Rihanna – Bitch Better Have My Money
In 2013, journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy was shut down in interview by Quentin Tarantino. His questions, on the use of violence in Tarantino’s output, caused the director to fire off the short answer, ‘I think it’s good cinema’. This was followed by followed his outright rejection of the question, ‘I don’t have any responsibility to you to explain anything I don’t want to.’ Releasing anything depicting the levels of violence Tarantino puts on our screens and questions about your intentions will be asked.
This type of analysis is currently being played out in the controversy surrounding Rihanna’s latest music . The accompanying short film to the already divisive ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ video was co-directed by the singer and has caused waves for its depiction of sexualised violence, drug use and nudity. Rihanna has, so far, refused to comment on the controversy. The seven minute film has been left to speak for itself.
A major criticism levelled at the film is it’s anti-feminist tone. This despite the prominent motif of independence in Rihanna’s public appearance. She is a prominent advocate of openness regarding her sexuality and physicality. Prominently, she appeared at the CFDA awards in a nude Swarovski dress and when questioned about her look replied, ‘Do my tits bother you? They’re covered in Swarovski crystals girl.’ Rihanna is a popstar who projects confidence and if that intimidates you she is totally unapologetic. For this she has been both lauded for pushing feminism into the public eye and criticised for selling herself completely in pursuit of a larger audience.
The BBHMM film however has complicated Rihanna’s feminist stance more than ever. The film depicts a wealthy, white woman being forced into a Goyard trunk and then tortured by Rihanna and her gang. The torture includes being stripped naked, swung by her ankles, being forced to consume drugs and being forced underwater. All this in the pursuit of money Rihanna is owed by ‘the bitch’, an accountant played by Mads Mikkelsen.
The film’s plot skirts dangerously close to Rihanna’s non-fiction history. In 2009 she took accountant Peter Gounis to court after his advice lost her $9 million of her wealth in one year. It’s also not the first of her music videos to court controversy. The release of ‘Pour it Up’ provoked a backlash while ‘S&M’ has been described as a song about, ‘dirty, naughty, illicit bedroom activities.’
Rihanna’s comfort in dealing with feminine sexuality and the female body has gained her some prominent support. Speaking about the prominent nudity in the BBHMM film, Vogue’s Karley Sciortino said, ‘It’s good to normalise the female body’. It’s a justified argument that Rihanna’s body image promotes the familiarisation of female nudity.
Whether BBHMM is a powerful feminist statement however is more troublesome than it merely serving to normalise the female nudity. The contains what has been label as ‘extensive sexualised violence’ against the seemingly innocent woman in place of the man stealing from Rihanna. Helen Lewis from the New Statesman argues that, ‘It was not very feminist… 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.’ It has to be said that seeing Rihanna posture with her phone next to a gagged woman is shocking. Given that co-director Charles Brisgand attributes this idea to Rihanna, it troubles any attempt at interpreting Rihanna’s aim.
The same criticisms that have been levelled at the film however have also been referenced in defending its content. Karley Sciortino goes on to argue that, ‘When Rihanna’s naked she isn’t posing in a hypersexual way, she’s covered in blood and she’ll cut your dick off. She looks powerful, but it’s almost casual, normalised.’ She raises interesting issues of power, even if the argument that Rihanna’s appearance is normalised is somewhat weak. This given that Rihanna is bathed in Mikkelsen’s blood, smoking, whist reclining in a chest of dollar bills; it is a scene of excess that could easily have been lifted from a Tarantino film.
Some commentators have suggested that the video is an exposition not of feminist ideology but of racial power. They suggest that this is a in which a black woman places her interests ahead of that of white America. It is the oppressed against the oppressors, an issue especially prominent when set to the backdrop of police brutality and the burning of black churches. Perhaps the powerful image of a black person covered in blood is one we are too accustomed to seeing, only in this case Rihanna is not the victim.
Whatever your instant reaction to the film is, it is not a piece of film that can be easily dismissed. It raises multifaceted issues that Rihanna complicates rather than clarifies over the course of seven minutes. What I would suggest however is that maybe that is the point. What is clear is that Rihanna’s public image is centred by a sense that she at the helm of her own ship. In this case we should maybe entertain the idea that the video isn’t meant to be pro-feminist or anti-feminist, it isn’t to do with race. Perhaps instead the film is merely a lesson in agency and a statement of artistic control.
The songs lyrics are an expression of personal wealth and self-determination. The song’s lyrics reference ‘brand new foreign car[s]’ and ‘Louie XIII’ cognac, all with the repeated refrain of ‘Don’t act like you forgot, I call the shots.’ Her co-directors said of the that, ‘From the beginning she was like, ‘I don’t care if it’s not aired on TV.’,’. This is reflected in Rihanna’s performance of the song on Saturday Night Live. The set placed her behind the wheel of a car, a bound woman on the backseat and police lights visible through the rear window. It was a performance that showed a complete lack of fear of causing offence.
The whole point of the song and its surrounding output is possibly to be deliberately transgressive because she can and because she has total faith in her own convictions. It is an exercise in complete agency.
If the whole point is to evidence Rihanna’s total control then the debate raging around the film perfectly fulfil her aims. It doesn’t matter if she is told she can’t do something, because the truth is that she can. She can lounge in a paddle pool aboard a yacht home and all the disagreement in the world won’t change that. The film having no good moral undercurrent is of no concern. Rihanna is positioning herself as an artist. Rihanna is preaching self belief not morality.
This reading of the film seems to answer the question of its various paradoxes. It isn’t meant to answer anything. Rihanna has presented the world the greatest exposition of her agency yet. In leaving the film to speak for itself she has evidenced herself to be totally unconcerned with anyone else’s opinion.
When Quentin Tarantino refused to explain the depiction of violence in his films he said, ‘I’m not your slave and you’re not my master. You can’t make me dance to your tune.’ BBHMM evidences the same mentality. Rihanna refuses to dance to anybody’s tune and in doing so has made something that is simply her own brand of ‘good cinema’.