica Alice uses McKenzie's argument as well as the fact that actor Mads Mikkelsen (who plays the murdered accountant in the video) is no stranger to enacting fictional violence as the character Hannibal to argue that the video is actually a step forward for feminism. She says that it shows Rihanna to be a boundary-pusher who will not accept a narrow definition of feminist expression.

Maybe the simplest way out of this mess of interpretations is to take the route Zeba Blay did and say we should simply embrace the discomfort.

But I want to take a look at the video through my own lens of interpretation with all of those conflicting analyses in mind.

Many of the critics (positive and negative) mentioned the cartoonish nature of the violence. While it is definitely stylized and intentionally over-the-top, it's not really that cartoonish to me, especially when set next to a video like Christina Aguilera's "Your Body" (a video I've written about before).

To me, "BBHMM" felt a lot more like the ending of Deathproof: a gritty mix of realism and fantasy, one that depicts violence without the soothing filter of cartoon effects but still creates a buffer from the full impact of actual reality through tone, sound effects, cheery music, and truncated perspective. 

In fact, many of the authors mentioned above draw comparisons between "BBHMM" and Tarantino's work, though they usually do so to point out that Tarantino doesn't face the same criticisms over whether or not his work is "feminist." (He actually does face that criticism a lot and has come out on either side of the debate, but that's a post for a different day.) 

What struck me as a fan of Tarantino's work was the similarities between my reactions to films like Deathproof and Kill Bill and my reaction to "BBHMM." Going one step further, I'd say that my reaction to "BBHMM" was much like my reaction to many films that are typically deemed "male." I love Casino, Goodfellas, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and silly action flicks like Con Air and Snakes on a Plane

Thinking about that comparison, I couldn't help but remember the recent (and extremely lampooned) article by Kyle Smith about how women just couldn't understand Goodfellas. One particularly mocked line from Smith's article explains that "To a woman, the 'GoodFellas' are lowlifes. To guys, they’re hilarious, they’re heroes. They rule the roost."

As many people pointed out in comments about Smith's assertion, most people do not see the "GoodFellas" as "heroes." Most people do not read the film as a handbook for how to live your life (especially since it is based on real-life events told from the perspective of an informant who had to escape the life of crime by ratting out everyone he loved or die trying). For me (and I believe a whole lot of other people who enjoy Goodfellas), the film's appeal is in its treatment of the American Dream mythos and its implosion of a tale we too often accept without enough question. Henry Hill tries to enact the only version of rags-to-riches available to him, and while we get a brief moment of "success" where he's living the good life, the main point of the story is that the facade cannot last. This is underscored by the fact that he ultimately gets to live a version of the dream as a member of the witness protection program, but it's a distortion that quickly turns into a nightmare for him. If you watched Goodfellas and saw a hero, I'd venture to guess you weren't watching very closely.

One thing I think Smith gets right about Goodfellas, though, is his belief that the film is "more of a male fantasy picture" than a crime drama. "Fantasy," too, is a word that's seen often in the "BBHMM" critiques. Specifically, people are reading Rihanna's video as a revenge fantasy, one that's made all the more powerful by her real-life lawsuit and public battle with her actual (former) accountant.

I don't want to entirely dismiss the idea that Rihanna is playing with a racial revenge fantasy that pushes back on the abuses white women have committed (and silently approved) against black women, but I think that interpretation is decidedly complicated by the fact that Rihanna's partners in crime (who commit a lot of the physical violence against the kidnapped wife) are not black (and one is a thin, blonde, pretty woman who could have easily played the kidnapped wife without a change to the optics):

The revenge to me seems clearly situated on class. The overt attention to the accountant and wife's wealth in the opening moments of the video is overwhelming. 

The makeup, the jewelry, the fresh flowers all over the house, the clothes, the piano, the tiny dog, the framed paintings, the chandeliers, the lamps, the curtains: everything about this couple screams not just wealth but a specific kind of disconnected, insulated wealth that lets them believe they are untouchable. 

Compare that to the markers of class for Rihanna and her partners:

Rihanna poses aggressively with bohemian-style clothes that leave her looking cool and bold. The wife's all-white attire and pose that has her shrinking inward set the two about as far apart as they can get. 

