When I first heard Rihanna’s “S&M” track on the radio, I was unsure how I felt about hearing a black woman say “Sticks and stones can break my bones/But chains and whips excite me.” Sure, this is about BDSM, but, you know, black women—especially American and West Indian black women, who are likely the ancestors of slaves—professing a love of chains and whips means something than white women professing the same desire. Similarly, a black woman’s desire for “kinky” sex could be viewed as fitting all-too-well within stereotypes about black women’s hypersexualization. But the more I thought about the song, and the more thought I gave the video, it was clear to me that my initial unease was unfounded.
Rihanna has a long history of playing with the racialized virgin/whore dichotomy. Her third album’s title, “Good Girl Gone Bad,” makes this more than clear. Black women are subject to the “controlling image” of the “bad girl”—regardless of their actual behavior, desires, etc., black women’s sexuality will always be read through the stereotype of hypersexualized black femininity. So, if Rihanna will always-already be read as a “bad girl,” she decides to positively value the bad girl. She’s not trying to prove that black girls can also be “good;” instead, she’s calling into question our very concept of “good” itself. Rihanna’s “bad girl” is a deviant, but this deviance is a critical departure from hegemony (and not irrationality, hedonism, etc.). In the context of Rihanna’s oeuvre, “S&M” is not the mere glorification of kink (say, the use of it for shock value), but part of an established critique of hegemonic notions of femininity and the systematic revaluation of virgin/whore dichotomies. (I actually talk a lot about this in my “Robo-Diva R&B” article in The Journal of Popular Music Studies.)
The video makes the song’s critical function even more overt. First, let’s take a look:
From the very beginning of the video, it is clear that Rihanna is parodying and critiquing the desire to represent black women as sexual deviants. There are 2 main scenes in the first part of the video—a party scene and a press conference—and the video flashes back and forth between them. The press conference setting positions Rihanna as the slave to the mainstream media’s image of her (resonances with Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks are intentional). Dressed in a frock made from a montage of press clippings, held both by her wrists and under plastic by photographers’ assistants (who first kidnap her!), Rihanna presents herself as subject to the controlling image of the hypersexual black woman. She is held in bondage by the racialized virgin whore dichotomy; key, here, is the fact that Rihanna was kidnapped—while actual BDSM privileges consent above all else, she did not consent to this sort of “slavery.” When she utters the first line of the song, “Feels so good being bad,” the press (both black and white) nod enthusiastically, happy that Rihanna lives up to their expectations of her. If you can catch it, there are quick glimpses of the reporters’ notepads, on which terms like “slut” are scrawled. However, when we get to the third setting—the one on the suburban lawn—Rihanna responds to these controlling images with a loud and clear, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” Here, it is Rihanna who is in the dominant position, and Perez Hilton, (in)famous celebrity gossip curator (or new media Michael Musto) is her slave. Then, around 2:03, we see that the same reporters who tried to subject Rihanna to controlling images are themselves subject both to the power of surveillance (the CCTV cameras) and bondage. Around 3:04, Rihanna calls on the visual aesthetic of two white female pop divas: the colorful latex, balloons, and general cartoonish feel of the costumes evokes Katy Perry’s California Gurls, just as the turquoise telephone evokes Gaga’s telephone hat in Telephone. These references point precisely to the racialization of the virgin/whore dichotomy: when Rihanna does the exact same things white female pop divas do, she gets labled a slut, and these white women get called “America’s sweetheart” (as Perry has) or “serious artists” (as Gaga has).
Finally, the song, “S&M” resonates with X-Ray Spex’s feminist punk anthem “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” Sung by mixed-race black Briton Polly Styrene, the song calls on BDSM imagery to critique patriarchy and misogyny. It begins with: “Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard, but I say: OH BONDAGE, UP YOURS!” As I have shown above, Rihanna more subtly makes this same move, critiquing and resisting the bondage controlling images would keep her under. The influence this song has had on “S&M” is even more clear when you consider the first line of “Oh Bondage.” It goes, “Bind me, tie me, chain me to the wall/I won’t be your victim anymore.” In “S&M’s” press conference scene, Rihanna is bound and tied to the wall. Similarly, she rejects victimhood and asserts her dominance—both consensual and non-consensual—over the very media apparatus that wants to use here merely as their fetish. It is also noteworthy that Rihanna’s costuming, particularly her hairstyle, around the 2:16 mark in the “S&M” video, strongly resembles Poly Styrene’s costuming and hairstyle in the photo shown at 2:30 in the following slideshow someone has made to accompany “Oh Bondage”:
With these strong and overt ties to a recognized feminist-of-color punk anthem, it should be even more clear that Rihanna’s “S&M” is not about sex, but about the bonds forged by controlling images. “Controlling image” is Patricia Hill Collins’ term for the way that stereotypes overdetermine the perception that people have of subaltern subjects, and, in turn, feed into their everyday experiences of both oppression and resistance. To be subject to a controlling image is to be, as Fanon puts it, “a slave to the idea they have of me.” Rihanna shows us that she will most emphatically not be the slave to the racialized virgin/whore dichotomy in which black women’s sexuality is always-already presumed to be excessive, deviant, or abnormal.