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“Please Don’t Call Me On My Bluff”

Why Rihanna's "BBHMM" video isn't as progressive as you think

“I have a head for business and a bod for sin,” purrs Melanie Griffith’s character Tess McGill in Mike Nichols’ 1988 film Working Girl. “Is there anything wrong with that?”  

Earlier this month, Rihanna asked us the same question with the release of her graphic music video for “Bitch Better Have My Money” and received the same answer: “Uh, no,” we sputtered, like Tess McGill’s slack-jawed love interest. After falling down the charts in early May, “BBHMM” rocketed to new heights following the video’s release, confirming Rihanna as heir to Madonna’s throne of provocative pop. Entertainment Weekly thought it was “bonkers, fantastic, and totally NSFW.” It’s “brilliant,” wrote Megan Reynolds at The Frisky, “aggressive in both execution and message.”           

Helen Lewis was a lonely dissenter at the New Statesman, pointing out that the video’s entire premise “uses one of the most tired tropes—using a woman’s pain to hurt a man.” That the video’s director, Rihanna, is a woman has otherwise blurred the vision of many a critical eye; they argue that Rihanna is appropriating misogynistic tropes and subverting them for her own ends. After listing the trophy wife’s degradations, Spencer Kornhaber at The Atlantic likewise observed that “each humiliation, in the end, is just a particularly vivid contribution to an old entertainment tradition,” but declared a few sentences later that “when Rihanna, a woman, takes revenge on a man by snatching his woman, it’s not so much a flipping of the script as a total rewriting of it.”           

Rihanna wants her money, in the video and in real life, and if sex sells, she’s ready to make a killing. Such mercenary logic has become a chief defence for essentially any woman who profits from fulfilling male fantasies. In fact, it seems to insulate a great number of today’s female entertainers from feminist criticism.  

Take, for example, another song that monopolized the Internet with its polarizing music video: Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” from her album The Pinkprint, which Rolling Stone heralded for its “radicalism.” On the track, Minaj samples Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” while singing the praises of her own epic ass, bragging about a man “keeping [her] stylish” before she lets him perform oral sex on her. As far as Top 40 feminism is concerned, the conceit seems pretty clever: Nicki is not only capitalizing on the ubiquity of her male predecessor’s one-hit wonder, but she’s also getting hers in more ways than one. Sir-Mix-A-Lot implored big-bootied girls to use him, and Nicki takes him up on his offer. Finally, the woman’s on top.           

But is she? Men, money, sex: The whole song remains the same, remixed. “BBHMM” and “Anaconda” don’t reimagine anything. They launder old ideas in an exchange system in which money is the bottom line, and people aren’t individuals but things to use. The resulting products are, as bell hooks remarked last fall, as boring as they are disturbing. Talk about the bigotry of low expectations: When Reynolds writes that “BBHMM” is Rihanna’s piéce de resistance, one has to wonder what she finds so masterful about Rihanna doing what so many men have done—in art and in life—for millennia. 

Still, “BBHMM” is a song of the times, and it speaks to the soul-sucking nature of an efficiency-obsessed workplace. Since the 1980s, when Wall Street dominated the cinematic landscape, Working Girl was but one of several iconic comedies inspired by the constant indignities visited on the desk dweller: 9 To 5, Office Space, and The Office also homed in what it took to maintain a sense of self during the daily grind. Men cope by toking up on the clock and reclaiming staplers. Women like Tess McGill and the ensemble of 9 to 5 try to break the glass ceiling with more desperate measures, impersonating or even abducting their bosses and running the show without them. While Rihanna’s evisceration of the boss man suggests a more aggressive response to corporate life undiluted by humor, she remains firmly in this tradition of trying to climb the corporate ladder while wearing a skirt.           