They're pumping their own gas and buying pretzels at a gas station. While, yes, (as the critics who call the video anti-feminist point out) stripping the wife naked definitely plays into media tropes that often use the female body as a way to up the ante on sexualization, the stripping of this woman also serves the metaphorical purpose of removing the exterior markers of her wealth and status, reducing her to a blank slate upon which anything could be read. 

This is even more powerful when Rihanna and her crew acquire these markers of wealth for themselves. Costuming themselves in parodied versions of the wife's physical markers of success as they drink on a yacht further draws attention to the gap in their lifestyles and the superficiality of that gap. 

This superficiality is made all the more apparent when they are able to masquerade their kidnapped, brutalized, and tortured victim as a happy and willing member of their group. At this point, the masquerade shifts and instead of them dressing up in the markers of wealth, they begin to alter their victim until she looks more like one of them. 

Consider the juxtaposition of the above scene with the one on the yacht. They're in plastic lawn furniture with an old cooler. They're no longer mimicking (and also mocking) the lifestyle of their captive; they're situating her into their own. This is further driven home by the scene in which they get the wife high in a scene that could be (in different contexts) one of female bonding or a cliche pillow fight in a sorority house. 

Shortly after this scene, we're given the kicker. The "bitch" of the title and oft-repeated line "bitch better have my money" is not the woman they've been torturing all along, but her husband: 

Rihanna dismembers this man with knives labeled things like "Cheater," "Fucked up My Credit," and "Deadbeat Dad." He's also seen joyfully basking in bed with two women shooting streams of money in the air, ostensibly while he refuses to pay the ransom to save his wife. 

In the end, we're granted a parting shot of a naked, relaxed, blood-soaked Rihanna lounging casually in a crate full of cash. 

Everyone I've seen reading the video (whether they loved it or hated it) has read this revenge fantasy as a success from the protagonist's point of view. But is it? Rihanna has her money, I suppose, but we've been getting shots of the dismembered hands of the accountant with crime scene numbers next to them. We saw the police tape go up. She is covered in blood on a pile of cash directly in front of her victims' house and making no effort to hide herself or her crime. Her accomplices are gone (did she kill them? did they split on her? are they spilling their guts to the police as we speak?) 

I can't read the ending as a "win" for anyone. The murdered wife was most certainly a victim, and the brutality with which her body was used as a blank canvas for parodying the masquerade of wealth juxtaposes importantly with the literally blank (as in, naked) body Rihanna presents at the end, covered only in the splotches of blood from her victims and piles of cash. This character cannot play at the wealth she aimed to attain. Now she has the cash, which she is literally draped in, but that has not brought her any closer to the lifestyle she mimicked on the yacht, and it has not brought her any closer to being able to enjoy her newfound wealth. She is very likely headed to prison, and the final scenes that reveal she was on the phone with the account who ignored her demands for ransom shows that her final acts of brutality were ones of desperation rather than carefully planned revenge. She wasn't in this for the bloodshed; she was in it for the cash, and she thought she'd be able to trade her pretty little captive for it after she had her fun dressing her up and parading her around. When she realized she was in over her head, she took the plunge into full-on murder, but now she's left without options. 

Much as I do those who read Henry Hill of Goodfellas as a hero, I think anyone who sees "BBHMM" as a successful revenge are not watching carefully enough. 

This video is a takedown of class and the unequal power dynamics that keep the wealthy rich while the poor get poorer, but it doesn't end happily for anyone. Those structures are still firmly in place, and that look of complacency on the end is one of quiet acceptance, not smug victory. 

1 comment:

  1. I've always wondered how much of these videos have anything to do with the singer's vision. I think a video company is hired to make a slick video. Then people read into the meaning of the song. There was a great Tom Petty video ages ago with an Alice in Wonderland theme. It was a great video but my guess was that it was thought up by the video team that was hired - the song didn't seem to have anything to do with Alice in Wonderland. I didn't like "BBHMM" song because it sounds so street. And I don't think it does much for feminism to have women calling each other bitches. Hip Hop and rap guys do plenty of that. We don't need to join in. Very interesting article though and I'm glad you wrote it. PS I LOVE Goodfellas but like all of those movies the rise to power and money is really fun to watch and then the inevitable fall is expected — Blow, American Gangster, Training Day. Anybody who thinks Ray Liotta's character was a hero missed the point, indeed. Cheers, Dorri