Madam is cross with Rihanna

There are many horrifyingly poignant scenes in the film 12 Years a Slave, but among those that have stayed with me most resonantly is the scene in which the white Mistress Epps abruptly lashes out and scratches the face of her slave Patsey with her fingernails.

It is a grotesquely accurate demonstration of white female privilege so ingrained that it has become instinctive. The act itself happens in a moment, but its effect is unending. Patsey is at first stunned, then distressed, and then utterly shut down.

I was reminded of that scene while reading through all the tweets, think pieces and commentary about Rihanna’s new video, for her song Bitch Better Have My Money. They come mainly from white women who felt the video was either anti-feminist, misogynistic, or both. Among the more egregious criticisms came from Sarah Vine of the Daily Mail, who called the video “repulsive” and said it featured an “endless stream of filthy, violent and downright misogynistic images”.

She, like others, was also quick to note that Rihanna, first seen dressed in “some sort of voodoo fashion” in the video, tortures a rich, blonde, white woman, but is never punished for her crime.

She then describes Rihanna thus: “I’m actually starting to wonder whether she might not have some kind of medical condition which prevents her from keeping her legs – as well as her stupid trap – shut.”

Helen Lewis of the New Statesman wrote that the video is not feminist “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.”

By those standards, I have a thing or two to say about a history of white women who abused black women because they were black and because they were women, and yet, somehow, are still considered feminists, many regarded as pioneers. Women from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who did not believe black women deserved any such rights as white women, to Miley Cyrus, who has used black women as stage props.

Mia McKenzie, writer and creator of the website Black Girl Dangerous, addresses this point in her blog: “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.”

She goes on to say, and I agree, that what really has white feminists upset is that in the video Rihanna, a black woman, puts her own needs before a white woman’s needs. And it’s clear that, when those needs involve money, social class and privilege (say, lounging on a yacht), there is no room for perspective. White women will fight to obtain food stamps for black women, but don’t let us have a yacht, pretty clothes or – God forbid – payment of money we are owed.

We know now that the seven-minute video, co-directed by Rihanna herself, is based on an accountant who she said screwed her over financially. In the video, Rihanna kidnaps and tortures the wife of her accountant, and then, when he still doesn’t pay what he owes her, presumably kills him with one of an arsenal of machete-style weapons. In any event, she ends up lying in a chestful of cash, covered in blood and vengefully satisfied.

To be sure, the video is vividly violent – an unabashed revenge fantasy – but here’s what didn’t occur to me: Is it anti-feminist? Feminist? Misogynistic? Why would it? Rihanna is a grown woman who makes life and career choices for herself with the expectation and understanding that she is as free to do that as her male peers are. How is that not feminist?

Regarding the misogyny – the violence against women and the sexualisation of that violence – people have drawn parallels with the video and Quentin Tarantino’s film Kill Bill. So what’s the difference? Tarantino, a white, male director with a giant hard-on for cultural appropriation and women having sex with each other, directed that film. Rihanna, a masterly, ambitious black woman with a fear of nothing and no one, directed her video.

The obsession over what constitutes feminism in mainstream media and popular culture strikes me as anti-feminist. As for the misogyny – really? That’s dumb, shortsighted and deeply patronising. Because the assumption is that Rihanna isn’t smart enough to anticipate the various interpretations of her work.

She knows. She doesn’t care. I don’t either. What I care about is that Rihanna has the agency to create her music and direct her career on her own terms. Because we have spent far too long living out Patsey’s chain of reaction to violence by white women against us. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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