Yet, as Noah Berlatsky wrote on this site last week, to focus on the rule-breaking antics of these women obscures their capitulation to the money-driven world that exploits them. In the closing shot of Working Girl, the camera slowly zooms out from Melanie Griffith’s new office and onto a grid of identical windows that dot the Manhattan skyline. As my sister, who first watched (and loved) the film twenty years ago, said recently, the final image only illuminates the harsh irony that Tess is now another worker drone. Similarly, even though Rihanna is lying on a bed of bills in the final shot of “BBHMM,” she’s invested in a world whose raison d’être is the accumulation of wealth. The bloodlust that first looked like artistic subversion of—or even emancipation from—the corporate multiplex now reveals itself as mere assimilation.         

Indeed, Rihanna’s DGAF attitude and the get-ahead mentality of today’s career women both rely on a brand of feminism that emphasizes women’s agency above all else while increasingly defining them as business people. “As for the misogyny…. I don’t care,” wrote Rebecca Carroll at the Guardian of “BBHMM,” reflecting the incoherent and often callous character of this as-long-as-it’s-your-choice brand of feminism. “What I care about is that Rihanna has the agency to create her music and direct her career on her own terms.” Even, apparently, if those terms look suspiciously familiar.

Of course, if we contend with Kornhaber’s claim that “BBHMM” is “that most American of genre—revenge fantasy,” we can’t ignore that it is a particular one, against a white America that has exploited black people for centuries. Rihanna is of color; her accountant and his wife are white. If you don’t see that, some argue, you’re missing the bigger question: Why does Rihanna face such scrutiny for objectifying women when her white contemporaries—Madonna, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry—do not?

It is because they are no longer the women of our dreams. In today’s America, we may have made Taylor Swift’s 1989 the top-selling album in 2014, but we would never credit her with subversion—or saddle her with that responsibility. Instead, we joke that we listen to Swift in spite of ourselves, as if we’re literally allergic to her “basicness.” It is Rihanna, Nicki, and Beyoncé, with their light skin and full bodies, who accommodate our historical appetite for hypersexualized black women while also appealing to what Sharon Chang identified as the “mocha-caramel-honey post-racial fantasy” of today’s liberal America. We ordain them as the new faces of both female and black empowerment, yet still require them to fulfill our old fantasies.

By investing these women with such cultural authority and endorsing their choices in the name of agency, we get to deny that the images they’re supplying—of a naked woman in pain, of a black woman twerking in a jungle—are ones America has demanded. That Rihanna’s “revenge fantasy” of sex and violence has drawn so many comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which Roxane Gay indicted as a “white man’s slavery revenge fantasy,” is no coincidence: Rihanna’s fantasy isn’t just hers. It’s America’s, too, but we’re letting her do our dirty work.  

Will our culture ever be able to sustain a woman pop artist at Rihanna’s or Beyoncé’s level who won’t play to our basest interests? After reading a first draft of this piece, my editor rightfully suggested that I propose an alternative to mimicking the old capitalist structures. “Are there other models of power that are more humane, that don’t replicate old tropes?” he asked. “I’d like to see you take a stab at the answer.”

Is he kidding? I thought. Or does he really expect me to reinvent the wheel? A dreadful vision of thick theory books flashed before my eyes, and the fear that I am constantly trying to keep at bay—that perhaps our desires don’t change, that perhaps we are doomed to keep the ones we’ve inherited—washed over me. 

It was later that I recalled a review of a Robyn concert that had moved me several months earlier. The critic (Kornhaber, I noticed) described his experience watching her perform “Sayit,” in which, over the song’s six-minutes, Robyn teaches a robot to say three simple words: “I/want/you.” She’s bobbing up and down on an exercise ball strapped to her back, her legs splayed while Royksopp slowly amps up its electronica, and the disembodied voice of Speak & Spell repeats her words a litany.

“It’d have been terrifying,” Kornhaber concluded, “if the occasion wasn’t so miraculous: reenacted, the birth of desire itself.” Indeed, it’s difficult to picture. But as I tried to imagine such a moment, I took some small comfort in the possibility that perhaps, if we keep trying, we might also be reborn.