“I’m Not A Feminist, I’m A Rihannanist”
When Rihanna released the music video for her single “#BBHMM” (Bitch Better Have My Money), the world went crazy. The narrative, following the R&B artist as she kidnaps an affluent white woman (in synchronicity with the lyrics, “Your wife’s in the backseat of my brand new foreign car”) is undisputedly edgy.
Twitter user @delafro_ anticipated a big response by the online community, saying, “Literally as I was watching the BBHMM video I thought ‘white feminists bout to have a field day with this one’.”
As predicted, journalists, commentators and Rihanna-watchers alike all rushed to criticize the video. New Statesmen writer Helen Lewis wrote: “It was not very feminist — not even very hash tag feminist — of Rihanna to ‘torture that poor rich lady’. That is because it is not very feminist to torture women. Even if they are white. Even if they are rich. Even if you are a woman yourself. Sorry if this comes as a surprise.”
One twitter user, @Judnikki, proclaimed, “I’m not a feminist. I’m a rihannaist”.
What is a Rihannaist? There’s no official definition (yet), but it has something to do with black women being just that – black women. For adopting Rihanna’s ‘I Don’t Give A F*ck’ attitude, being unapologetically authentic and refusing to conform to society’s standards of beauty and ‘acting like a lady’.
‘Rihannaism’ is the core of what makes her latest video ‘Bitch Better Have My Money” so distinct. This video isn’t about feminism, and yet it is about feminism. It isn’t about race, and yet it’s so very much about race.
If you think about it, this is the kind of video that would never raise questions of morality if a white man made it. (Shout out to Tarantino.) We see violence every day in pop culture; we see women raped on the television show Law & Order, we see men literally walking women on a leash in fashion ads, we see gun fights in Western films, etc. So this discomfort can’t come from an aversion to violence.
Could it be we are all shifting in our seats because a black woman made this? Because a black woman commanded a bold cinematic experience of violence and rage? Because she challenged the status quo that historically only applauds white men for it? Yes, of course some people are disturbed by the depiction of violence, even made by white men, but society respects their artistic vision and never questions their morality.
Rihanna is tough, in every sense of the word. She has a tough exterior, she is tough to read, and she is tough to swallow. It is this toughness that so undeniably captivates us. The music video for #BBHMM is the perfect encapsulation of Rihanna’s rough-around-the-edges demeanor. While we may struggle to identify with her vision or understand her goals, we cannot deny that she is creating a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. It is unapologetically tough. When she says it, she doesn’t stutter, and there is a critical empowerment in that ability. Even as Rihanna produces catchy tunes to appease the top pop industry, she is creating brilliant work that addresses concerning and complex issues about gender and race.
All Hail Queen Bey
If Rihanna is the pariah of colour entertainers, Beyoncé is the teacher’s pet.
As far as endorsements for the feminist movement are concerned, Beyoncé’s VMA Performance was the Holy Grail. With a giant black backdrop donning ‘FEMINIST’ in bold writing, this word with a deeply difficult history was reclaimed by the most famous person in the world. What’s more? Twelve million homes tuned in for the show witnessed not just the billboard, but also heard a definition of feminism by the incredible Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Through a sweet smile, an exhaustive work ethic, and a head for business, Beyoncé has been elevated to an almost saint-like status. Queen Bey isn’t just a nickname.
The queen and her royal family have become North America’s model for familial egalitarian heaven. She proudly shares with her fans their dual income, their exciting sex life, and honest relationship. And when Jay-Z sits in the audience with their daughter at her concerts, well that’s just the cherry on top.
Beyoncé’s projects the perfect balance of confidence and femininity that society can swallow. As a woman of color, she is achieving something very difficult; she is speaking to the world about difficult issues without received immediate and widespread skepticism or backlash.
Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics looks at the glitter-clad Beyoncé dancing on stage in front of a feminist billboard and sees ‘feminism lite’, a watered down version of the real thing. Perhaps this is true, perhaps, counter to the unapologetic approach of Rihanna, Beyoncé treads cautiously on the tightrope of socially acceptable feminist slogans.
Black Feminism’s Burden
Yet, even when you are the most beloved woman of colour in the world, literally referred to as Queen Bey, your best never seems to be quite enough.
When a black woman stands up and declares herself a feminist, there is never universal celebration.
Famous author and feminist bell hooks called Beyoncé a “terrorist” for claiming a feminist identity without fully embodying it. Hooks said, “the major assault on feminism in our society has come from visual media and from television and videos”. Her assertion is that Beyoncé has bought into the socially accepted standard of beauty, and photos like her Time magazine cover shoot are part of the problem in promoting those unattainable beauty standards for women.
Beyoncé was also under fire for her appearance at a MMA fight in 2014. Authors, critics, bloggers around the world declared that if ‘Beyoncé wants to call herself a feminist and an example for all other women of what feminism looks like, she just cannot attend, endorse and help to fund two men who disrespect women and their rights’.
Lennox’s critique of Beyoncé’s feminist credentials as “feminism lite” is the typically harsh critique we have come to expect when discussing women of colour who identify as feminists. The signer condemned Beyoncé’s image as harmful to young women who are spellbound by her “overtly sexual thrust” and declared her luxuriously sensuous persona both “disturbing” and “exploitative.”
Black feminism: the movement that seems innately inadequate to outsiders. Why? Because getting over sexism is one thing, getting over racism is one thing, but intersecting the two is far beyond the comprehension of white feminists.
There is Power in ‘Partition’ & ‘Man Down’
When a black woman publicly identifies as a feminist it has a deeply profound impact on other black women, especially when the woman enjoys a global profile like Beyoncé or Rihanna.
Professor Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, an associate professor of African and African diaspora studies at The University of Texas, recently started teaching courses on black feminist performance. Why? Because it matters. Tinsley has shared that her students have expressed their joy that a professor, “was taking Beyoncé and Rihanna seriously…That someone was reflecting back that the lyrics they sing, the songs they dance to, their shirts that proclaim “I woke up like this” just might be important and worthwhile — just might be the meaningful sources of empowerment they always felt them to be”.
Girls don’t run the world, especially not women of colour. Beyoncé knows this. But that doesn’t stop her from creating a fantasy in which black women are empowered goddesses on this earth. It doesn’t stop Rihanna from dancing in the sand and acting like a boss. Though it may not be today’s reality, it doesn’t stop them from injecting hope into the lives of countless women of colour.
Perhaps black feminism encounters such extreme and constant backlash because it is so far from actualizing its goals. (Seeing as it aims to battle sexism and racism and the intersection of the two phenomena, this should come as no surprise.) But when women of colour, especially those in the public eye, embrace the term in all its nuances they unconsciously give other woman of colour permission to embrace the term themselves. They give black women an outlet for empowerment and a movement to share their frustrations, passions and dreams.
In today’s world, Rihanna is the black island she-devil, Beyoncé is the almost-tolerable black southern belle, and black feminism is the most scrutinized social movement alongside transgender rights.
But in tomorrow’s world, one can only hope Rihanna will be revered as the island queen who pushed the boundaries with her work and failed to accept stereotypes placed upon women of colour, Beyoncé will be celebrated as an outspoken advocate for empowering all women and Black feminism will no longer need an asterisk beside it.