I had a good laugh when I first saw Rihanna’s second edition of the music video for “Pour it Up” for the first time last week. I was excited to see the official theme song for PPEW getting buzz again. But I found myself laughing at a video that looked more like a parody than an intentional, provocative multimedia piece. The production looked terribly cheap and the video looked like every strip club video I’ve ever seen, with its fluorescent lighting and tight booty shots.
Still, Rihanna looked fabulous— hot pink eyebrows and all. I preferred the original music video (which has now been pulled from YouTube) that had more abstract images where she was dressed in high-fashion, androgynous outfits, but that’s just me. Despite my own criticism of the video, I found one writer’s reaction to the video particularly harsh. Jenn Jackson’s response published in Water Cooler Convos reduced Rihanna’s performance to an “unintelligible display of ignorance” and potentially a “cry for help” from a “high-paid prostitute.” I’ve seen similar sentiments from commenters in response to Jolie Doggett’s article at For Harriet entitled, “Are We Sexually Free or Slaves to Sexy Media,” complaining that Rihanna is a bad role model and that a woman should be sexy and respectable.
At the most basic level, I think responses deriding Rihanna for putting her body (and other black women’s bodies) on display in her video is because some women feel oddly threatened or pressured by her, as if her representation is supposed to act as a sexual standard for which ordinary women must comply. But more importantly, I don’t think women (including myself) would have so much to say about Rihanna’s “skanky” behaviors if we didn’t personally identify with them in some way.
Unlike Jackson, I don’t think Rihanna’s “Pour it Up” video is the source of rape against black females. But I do think her video is a crude visual of what we’re thinking of when we imagine the strip club aesthetic. In fact, I think Rihanna’s video was an utterly frank visual of our own sexual thoughts and “skanky” desires—so frank that it almost seems foreign when it is presented to us and we feel pressed to dismiss it. Writers in the new millennium have been challenged to write about black sexual politics in ways that most writers never dared to try in the past. But it must be noted that constantly trying to be righteous and political about ways in which we talk about sex can get in the way of expressing what we’re really thinking, seeing, feeling and craving.
I feel strongly about this because I’ve seriously considered becoming a sex worker myself. I had conversations with my advisor about setting out to work as an exotic dancer for the project (and also out of desperation for money). Initially, going into the strip clubs as a patron was new and insightful enough for me to meaningfully write about it. Still, I knew that dancing in a strip club would give me a completely different perspective and set of resources—knowledge about the club’s norms and inner financial workings, relationships with other strippers I could later interview, firsthand accounts of interactions with male and female patrons, code-switching narratives. It would be the most exhilarating experience I’d have in investigative reporting yet.
Even with all of that, my dilemma was in determining whether or not working as a stripper would give me more credibility for writing and talking about my research project. Putting myself out there as a stripper would have completely killed my brand, despite my wholesome upbringing and solid resume. Furthermore, I was terrified of running into people I know: an old classmate that was unaware of my project, a former supervisor, friends and colleagues from my past work in social justice initiatives, an uncle from my extended family, a potential employer, or worst of all, one of my ex-boyfriends. It was easy for my advisor who was white, male and already tenured to say yes to the idea. Fully getting myself on board was the hard part. I eventually ended up temping for feminist organizations in the city and let the prospect go.
That is not to say that venturing into exotic dancing—or other forms of sex work—is necessarily pleasurable to a laborer. In my research, I’ve come across interviews in which strippers admitted to feeling comfortable and sexually aroused while performing. On the other hand, I’ve interviewed other strippers who admitted to hating their job and not feeling sexually excited by it in the least. I will never be able to speak from personal experience about how working as an exotic dancer would speak to my own sexuality. But for me, the theory of posing as a stripper isn’t the horror story Jackson insinuates, but a fantasy (even though I’ve seen and read plenty about the less than glamorous and oppressive aspects of the job in real life).
Rihanna and her navy of strippers have been spoken about as if they are the scum of the earth. Strangely enough, they still have qualities and capabilities that I wish I had. They are distant. Mysterious. Unapologetic. Like any woman, I don’t want to be a pawn of the male gaze. I want to own it. Captivate it. But most of all, I really, really want that diamond-encrusted bra.
I will not sit here and write that Rihanna’s video is some grand, feminist statement of sexual empowerment. Let’s not kid ourselves: Rihanna is a carefully placed tool in a white supremacist and patriarchal structure. We are all carefully placed tools in a white supremacist and patriarchal structure. I don’t see the point in bashing Rihanna for how she navigates the space because regardless of what black women do in their individual lives, we are politically incorrect by default. At the end of the day, Rihanna probably just wanted to dress up and act a fool, and has worked hard enough to have the lavish budget and super smart marketing team to back her up. I say God bless her for managing to stay relevant and for tricking bloggers who take themselves too seriously into continuously writing about (and overanalyzing) her latest sexcapades.
Let’s stop attributing every unsavory sexual image from black women in the media as being degrading to young women and be specific about what these images actually mean in the context of black sexual politics. Just as Rihanna has the freedom to present herself however way she wants in her videos, we have the freedom to completely disassociate ourselves from her image without deriding her at the same time. If the fact that people are putting so much energy into responding to (and throwing shade at) Rihanna’s latest music video has taught us anything, it’s that there’s a little bit of skank in all of us.